This has been the most geopolitical of seasons, with the most geopolitical of winners
In the calmer period between Manchester City’s raucous title win and the final presentation of the Premier League trophy, the huge crowd that remained were treated to a film.
It was a montage of the key moments of the season, that naturally had a lot of superb goals and beautiful pieces of play. These were all met by cheers, but one emotion was largely missing. It happened to be precisely what made this last day so memorable. That was a genuine sense of jeopardy.
City’s rollicking comeback against Aston Villa offered one of very few periods of play since January when it felt like the title was in any kind of doubt.
And in doubt it really felt. There was a good stretch of the game when City were really panicking, and a specific period when they were collapsing.
The squad, for all the discussion about what the club is, had to dig in and draw out real human and sporting qualities. They had to show resolve. The match was going out of control. The memory of what happened at Real Madrid was only making it worse.
Pep Guardiola was able to joke about that later, after City had replicated Madrid and made it all better with three goals in five minutes. Dig in they did. Kevin De Bruyne took command, Ilkay Gundogan took his chances, having proven an inspired substitution by Guardiola.
It similarly ensured there was much less discussion over the decision to leave Jack Grealish on the bench. City’s marquee £100m signing was again surplus to requirements when inspiration was needed most.
It is a display of power in itself, to go with another season when Guardiola’s side breached 90 points. City ultimately had far too much for Villa. Once they got one – and arguably even after Villa got two, in that vintage way opposition can rile superior sides – it felt like there was an unstoppable momentum behind City completing a comeback.
“The second and third goal, the people helped us to score,” Guardiola beamed afterwards. “We felt it and smelled it, and I’m very pleased.”
He looked beyond pleased, as he joked about getting the cigars out for the celebration.
“In the last five years, four Premier Leagues,” Guardiola said. “These guys are legends. People have to admit. They are eternal in this club.”
Eternal in this club, no doubt… but in the Premier League? That may not be something people so readily admit, at least for some of the players.
The Catalan has spent the last few weeks complaining that more people wanted Liverpool to win the title, but it’s hard to think that is true. The debate around the booing of the national anthem at Wembley fed into the fact there does remain a resistance to the Anfield support. Many neutral fans would have preferred City preventing Jurgen Klopp’s side winning the title, the domestic treble and a possible quadruple.
That would have been too much for many to bear. City winning the title, though? That’s just something that happens now, to a super-funded level that is by this point as akin to an industrial process as sporting perseverance. The money makes it easier to accept as inevitable, so it consequently leaves many football fans fairly emotionless.
That only points to bigger discussions over the very nature of this sportswashing project, that have only grown in recent years. This is not to repeat arguments that are by now well rehearsed, but it does mean City are curiously fitting champions in that regard.
This has been the most geopolitical of seasons, and they are the most geopolitical of winners. It just emphasises what is happening to the wider game, as made clear by the futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe.
Consider some of the scenes on Sunday, that themselves evoked key themes from the season.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters was there to present the trophy, at the same time as his competition continues an investigation into City over potential rule-breaking. Masters had earlier presided over a hierarchy that just waved through the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United, as soon as issues relating to broadcasting piracy were finally resolved. You couldn’t have a clearer indication of the priorities.
The recent controversy over Newcastle’s third kit only made farcically obvious the absurdity of that decision, particularly the ludicrous talk of “legally binding assurances” over separation of the Public Investment Fund and the Saudi state, but that was already long after the Chelsea situation illustrated some of the dangers of all this.
The London club have faced genuine threat of extinction, precisely because the Premier League had such a laissez-faire approach to ownership. Under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea were left subject to forces far larger than football. In short, for all the trophies they celebrated, one of the Premier League’s member institutions was not sufficiently protected.
It is as if so many lessons have not been learned. That is all the more striking after the wasted opportunity of the fan-led review, and leaves a situation that potentially just puts off an eventual reckoning for the competition.
The Premier League is currently in a position of unprecedented financial strength, with that largely built on the glamorous image of being the most unpredictable league in the world. The wonder is how long that view will actually persist, as City claimed their fourth title in five years. It is a little disconcerting to think that it would have been five from five had it not been for Liverpool appointing a genius.
Jurgen Klopp has reshaped the reality of the game, but that has in turn kept the illusion of competitiveness. Even Liverpool, an undeniable superclub who are on the brink of their seventh Champions League, have had to push themselves past their limits to keep up with City. And it still wasn’t enough.
The gap of a point is at once a tantalising illustration of how close Liverpool again came but also a show of how City will almost always be ahead. It is like Zeno’s paradox of the leaping frog.
This is not to deny Guardiola’s own genius, of course. He is undeniably one of the greatest and most influential coaches to have ever worked in the game, as tangibly symbolised on Sunday with the fact he became part of an elite group of managers to have won 10 or more major domestic titles.
It’s just that such superiority is what tends to happen when one of the greatest ever managers is afforded the perfect working environment, so specifically curated for him. Needless to say, there are very few clubs that can do this.
Guardiola, for his part, was creditably magnanimous about Liverpool after the game. It did mark a shift from the last few weeks, when he was constantly questioning why his club aren’t afforded more appreciation.
Guardiola even seemed to propagate one of the more cynical new lines of defence that has developed in recent times. That was the portrayal that Abu Dhabi is unfairly seen as more problematic than money from elsewhere.
“When you put something here [sponsor] it’s overpaid, but other [clubs] the money comes from the USA but the money is correct, even if it’s higher.”
It was difficult not to feel that this was of a theme with a more overt line, stated by chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak after City won their own domestic treble in 2018-19. Liga president Javier Tebas had referenced “petrol money and gas money”, and Khaldoon responded: “There’s something deeply wrong in bringing ethnicity into the conversation. This is just ugly. The way he is combining teams because of ethnicity, I find that very disturbing to be honest.”
Tebas had not brought ethnicity into the conversation, though. He had simply made reference to “state-run clubs”, and the reality that the economies of those states – and their immense wealth – are built on fossil fuels.
Such a defence consequently feels a highly cynical attempt to shut down fair criticism of the nature of these projects, not least because some of the main problems with these states are human rights abuses against their own populations.
The truth is that these sportswashing projects are as distinctive in nature as they are increasing in power.
At present, there are only three clubs that are owned and politically used by states. All three of the states are from the Middle East, with the takeovers specifically influenced by the complicated regional politics. Two of those clubs, then, are in the Premier League.
Qatar’s purchase of Paris Saint-Germain only followed the lead of their rivals in Abu Dhabi with Manchester City, before Saudi Arabia saw the benefits of all this and bought Newcastle. These three takeovers alone have started to reshape football to a disproportionate degree.
They also had as much influence on the bottom of this season’s table as they did on the top. Newcastle’s drastic transformation has provoked debate over whether Eddie Howe should be considered manager of the year, and it is obvious he has done well.
Would he have done quite so well without that £90m expenditure, the most ever spent by a club in the bottom half in January? The squad had badly lost its way under Steve Bruce, but it was still a mid-table squad, as evidenced by 12th- and 13th-place finishes. An 11th-place finish is the kind of response you get with unprecedented mid-season investment.
So how much was down to Howe? It’s going to be very difficult to ever say, although next season might offer some guidance. The bare facts are that Newcastle’s form only improved after the spending started. The feeling, nevertheless, is that it was really a case of a number of factors combining - from Howe’s nous to the emotional momentum of the takeover.
That, it should never be forgotten, was a takeover that should never have been allowed to happen.
it is fair to wonder how future football historians will look back on some of the scenes at St James’s Park, and the gushing adulation for an ownership that should face the most pressing moral questions. The temptation is to think those perspectives will not be forgiving, but then it’s just as possible another consequence of all this is that such takeovers will be depressingly normalised by then. That, after all, is the entire point.
Either way, it is obviously so distasteful to be discussing all of this when we should just be talking about the game. This is not what football should be about. It is, however, what the game has lamentably been allowed to become. The Premier League has more than played its part.
That can be seen in the table. In normal circumstances, all of this could broach a discussion over whether a takeover that should not have happened has denied another club their place in the Premier League. Except, in another indication of the game’s numerous issues, Burnley are instead threatening legal action over whether Everton have seriously breached financial rules in their own survival.
Drink it in, indeed.
It leaves Burnley with a £65m debt to repay, and there should be as many questions about how their takeover was allowed as there are with Newcastle’s. It may be a long time until we see them in the competition again. Everton meanwhile remain ever-present, and potentially unified again.
The joyously relieved scenes at Goodison Park were nevertheless undermined by one of a few unsavoury incidents that seem to be accompanying modern pitch invasions. The assault of Robin Olsen only followed the provocation of Patrick Vieira.
It is so dispiriting that the much-awaited return of fans has been followed by this, especially since these incidents are products of society rather than the pitch invasions. This, to echo an old line from an even worse time, is much more than football’s problem. It is nevertheless another negative from a season of so many controversies.
There was still a lot of beauty in it, of course, which is why we’re all here; why we keep coming back. Paramount was the standard of attacking play, that is itself at a historical peak and caused a shift in managerial appointments. Sean Dyche and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt the brunt of that.
Some of the best of this was exemplified by Brentford, who arguably offer the true candidate for manager of the year in Thomas Frank. The Dane still operates on a mid-table Championship budget, but comfortably kept his club in the Premier League with some uplifting play. There was also an uplifting story that was part of that, all the more captivating because it was just when Brentford were starting to struggle. Frank decided to take a decision many others wouldn’t on Christian Eriksen, and the playmaker proved inspirational in so many senses.
It was a necessary reminder of the emotional beauty of the game, as well as the humanity that really makes it so popular, and what requires protecting. You can add to that any number of De Bruyne passes, Son Heung-Min surges or Mohamed Salah goals.
For all that money dominates the game, too, there were valuable moral lessons in how it doesn’t completely dictate it. Manchester United endured their worst season in modern times, despite – or perhaps because of – the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese was at the centre of another dominant debate, which was whether United would be where they were without him. The truth is it was probably the wrong discussion, something that summed up the club’s lack of direction.
Ronaldo’s goals were necessary in a club as dysfunctional as this, but it can be simultaneously be true that a top club can’t play the best modern football with him. It was something the underwhelming Ralph Rangnick found, and it also ensured that Solskjaer lost the last of his authority over that team.
Perhaps the most important decision in United’s season was not over the signing of Ronaldo, but over the refusal to appoint Antonio Conte. It may well have decided the entire race for the Champions League, ensuring Tottenham Hotspur leapt over an immature Arsenal as well as an imploding United. Conte was absolutely right that it was a superb achievement, given where Spurs were when he took over.
In the face of that evidence, refusing to appoint the Italian was obviously the wrong short-term decision for United. Whether it was the wrong decision in the medium term will not be seen for some time. All we know is Erik ten Hag has a considerable job.
Both Liverpool and City have shown just how far United are behind. City, meanwhile, remain just that far ahead.
It should be so galling that Liverpool have lost another title to them by a mere point, but then Klopp’s team may again win what Guardiola so wants more than anything: the Champions League. In order to try and remedy this, City have gone out and signed one of the next best players in the world in Haaland.
It is ominous for the rest of the Premier League, especially as the title was won in the same weekend PSG secured Mbappe.
At the very least, City afforded us a last day of genuine drama and jeopardy. It perpetuates the perception that the Premier League is gloriously uplifting drama all the time.
Look a little deeper, though, and the wonder is how long that perception will last.
Managers to have won 10 major domestic titles
Bill Struth - 18
Willie Maley - 16
Alex Ferguson - 16
Valeriy Lobanovskyi - 13
Mircea Lucescu - 13
Luis Cubilla - 11
Jock Stein - 10
Giovanni Trapattoni - 10
William Wilton - 10
Pep Guardiola - 10
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