As I sit down to write this article, I have just indulged in a handy 90 minutes of procrastination by watching Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side demolish Everton at Goodison Park. Of all of the City performances I’ve watched this season, this one was by far the most impressive – 3-0 up at half time, 82% possession away from home and 18 attempts on goal. Indeed, in the first half Everton managed just 59 passes, whereas two City players, De Bruyne and Fernandinho – managed over 60 in that time.
With 21 points still available, Guardiola’s men need just 12 to break Chelsea’s record for the highest number of points in a season (95), and just 16 more to break the 100-point barrier. Already this season City have set the Premier League records for most consecutive wins (18), and most consecutive away wins (11), as well as setting club records for the number of home wins, away wins, consecutive league games unbeaten and consecutive overall games unbeaten. There is no doubting, then, that this City team are an incredible side, and one of the true great teams of the Premier League. But are they the greatest?
The temptation among pundits this season has been to try and match Manchester City up against the greatest seasons other title-winning clubs have had: Manchester United’s treble-winners in 1999, Arsenal’s invincibles of 2004 or Mourinho’s juggernaut Chelsea side of 2005. In terms of achievements, this City side doesn’t seem to match up to those – if they win a treble this season, it will be missing the FA Cup, they cannot go a league season unbeaten and they are yet to beat Chelsea’s points tally, although they may well do so. But in terms of pure footballing ability, it seems fairly clear that Guardiola’s charges would blow any of those teams out of the water.
The football is better – their average possession stats are the best of any title-winning team, they’ve already scored more goals than any of the three aforementioned teams, and they’re the first team to have 3 players reach ten goals and ten assists in the same season. Besides which, it seems undoubtable that in the eras in which those teams played, the league was far easier to win – nobody talked about anything more than a “big two” in the 1990s, and at best Chelsea saw off a “big four” in 2005, nothing like the so-called “big six” of the modern Premier League.
And yet, I still don’t believe that this City team can yet be hailed the greatest since 1992, for one simple reason: we are yet to see them manage a sustained period of total dominance. As Althea Gibson famously said: “In sports, you simply aren’t considered a real champion until you have defended your title successfully. Winning it once can be a fluke; winning it twice proves you are the best.”
And when this rule is applied, we find at least two teams that might be better considered as greater teams. The previously mentioned Chelsea and United teams both went on to defend their titles, with largely the same personnel – indeed, that Manchester United side of 1999 would go on to achieve what Americans would term a three-peat, not relinquishing a grip on the Premier League until 2002, and even then the title only left the red half of Manchester for one season before it was recaptured. In fact, this was not the last time that an Alex Ferguson United team would go on to do this – the exact same thing happened at the end of the noughties, with United picking up every title from 2007-2009, and then again in 2011.
Of course, this is not to say that City cannot achieve this – in fact, having so thoroughly dominated the league this season, it would be a shock indeed if the title went anywhere other than Maine Road in 2019. However, this is speculation, and weirder things have happened in sport – just look at Chelsea’s collapse in 2015-16. After a comfortable title-win the year before, the team spent much of the season languishing in the bottom half of the table, even hovering perilously close to the relegation zone for a time.
Again, it should be clear that I do not expect this to happen to Guardiola’s team – the professionalism that seeps out of that man and infects his players should make sure that they are just as hungry for success going forward. All I am saying is that it is currently too early to pronounce judgment on their status as the best ever. So, then, we shall have to be content for now simply to enjoy watching them dismantle opponents and scoring for fun.