ARSENAL’S Martin Odegaard seemed to be speaking for all of us. There is no hope now, he said, referring to the title race, but it’s hard not to reach for something a little deeper here. The English Premier League is not a particularly hopeful place right now.
A fifth title in six seasons for Manchester City is a cause for celebration, for Manchester City. For everyone else, such a gruelling statistic will lead to those existential questions. Just how much fun is this annual procession for the rest of us? What purpose does it serve? And will anyone ever get this close again?
Pep Guardiola is turning into Keyser Söze, sticking his head out once among the Usual Suspects, playing with the audience and hinting that he might be caught, before clicking his fingers and disappearing into the crowd, knowing he’ll never be seriously challenged again.
Of course, there are the obligatory caveats. The Gunners could still leapfrog Manchester City, theoretically. Just as an elephant could leapfrog a lion, theoretically. And Pep Guardiola’s relentless, winning machines are trundling towards the Treble, a remarkable achievement that deserves accolades, instead of sniping, hysterical commentaries lamenting the death of football. The future remains unwritten and, as that tiresome uncle is fond of reminding you, the ball is round.
Yes, but it’s rolling towards Manchester city, a tilted pinball machine bankrolled with nation-state resources and masterminded by the finest manager of his generation. A rigged game? It’s barely a game at this point, just 38 rounds of rehearsals before the inevitable open-top bus parade around the blue half of Manchester’s city centre.
To mangle the words of both Odegaard and Saint Francis, where there was hope, there is now exhaustion. Where there was faith, there is now doubt in the long-term wellbeing of the EPL. Where there was union, there is now a one-team league.
Retired professionals turned pundits turned pseudo-psychologists are ticking off favoured terms like “choking”, “collapsing” and “bottled it” as they play therapy bingo among themselves, when a cursory glance at a couple of benches reveal only a choking of the financial kind. Manchester City have strangled the opposition, ruthlessly and systematically. A long campaign, sandwiched either side of a World Cup, have left the limited Gunners dead on their feet.
One missing William Saliba created a crisis of confidence in Arsenal’s defence. Rob Holding tried to fill in, but struggled and was dropped in favour of Jakub Kiwior, a largely untested centre-back expected to stop the carefree, high-flying Gulls of Brighton. Kieran Tierney is an able deputy, but not as dependable as Oleksandr Zinchenko. Ben White is decent, but his right-back slot remains vulnerable.
Indeed, Arsenal were decent, but vulnerable to a long season, fatigue and key injuries. Most teams are.
Immune to the problems of typical clubs
But not Manchester City. They are immune to the everyday travails of elite clubs. Such petty concerns are beneath them. Even the possible departure of Ilkay Gundogan, the most consistent of all-round utility forwards, triggers a rueful shrug from Guardiola, but no more than that. There are more where Gundogan came from.
Did you not see them on the bench against Everton? Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish and John Stones have all excelled this season. In a pivotal EPL fixture at Everton, they managed around 25 minutes between them. Silva and Grealish came on for a late-afternoon stroll. De Bruyne and Stones were saved for the Champions League against Real Madrid. Guardiola doesn’t just have bigger fish to fry. He’s frying all the fish.
It’s too easy. Manchester City are flirting with a Treble without needing their best chat-up lines. Their left-back position remains an unresolved work in progress since Joao Cancelo left. Kyle Walker suffered a drop in form when he was allegedly caught on camera dropping something else. Phil Foden hasn’t quite lived up to his pre-World Cup expectations and Julian Alvarez is still acclimatising to a new environment. Squad problems of such magnitude derail most clubs, but City aren’t most clubs. They are a ring-fenced principality, protected from dull bread and butter issues.
Oh, they are also a club in transition. A former striker-less line-up needed to incorporate Erling Haaland. City’s artistic dandies had to feed their new Kraken. And they did it, overnight, relatively speaking. Nothing fazes or stops them.
Arsenal choked only in the sense that they ran out of oxygen. They couldn’t breathe. Limbs tightened. Weariness took hold in defence and a lack of rotation in attack left Gabriel Jesus too isolated and overwhelmed.
Of their five games lost, the Gunners were only comprehensively outplayed twice, in their home and away fixtures against Manchester City. Even the closest thing that the EPL has to a Clasico is not particularly close. Guardiola’s transitional experiment is too much for anyone. They are gliding along, picking up 11 straight league wins and drifting away from opponents. It’s never been done so comprehensively before, not like this.
Who stops them? As complicit members of the football industrial complex, we must play pretend. We must churn out lists of possible title challengers next season and offer predictions on City’s main rivals. Will it be a two or three-horse race? Perhaps Erik ten Hag and Qatari investment can elevate Manchester United. Perhaps Mauricio Pochettino can stop Chelsea looking like an American business deal to rival the subprime mortgage crisis. Perhaps Liverpool find the cash to buy four or five players and challenge again. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
In the meantime, City return to the (oil) well once more. They buy the best available because they can. They improve further on a squad with few discernible weaknesses. They leave Arsenal behind, probably for good.
Looking back, it was a miracle that the Gunners got this close, taking their challenge to the final games of the campaign, if not the final day. They have lost hope, but not their pride.
There’s no shame in losing a race that cannot be won.
It was a miracle that the Gunners got this close, taking their challenge to the final games of the campaign, if not the final day. They have lost hope, but not their pride. There’s no shame in losing a race that cannot be won.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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