Man City’s quest for legitimacy is a battle they may never win

A great was considering the question of greatness. A manager who, even by his own definition, has done the exceptional, accepted he is deemed unfulfilled. Pep Guardiola has reached the stage where his Premier League titles feel routine. In a way, they are: he has five in six seasons. The abnormal has started to appear normal, the extraordinary ordinary. Perhaps the Manchester City manager wanted a greater recognition of the achievement. Or maybe he was reflecting the wider commentary about his reign.

“To be considered one of the greatest in Europe we have to win the Champions League, otherwise people will say our time here is not complete,” he said. “There is a part that sometimes can be unfair for the fact you have to win the Champions League to give credit or value to what we have done. It would not be fair to say it’s not extraordinary that what we have done with five Premier Leagues in six. In world football, all managers in the Premier League, the players, sporting directors and clubs, they know how exceptional it is.”

It is sufficiently unusual that only two teams have ever previously won five English leagues in six seasons: Liverpool between 1978 and 1984, Manchester United from 1995 to 2001. City have reached points totals neither mustered, but they conquered Europe. The final frontier is also the quest for credit.

There is an ongoing battle for a different kind of legitimacy, given the 115 Premier League charges that will be heard, perhaps far into the future. There may be a definitive ruling if some of their funding involved rule-breaking. It may not end the arguments or answer the question if there is an asterisk – or several – attached to this era.

City’s place in history is both assured and up for debate. “We don’t need decades to think about how good this was,” Guardiola said. The evidence is apparent on the pitch; City have sustained brilliance for most of the last six seasons. They might yet reach a century of league goals for the third time; they got 99 in a fourth campaign. They already have done one treble, a domestic hat-trick of the Premier League and both cups in 2018-19. They hold the record for points, with 100; the only team to deny them the title in that time, Liverpool in 2019-20, had to start with 26 wins in 27 games.

Guardiola has had his travails in Champions League knockout ties but has industrialised the winning of leagues like few others. His 11 in 14 seasons, spread across Spain, Germany and England, speak to the huge talents he has coached, the vast resources he has enjoyed, his considerable prowess on the training ground and his vivid imagination. Most seasons involve tinkering until he finds a formula so potent it leads to an extended winning run: in past seasons, it has involved an array of false nines, or the transformation of Ilkay Gundogan into a box-crashing, goalscoring midfielder, or using Joao Cancelo as a playmaker full-back, or making midfielders like Oleksandr Zinchenko or Fabian Delph into left-backs.

The 2023 surge – and City’s record stands at 12 straight league wins, 16 home victories in a row in all competitions and 24 games unbeaten – owed much to making John Stones a hybrid of midfielder, full-back and centre-back. Cancelo, the great revolutionary, was exiled when Guardiola complained about the “happy flowers” in his team. “How nice and intelligent I was,” he reflected. The Premier League charges for breaching financial regulations may have been a reason why the division’s chief executive Richard Masters ended up presenting medals to City: they helped generate a siege mentality.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak, chairman of Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola (Getty Images)
Khaldoon Al Mubarak, chairman of Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola (Getty Images)

There were other factors. “To get to where Manchester City are, a lot of things have to align,” noted Frank Lampard, the beaten Chelsea manager on Sunday. “They’ve built this over years [with an] incredible vision of the club. I worked here for a year, I understand the people at the top and how well organised it is and they’ve brought in a great coach and so many great players so they are the benchmark.”

Perhaps few arrived as great footballers, though. But Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne, class acts and big-game players, were especially influential in the run-in. The exponential improvement of footballers under Guardiola’s coaching – Stones, Rodri, Nathan Ake and Jack Grealish are all prominent examples this season – can add a dimension. City are not alone in spending heavily but, in Julian Alvarez and Manuel Akanji, they secured twin bargains in 2022. Then there is the Haaland factor: Erling Haaland’s return of over a goal a game has lent the sense of superhuman prowess. His goal tally and his youth have an ominous element, suggesting City’s superiority could extend for years to come. Haaland could entrench dominance, though it is worth noting the year City cruised to the title was actually 2017-18, when they won by 19 points.

“A few weeks ago, Arsenal looked like they might win the league,” noted Lampard. Arsenal were top for 248 days; for the last few weeks of them, it seemed they were intimidated by the idea of City, dropping points even before they were demolished 4-1 at the Etihad. But when the Gunners’ lead stretched to eight points, there were times when City felt a poor result away from losing touch. But the elastic never snapped. “So they bring us to our limits,” Guardiola said. “If we don’t make this run of 12 games in a row winning after making 50 points in the first leg, it would have been impossible.”

Arsenal took 50 points in the first half of the season; finish off with two more wins and City will have 52 from the second half. Theirs has been an irresistible response which has lent the feeling of inevitability. It has become City’s extra asset, rendering it harder for anyone to depose them. They will start as overwhelming favourites next season, aiming to become the first team to claim four consecutive English league titles. But there is still the Champions League, still more to prove, still more to win.