Suffocating Aesthetic Perfection: The Manchester City Paradox
The better the Premier League champions get, the more boring they become.
Illustration: Dan Evans
"You can trust this Man City," said Gary Neville during Sky's live final-day coverage. "They don’t let you down."
At the end of the noisiest Premier League season yet – one that over the last nine months has been able to vault and roar and ooze into every pore of public life – these are the 11 words that matter. Manchester City are champions and they are champions because they have been able to keep their heads amid the storm and stick unerringly to an abstract plan of what an English champion season might look like in 2019; an abstract plan funded by vast amounts of guilty money, but devised by a genius and executed superbly by a squad who are starting to take on the look of bona fide epoch makers. From Ederson and Aymeric Laporte at the back, to Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling further forward, City appear to be set fair for a prolonged spell of technocratic domination. Everything, other than perhaps a soul, is in place.
Maybe that's harsh. Certainly there will have been many waking up with sore heads in Stockport and Tameside on Monday morning who would argue that City have all the soul they need; too much soul, if anything, loyal and formerly long-suffering fans armed with the scars and hangovers to prove it.
It’s difficult to deny, though, that this season has often felt like a prolonged battle against the sheer inevitability of another City title win. They’re a team that, due to the circumstances of their creation, are doomed to forever inhabit a strange paradox: the better Man City are, the more boring they become. In early winter, it seemed as though they might turn the season into a frictionless procession, another bloodless romp to preeminence that was basically won inside Pep Guardiola's head before a ball had even been kicked. But then Pep’s expertly programmed sky blue goal-Roombas started dropping points. There was their first defeat of the season away at Stamford Bridge on the 8th of December, followed two weeks later by that Andros Townsend wonder-volley at home against Crystal Palace. On Boxing Day they fell again, to Leicester City.
In that period, Man City came as close as they have in the last two seasons to drowning. Liverpool, meanwhile, ate up the ground and gained an irresistible momentum, pundit talk shifting from discussions of City quadruples and unbeaten seasons to the 29-year wait Liverpool’s fans have endured since their last title win. For sheer emotion and human fervour, Guardiola’s team have not been able to hold a candle to Liverpool this campaign, a club supercharged with decades of thwarted glory and grief, playing in a way that is better attuned to that famously deep-set English desire to watch football games that don’t resemble massive boa constrictors crushing newborn lambs to death before swallowing the carcasses whole. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the Premier League contains too many newborn lambs and the biggest boa constrictor of them all.
The fact that talk of an unprecedented City treble has been nowhere near the narrative for the last month feels like a kind of proof that neutrals haven’t felt especially enlivened by the idea of them winning the league. Enlivened by the idea of anyone but Liverpool winning the league? Sure – but that just goes to show how much Liverpool have been the story; all the omens seeming, for a while, to be on their way to alignment. But City have stuck in there, grinding away in their bloody minded pursuit of suffocating aesthetic perfection, clinging to their principles no matter what.
At their most powerful and potent, Guardiola's charges simply kill games, sucking the competitive life out of them. To watch City pin yet another mid-table opponent in their own penalty area for 90 minutes, fussing the ball back and forth across the width of the pitch before plundering two, three or four goals at will, is to witness something that feels unfair to the point of actually being quite cruel or grotesque; the coarse sense of money asserting itself.
For large swathes of the season it’s those guiding principles, the ideas that underpin City’s on-pitch approach under Guardiola, that they’ve seemed most avidly engaged with, as though the hardest task has been matching up to the blueprint on the changing room wall. At others, it’s felt as though they’ve been striving to outdo last season’s version of themselves, the one that racked up 100 points. Since the third day of this calendar year, when Leroy Sané secured victory over Liverpool at the Etihad, they’ve been fighting a weekly proxy war against the most relentless competitor the Premier League has ever seen, never really facing off against the opponents they were sharing a pitch with as much as they were their dogged, star-crossed pursuers from Anfield Road. City have fought all of these battles at once and they have been found lacking in none.
There was something anti-climactic about watching this season’s final day unfold. It always seemed unlikely that a TV audience overfed on drama in the last few weeks would be able to wring one more feast day out of the campaign, and so it proved, as City wavered for precisely 83 seconds before the natural balance of power was restored. In immediately cancelling out Glenn Murray’s opener for Brighton, Sergio Agüero showed just what his team have achieved in the years since his most famous final-day contribution.
The see-sawing old City of yore have been replaced by a team that is almost infinitely dependable, one capable of playing beautiful football without the risk. But can football ever be truly beautiful without the risk? Guardiola may have only made it as far as the Champions League quarter finals this year, but since losing to Newcastle United in January, City have conceded just four league goals. These are unusual sticks to be beating a football team with. Perhaps the impulse to do so is just another thing that shows how special this Manchester City team really are.
There was a nice moment during the spectacle of the trophy presentation at the Amex on Sunday, as the late afternoon light started to give way to dusk and Sky’s camera lenses were wiped clean of champagne. Agüero stood with David Silva and Vincent Kompany – the enduring totems of post-Gulf City – to pose for a photograph that did at last sparkle with something that looked an awful lot like soul. Kompany in particular seemed utterly euphoric to show off his latest league winner’s medal, a player who’s spent the last three years being written off but who keeps showing up in City’s toughest moments to dad-slap the TV and bring the picture back into view.
Whenever City have been forced to show a bit more human fervour this season, it’s tended to be Kompany who’s provided it; whether that has meant breaking Pep’s formula to leather the ball past Kasper Schmeichel from 30 yards or screaming "pussy" at a prone Mo Salah after taking him out in full flight. Kompany is a genuine giant of the Premier League and perhaps its last great captain. City will miss him if he goes, a player whose inner radio seems tuned to a different station to all of those around him, to the weepy, late-night love songs of City FM rather than the polyrhythmic math rock broadcast by Radio Pep.
Seeing the three of them there, grinning in that familiar way, it was hard not to be struck by the human endeavour that powers this blue surge, to concede that perhaps souls can be grown and that all of this planning, PR and expenditure might one day blossom into something as beautiful as decay and jeopardy. It was also a rare moment to enjoy the sensation of a machine relinquishing its grip, commentators left with no title race to hype, no more noise left to wring from a Premier League shutting itself off for a hard-earned rest as possibilities were finally diminished to naught by the one team you can trust, the ones who no longer seem capable of letting you down.