Manchester City Win The League Title By Default
When the full-time whistle blew at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon, the crowning of the new champions of England couldn’t have come about in more unusual circumstances. Supporters of the home side had started streaming towards the exits some time earlier – the empty seats on display had previously somewhat contradicted the announced attendance of just over 75,000 people – and most of those still inside the ground were West Bromwich Albion supporters, deliriously celebrating a result which, in the most pragmatic terms, may still end up counting for little come the end of the actual season itself for them unless it kick-starts what would, if it were to somehow to come to pass, constitute the greatest escape act that English football has ever seen.
After the match, Jose Mourinho admitted that he could “smell” a result like this coming. One can only imagine what the atmosphere at the club’s training ground must have felt like at the start of last week when the manager returned to his group of players only to see them – presumably – acting as though last Saturday’s win at Manchester City had actually been enough for them to win the league title. If anything, it speaks volumes for the shortcomings of the Premier League that a team capable of turning in the shift that United’s players did yesterday could still be that most likely to end the season as its second placed team. Could the players have actually believed that winning that match the weekend before last was as much as they needed to turn on for the remainder of the season.
In the land of Bantasia, of course, there will be those for whom it was enough to have denied Manchester City the chance to win the Premier League title at home against Manchester United with a few weeks of the season still left to play. Perhaps, if United had kept winning and that particular result had been the catalyst for a slump so dramatic that they were only just able to scrape over the line, Manchester United could have ended the season on the sort of psychological upward curve that can carry a team through the summer. As it is, however, mythologising the events of eight days earlier is going to prove somewhat more difficult. The Manchester United supporter telling the story of the year that “United denied City the title” will most likely be cut off by a Manchester City supporter explaining how United pissed away that win by losing at home to the worst team in the division the following weekend. The potential Legend, such as it was, lasted for a few hours less than eight days.
Manchester City had played their part in allowing this Legend to grow a little with a tepid performance in the Champions League against Liverpool last week, of course. For the second match in a row, they’d come out snarling and had grabbed an early advantage before allowing themselves to be pegged back and caged in. On Saturday evening at Wembley, however, they’d given a reminder to all watching of just what a powerhouse they can be when they choose to be. Spurs went into the game in excellent form, still brimming with confidence following their win at Stamford Bridge a couple of weeks ago, but on this occasion City controlled and stifled, pushed and prodded, and eased to a comfortable win. The result was a return to the form that has followed them through the rest of the season.
Comparing teams across different eras is pretty much a fool’s errand, and to compare this season’s Manchester City team with, say, the Arsenal side of 2003/04, the Liverpool side of 1987/88 or the Leeds United side of 1973/74 feels like a pointless exercise that can only lead to endless circular arguments. The corrosive effect of money upon the game means that perhaps it’s impossible for any of the teams that could touch true greatness to receive the credit that they deserve. The extent to which we examine every match – frequently every tackle, nowadays – under a microscope means that any tiny manifestations of vulnerability are held up as if to prove every fallibility as a failure.
But, whilst Manchester City are clearly beneficiaries of an inequality of resources within the game, it can hardly be argued that they are the creators of that inequality. After all, Manchester United benefited from it for the best part of two decades and still do benefit from it in comparison with the vast majority of clubs in the Premier League. The growth of commercial and television revenues into the Premier League in the 1990s was only ever not going to have a detrimental effect on the division as a whole if managed very carefully, and although the Premier League itself has sought to maintain a degree of equanimity in its apportion of television money in the hope of maintaining some degree of competitive balance, the arrival of oligarchs of various hues coupled with the increasingly diverse ways in which clubs either can or can’t grow their commercial revenues has meant that the league table has taken on the unbalanced look that few of us wanted to see, regardless.
The ultimate problem that faces all six of the biggest clubs in the Premier League – and it’s a problem that can be extrapolated to the entirety of the game – is that, in a football culture that polarises everything and that can only see itself through prisms marked “success” and “failure”, there aren’t enough trophies to go around. There are, broadly speaking, four that an English club team could conceivably win over the course of a season (and yes, we’re leaving out the Community Shield, the European Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup for the purposes of this conversation), and out of those four – and as Louis Van Gaal and Arsene Wenger may attest – the two domestic cups don’t count for very much any more. This leaves the Premier League title, and one European trophy and the Champions or Europa Leagues to share between six clubs, each of which of which is capable of contorting itself into a shape resembling a nervous breakdown if things aren’t going completely their way. The numbers, put simply, don’t add up.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, the reaction of West Bromwich Albion supporters to yesterday’s result probably had more gallows humour about it than anything else, but if caretaker-manager Darren Moore had been hoping to stake a claim to be given the job at The Hawthorns on a permanent basis, he could have scarcely hoped for a better result than this. It’s probably still too late for him to save Albion from the drop, but four points from his first two matches in charge of the club is a decent return and the possibility of the club finishing the season on something approaching a high, even if avoiding relegation is already beyond him, for this season. It felt as though the weekend just gone was that when the Premier League’s relegation places were effectively decided as well as the title despite Albion’s win, but for as long as they’re mathematically still in it, they’ll consider themselves to still be in it.
It’s possible that the true test of Manchester City’s mettle will come next season. Next year will mark a decade since the last time a Premier League team successfully defended its title – Manchester United’s 2007-2009 run being the last – and there will doubtlessly be further reinforcements going on across the board over the course of the summer as each of the top six clubs convince themselves yet again that they and they alone are deserving of lifting next year’s title. The make-up of any of the top six clubs – and last weekend’s results also opened up the tantalising possibility of Arsenal being replaced in the top six by Burnley, which may well throw Arsenal into a renewed state of existential crisis – could be radically different come the start of next season. Manchester City, however, have been there to be shot at for the entirety of this season and little has stuck, so the question hanging over the start of next season might well turn out to be that of whether this is a new dynasty flexing its muscles and what might be done by their rivals to try and rein them in.
Manchester United’s win at The Etihad Stadium meant little more than postponing the inevitable, but that didn’t stop those with a vested interest in building a narrative from seeking to do so. And perhaps that’s the story of the 2017/18 season in a nutshell. Manchester City have been so far removed from the rest that the entire season has felt like a damage-limitation exercise for the rest, and it might be argued that clubs have been successful in this respect. Manchester United’s vast spending over the last couple of summers hasn’t been followed by a serious tilt at the league title, still less the Champions League. Chelsea’s defence of their Premier League title now seems likely to see them finish in fifth place in the table. Should Arsenal fail to win any of their remaining five fixtures, they’ll have their worst end of season points tally since 1996. Tottenham Hotspur, who were supposed to be on an unstoppable upward curve, might end the season having dropped a couple of places on last year’s runners-up finish in the table. Liverpool remain trophyless under Jürgen Klopp.
All of these situations could, of course change over the next few weeks or so. It seems highly likely that one of Spurs, Chelsea or Manchester United will win the FA Cup. Liverpool or Arsenal – or both – could yet win the Champions League and the Europa League respectively. Perhaps, though, it’s a reflection on the hubris and ultimate futility of the Premier League that it was the supporters of West Bromwich Albion, a club that remains almost certain to be relegated come the end of the season, whose supporters could be heard the loudest by the end of the weekend. With little drama of consequence to speak of – the recent Manchester derby notwithstanding – and few signs that there will be any over the last few weeks, it almost feels as though this is the season that most of the biggest clubs would rather wish had never taken place. As such, it was probably appropriate that this title finally mathematically changed hands upon the full-time whistle at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon in front of banks of empty red seats following a witless display from one of the challengers, and with the champions nowhere to be seen.