Manchester City & The Brewers’ Droop
By the time they got back to Staffordshire last night, the Brewers most likely needed a stiffer drink than that usually produced in their home town. Manchester City put Burton Albion to the sword in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final at the City of Manchester Stadium with a performance which didn’t so much hint at the difference that half a billion pounds can make as scream it. If Pep Guardiola’s team wanted to send out a message that they were taking this competition seriously this season, they could hardly have done so in a more emphatic manner. Nine goals without reply speaks for itself, and it does so in more ways than one. At no point was the collective foot lifted from the pedal. There was no respite for Burton, from the first goal, scored after five minutes, to the ninth, which came in the eighty-third. It was, in the most literal sense possible, an awesome display.
It’s entirely possible – likely, even – that the true targets of last night’s massacre were not Burton Albion. They were mere collateral damage from a performance that was targeted squarely at those Premier League rivals who believe that they will or even can be supplanted as the Premier League champions come the end of this season. At no point did the team treat this as an exhibition match. Indeed, in a perverse sense, we might even argue that the extent of the scoreline was a matter of treating their League One opponents with a degree of respect. The glittering regulars weren’t left out in favour of the untried and untested. Nobody relaxed and started to put their feet up with the fourth, fifth or sixth goals. Manchester City booked their place at Wembley for the final with a game and a half to spare. It will certainly be interesting to see what sort of team Guardiola picks for the second leg of a tie that is already some distance beyond over.
All of this came, of course, on top of City putting seven goals without reply past Rotherham United of the Championship on Sunday lunchtime. The obvious thing to state at this point is that recent consecutive defeats at the hands of Crystal Palace and Leicester City presumably rattled their cage, and that their narrow win against Liverpool has only cemented the confidence that seen them sail through so much of the last season and a half. Those of us who enjoy competitive balance in our football tournaments will have looked upon this recent revival with some degree of unease. The most obvious comparison to make is with that other promotional tool of the ultra-rich, Paris St Germain, in Ligue Un over the last few seasons or so. The financial clout of the other top six clubs in the Premier League might prevent every league season from becoming the procession of exhibition matches that watching PSG has become on recent years, but the signs that the ultra-rich have been drawing further and further away from the rest have been in plain sight for some time now. In the absence of any particular will on the part of anyone to address this ever expanding growth, though, it feels as though there is a distinct possibility that there is no particular reason why the Premier League shouldn’t become as stratified as other European leagues such as the Bundesliga, Serie A or La Liga. This, it strongly feels, may well become the uniform face of elite level European club football.
Of course, scoring sixteen goals without reply over the course of two matches might just be some sort of freak combination of results, and it’s striking that we still have a tendency to react to such absolute shellackings as though they’ve been deposited in front of us from another universe. On the whole, the ordinary limits of what constitutes a thrashing in a football match is limited to a five or six goals, but why should this be? It’s so institutionalised that even the BBC’s habit of adding brackets with the number of goals scored as a word in capital letters (“7 (SEVEN)” , for example) has become a trope in its own right. The reason for this is most likely the vast number of clubs that exist. Players are stratified by ability, and players of similar abilities flock together. To score nine goals without reply, though, is only to score once every ten minutes, the sort of statistic that we might think should be less rare than it actually turns out to be.
Certainly, the times when it has happened before in the upper echelons of the game have a tendency to live long in the memory on account of their rarity value, if nothing else. Spurs supporters of a certain age will have fond memories of a 9-0 win against Bristol Rovers near the start of their 1977/78 season in the Second Division, a result which pointed towards their determination to make their stay away from the top flight as brief as possible, and one which was further accentuated by appearing on that night’s edition of Match Of The Day. There was no such featured coverage for Liverpool’s 9-0 win against Crystal Palace in 1989 or Manchester United’s against Ipswich Town in 1994, but these are results that stick in the mind nevertheless.
So, any 9-0 win feels a little jarring on account of the rarity of such a result, and last night’s was all the more accentuated because it came in the semi-final of a cup competition. These matches, in our worldview of the game, are supposed to be tight. They’re supposed to be tense. These are, after all, two of the last four clubs standing at the end of several months of knockout football. And it’s this cognitive dissonance which likely informs our reaction to seeing it more than anything else. Furthermore, this was the first of a two-legged semi-final for which the second leg is now almost entirely superfluous from a competitive point of view. The nature of competitive football is such that Burton will take to the pitch for the second leg at The Pirelli Stadium seeking to salvage something from the entire tie, but they’ll be playing for pride alone and they might just get it, especially if Guardiola decides that perhaps he should rest his first team for it.
But we should have no doubts that last night’s result was unprecedented. The question of whether these to enormous Manchester City wins are successive outliers – which sounds tautological but isn’t, in a broad sense – and mere oddities that will be remembered for their rarity or the start of a trend in which the elite clubs use smaller clubs in cup matches as cannon fodder is a question that will come to be answered over the next few years or so. All we can say for certain right now is that Manchester City have effectively booked their place at Wembley for this year’s League Cup final, and that those who travelled from Burton upon Trent last night in the hope that their team might somehow be able to pull off something approaching the impossible will have left with no illusions of the gulf between their club and European football’s elite. We shall see, whether they need more stiff drinks following the second leg of a cup tie that is already effectively over.