And so it happened. Although it must be said, and with all due respect to the need for a bit of dramatic tension, in exactly the way most viewers seem to have expected.
With the Premier League season starting to shorten, the leaders heading into the home bend will look reassuringly familiar for Manchester City. Whatever chance there might have been for an outsider in the medal spots seems to have been safely secured. The remaining challengers are already working at full capacity. Eyes boggled and hamstrings squeaking as their shoulders displayed a blur of silk shorts and skinny-legged determination as Pep Guardiola prepared for the signature kick to the line.
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Victory over Brentford on Monday night makes it 11 wins and a draw in City’s last 12 games in all competitions. The three key players from last season’s innovative treble-winning structure, Kevin De Bruyne, John Stones and Erling Haaland, are all approaching fully operational status and are ready to be on the pitch together for the first time since the Champions League final in June to appear. And behind the stands there is a feeling that a wider sky is beginning to beckon.
On Tuesday morning, City were 9-1 with the bookmakers, not just to win the league, not just to win the double or even the treble, but also to win a first-ever double-treble. It’s a measure of this team’s unparalleled certainties, their ability to win games while overwhelming any real sense of competitive variables, that this still feels tentative; that a feat no other team has achieved seems like the default option from now on, something more rather than less likely to happen.
At that point it’s worth asking three questions. First, what exactly is at stake? The answer to that is: sporting immortality. City still have 16 league games left to play, plus a maximum of four in the FA Cup and seven in the Champions League. They are performing to the best of their abilities and they are in a routine final wave of consecutive trebles, six Premier League titles out of seven and a coronation as undeniably the best team of the modern era. Or indeed, ever.
Football loves an ill-fitting comparison across the decades. Comparing success now with the achievements of, for example, Jock Stein’s Celtic is a journey without maps, scale or context. But it’s still possible to be great in any era, and this is undeniably a select group. What are we looking at? Bob Paisley-era Liverpool? Real Madrid from the Golden Age? Johan Cruijff’s Ajax? Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich? This is the kind of footprint City can leave behind over the next three months.
For many neutrals, such success in the multi-layered modern game will bring with it a sense of economic inevitability, a symptom of something broken in the way the sport now organizes itself. Not to mention the issue of those 115 unresolved charges of breaking financial regulations because no one seems to want that. The city denies all allegations.
But it’s also worth remembering that nothing lasts forever. Eras always seem inevitable as they happen. Guardiola will leave at some point and the perfect maturity of the current team will turn into something else. Other empires will rise. This is City’s chance, right here, to stick their hands right into this thing and suck the sweetness out of it.
At this point the obvious follow-up question arises: can anyone stop them? There is a vague feeling that the Premier League opportunity may already have passed. So far, City’s season has felt like a three-phase tune-up. Part one was a necessary hassle with De Bruyne and Stones injured and a Haaland-centric team still trying to play last year’s Haaland structure but stumbling midway through the season. Part two came with Haaland’s injury, which might even have been a blessing, as a functional 4-2-3-1, a more classic Guardiola-esque team with Julián Álvarez as central striker, won 10 of 11 games. we have this: the main components are in good condition, the Death Star is preparing its destructor beam and preparing to enter destruction mode again.
There is still a clear period of danger in City’s run-in. Between March 10 and April 20, five of their seven league matches are: Liverpool away, Brighton away, Arsenal at home, Aston Villa at home and Tottenham away. But yes, these kinds of games feel like an aspect of City’s strength, the place where they win titles rather than lose them. Arsenal are also having a difficult last series: five of their last nine games were City away, Brighton away, Spurs away, Manchester United away and Villa at home. Liverpool have to go to Goodison Park, Old Trafford and Villa Park.
It is in these moments that the astonishingly coherent architecture of this urban project becomes apparent, from the ownership vision to the basic texture of the football. It is a bit overlooked, but there is a perfect combination between the Guardiola style, which is primarily about control, mastering the ball, destroying the variables that can lead to defeat, and billionaire ball model of City’s nation-state owners, which also involves creating a structure of such impenetrable wealth that its purpose is to eliminate the possibility of defeat.
Today’s City team is the culmination of that new process, a culmination of a decade of never having to actually sell a player, of generating the biggest revenues in world football thanks to some wonderfully far-sighted regional sponsors, of total structural coherence which is guaranteed by a politically driven sovereign wealth fund. That certainty of method and means is reflected in the details of the title fight. Arsenal’s central strikers are Eddie Nketiah and Kai Havertz. Liverpool will be desperate for Mohamed Salah’s return, while relying on Darwin Núñez’s tempting ball of chaos. Meanwhile, City’s backup striker is the second-best No. 9 in the league, and their No. 1 is the best pure finisher in the world. The only real choice for Guardiola is to decide which weapon to kill you with.
Related: De Bruyne in search of the last great treasure to crown his brilliant career | Jonathan Liew
When confronted with this, a final question arises. City is beautiful to look at. The players are brilliantly skilled and brilliantly disciplined. But is it actually interesting? Or interesting enough? What was striking about the broadcast of the Brentford match was that Sky Sports seemed to make a very conscious effort to develop a City story.
Much attention has been paid to the De Bruyne-Haaland relationship, which has been remarkably productive. But then De Bruyne is a remarkably creative footballer and Haaland the most obvious expression of City’s version of sporting inevitability. How do you stop the unstoppable, Sky commentators asked. It turns out you don’t. Haaland scored Phil Foden’s third goal with a nice little static break, and scored the second by forcing Brentford to double him.
Haaland may lack artistry. He is perhaps one of the least interesting brilliant footballers ever conceived, a superstar defined purely by his astonishing numbers, a paradox of the non-passing footballer in one of the great passing teams. But he is also, in many ways, another end point of Guardiola’s vision, another point of total certainty, and perhaps the defining presence anyway when those double trebles loom.