There was a joke about Pep Guardiola doing the rounds in the summer. It involves him going to see Manchester City’s owners in Abu Dhabi and setting out a glorious vision of football–attacking, free-spirited, breath-taking football–that would win every tournament going and have the world purring in admiration.
“What do you need to achieve this?” asks Sheikh Mansour.
“Not much,” says Guardiola. “Just the best two players in the world in every position.”
The amount Manchester City spent in the summer will always be there and will always be used as a means of denigrating Guardiola’s achievement at the club. It’s as though he, preaching such a pure stylistic doctrine and having benefited from a remarkable generation coming through La Masia when he was at Barcelona, is somehow expected to achieve success not merely with beautiful football but without spending any money. His must be an artisanal genius–which is all a little silly.
There are reasons for significant concern about the current distribution of revenue in modern football, the rampant neoliberalism that has left huge numbers of European leagues dominated by one or two clubs, but the fact is that the best teams spend money and nobody competes for long at the top without it.
Former Man City midfielder and mass spewer of opinions Joey Barton commented after City’s 7-2 win over Stoke City on Saturday that Guardiola wouldn’t be doing that if he were in charge of Burnley. Obviously, this is true, but so what? Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t be leading the Formula One championship if he were driving a Nissan Micra. Perhaps with a little more equality sport–life, even–would be better, but it’s ludicrous to think Guardiola should handicap himself until the system is improved.
And playing within that system, City’s football is remarkable. This is what was hoped for when Guardiola first joined the club. City's pace and movement are mesmerizing. The club's tally of 29 goals is more than any side has managed in its first eight games in the top flight since Everton in 1894-95, and it hasn’t been because of a simple fixture list. City's run to open the season has included a 1-0 win at the champion, Chelsea; a 5-0 win over Liverpool, which admittedly had Sadio Mane sent off in the first half; and a 6-0 win at Watford, which sits fourth in the current table.
Amid the excitement, though, there should be two caveats. The first is what happened last season, when City began the season with 10 straight wins, six of them in the Premier League that yielded 18 goals. Back then it, too, seemed unstoppable, only to lose its way after a 3-3 draw at Celtic in the Champions League. When Tottenham then beat City 2-0 in the league, it became clear that if an opponent pressed, it was vulnerable. Perhaps this City has a similar flaw. It looks like a much slicker, more coherent side, but there have been defensive concerns, most notably early on against Liverpool (although City ended up winning by a lopsided margin), in conceding two to Stoke on Saturday and then against Napoli on Tuesday when, having gone 2-0 up, City wobbled badly in the second half.
The other warning comes from 123 years ago. The Everton that scored 30 goals in its first eight games of the season didn’t win the league, overhauled by perhaps the greatest of all Sunderland sides. It’s hard to see an equivalent in the Premier League at the moment, although Manchester United remains unbeaten and just two points back. The two Manchester derbies could end up being vital.
Yet City’s form is already beginning to have an impact on the rest of the league. United on Saturday went to Anfield as it had last season–it defended deep, let Liverpool have the ball and came away with a 0-0 draw. Last season it was hailed as a good result, as United recovered after away defeats to Watford and Feyenoord against a Liverpool side that had won its previous five games.
This season, there were doubts. It wasn’t just that United has been playing well and Liverpool poorly and that, with momentum behind them, a more aggressive approach might have been expected from Liverpool. It was the thought that if City is playing this well, the title is likely to be won with well over 90 points, and that means every point lost is vital. To draw at Anfield isn’t problematic; what is is that Mourinho essentially played for one point from the start. The contrast with how City attacked and overwhelmed Chelsea was clear and, from United’s point of view, troubling.
With Kevin De Bruyne in the form of his life, the two fullbacks both playing superbly (even if one of them is a converted midfielder in Fabian Delph), Gabriel Jesus giving repeated masterclasses in mobile modern center-forward play, Ederson a huge upgrade on Claudio Bravo in goal and John Stones distributing with great confidence, this is attacking football the like of which the Premier League has never previously experienced.
It cost money, but there are plenty of other costly sides in the world and none of them are playing with anything like the verve of City at the moment.