- Man City is rewriting the Premier League record books. Barcelona is on the verge of Spain's first 'Invincible' season. Yet the cloud of Champions League failure hangs over both with less of an emphasis than ever put on domestic silverware.
Something strange is happening in European football. Movement is slow, but the results could be seismic. In Germany, Bayern Munich has won the league title for the sixth year in a row. In Italy, Juventus is on course not merely for a seventh successive Scudetto but also a fourth successive double. In France, PSG won a fifth league title in six seasons. In Spain, Barcelona remains unbeaten as its duopoly with Real Madrid goes on. In England, Manchester City has just wrapped up the league table with a record-matching five games to go. Barring something extremely unexpected happening in the next few weeks in Serie A, this will be, across Europe’s top five leagues, a season without a title race worthy of the name.
And yet, is anybody, even supporters of these champions, really happy?
Perhaps Manchester City fans are. It had been four years since City last won the league, and with only five titles in its history, familiarity has not yet bred weariness. And while this is a Man City season that was in danger of being overrated, it may well end up being underrated–especially considering the single-season records that could fall in the coming weeks. The Champions League failure, the vulnerability against teams who can get beyond the press, the defeat to Manchester United, have cast a shadow, though. Pep Guardiola has gamely claimed that winning the league was always the main aim and that the Champions League would be a bonus, but it’s hard to believe City’s owners believe that, and it’s certainly not how the rest of the football world sees it.
Guardiola has suffered before from a sense that domestic success doesn’t really matter. He won three league titles in three seasons in Germany, breaking all kinds of records, and yet for all the amount of tactical sophistication of the football his teams played, there was a sense if something missing because Bayern under him lost three times in the semifinals of the Champions League.
In Germany, that makes sense. Bayern’s revenue is roughly two-thirds greater than that of Borussia Dortmund, its next highest challenger. Juventus and PSG are similarly dominant in Italy and France. For them the league has almost become a given; Europe is the only test.
But what’s intriguing this season is the sense that a similar feeling is becoming prevalent in both Spain and England as well. Barcelona has gone a record 40 games unbeaten in La Liga and might post the first 'Invincible' season in Spanish history. And yet there are serious doubts about Ernesto Valverde’s management. Barcelona was undeniably less than impressive in the Champions League, creaking alarmingly against Chelsea before collapsing against Roma.
With City, the dynamic is perhaps a little different. The concerns about the repeated failures of Guardiola are real enough, but to an extent the disappointment over City’s European exit was conditioned by the anticlimactic nature of the league campaign, the fact that it was so far ahead that the title has felt all but inevitable since November, if not before.
Still, in the other four leagues, the same pattern is beginning to emerge: because the same one or two sides win the league every season, only Europe feels like real competition. And yet to judge an entire campaign on the Champions League feels bizarre given that there are a small group of superclubs for whom the quarterfinal is effectively a given (barring an unfortunate draw in the last 16) and there after it becomes something of a crapshoot. Knockout football does not necessarily reward the best sides, which means both that great teams can fail to win and (relatively) ordinary sides do win it.
Zinedine Zidane may win a third Champions League title in a row this season at Real Madrid, yet he’s so far from being regarded as a coaching genius that there’s a very real chance he could leave the club in the summer. That feels paradoxical; when everybody else is being judged on European form, it seems Madrid’s disappointing league campaign could count against him. The point, perhaps, is that nobody at a superclub is ever happy unless they win everything, and they must do so with beautiful attacking football; they’re so far ahead of most of the competition that nothing other than perfection seems acceptable.
This seems unsustainable. Football needs competition. Seasons cannot come down to a single two-legged tie each spring. Barring a radical upheaval that leads to an unthinkable redistribution of resources, this is heading only one way. For now, their economic preeminence means Premier League clubs may resist, but that could change very quickly post-Brexit. UEFA has made more concessions to the big clubs, guaranteeing four sides from each of the four biggest leagues places in the Champions League group stage. But it feels that with each season, momentum increases towards some sort of Europe-wide superleague.