Man City's victory over Brighton in the FA Cup semifinal means that the possibility of a first quadruple in English history is still alive. The slight peculiarity, however, is that it's oddly uninspiring to watch.
Manchester City has already won the League Cup. It’s two points behind Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table with a game in hand. This Tuesday, it will play Tottenham in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal. On Saturday, it defeated Brighton to reach the final of the FA Cup. A first ever quadruple is on. English football could be witnessing something entirely unprecedented; only one team, Manchester United in 1998-99 has ever done the English treble before.
The football City is playing is remarkable, full of technical excellence and beautiful goals. Highlight reels of this season will be watched in the future with a sense of awe. But there is a problem. It’s an absurd one, one that it feels ridiculous to even point out, but it is undeniable: brilliant as City is, in fact precisely because it is so brilliant, watching Pep Guardiola’s side is oddly boring. As Liverpool sweats blood over every point in the title race, every game a mini-epic of exhausting tension, full of twists and turns, doubts and resilience, City is coldly, gracefully, efficient.
Its last two league games, against Fulham and Cardiff, have both followed the same pattern: an early goal, total domination and a 2-0 win. Brighton has been in dismal form of late with just two wins in its last 11 league games but the thought was that in the Cup, in a one-off game at Wembley, it could perhaps find some resilience and at least put up a fight. But within four minutes, City was ahead.
It was a stunning goal, the product of four perfect touches: Aymeric Laporte’s pass swept out to the right, Bernardo Silva’s lay-off, Kevin De Bruyne’s cross and a plunging header from Gabriel Jesus.
But it was a goal that meant the 86 minutes that followed, if not quite the procession that the Fulham and Cardiff games had been, had little sense of jeopardy. And City keeps doing this: it was the seventh goal City has scored inside five minutes and the 13th before the 10th minute.
Perhaps it’s unfair that neutrals should react with a yawn. It’s not only because of money that City is as formidable as this (however justified the concerns about the source of that money may be, particularly given that City is facing various investigations for potential breaches of Financial Fair Play regulations). City is a superb side because of exceptional recruitment and coaching. In the abstract, its football is sensational. But it suffers for being almost too good. There is only rarely any sense of a contest. Even when it took a last-ditch challenge from Laporte to deny Glenn Murray a tap-in early in the second half, the thought that Brighton might win the game seemed remote.
It may be that that’s even becoming a problem for its own fans. City was far from selling out its ticket allocation at Wembley. This is not a straightforward issue and nobody should criticize fans who have decided they cannot afford the trip. It’s not just the ticket price itself, from $40 and upwards, but also the scheduling.
The last direct train from London to Manchester left at 9:24pm local time, which is to say a little under two hours after the scheduled final whistle. But it can take an hour for Wembley to clear and, although a Tube journey from Wembley Park to Euston is doable in about half an hour, there’s always the risk of extra time and penalties. Besides, who really wants to spend a tense football match checking their watch, worrying about catching a packed train back home? Fans could drive, but England's M6 highway is notoriously slow-going with ongoing roadworks at night.
So add in the cost of a night’s accommodation and a best guess for a cheapish trip including ticket is probably $200-250. That is a lot, especially given City has already been to Wembley in the League Cup final, may be back in the FA Cup final, and could have a Champions League semi-final in Turin and a final in Madrid to think of. Little wonder when the games do not have the sense of a once-in-a-lifetime thriller that this season does for Liverpool that many are choosing to save their money. The difference in atmosphere to last Sunday at Wembley, when Portsmouth beat Sunderland on penalties in the Checkatrade Trophy final in front of 85,000, was palpable: those are not clubs for whom trips to Wembley have become routine (Sunderland, incidentally, is the only team to eliminate City from any competition this season, beating its Under-21 side in the quarter-final of the Checkatrade).
That’s the paradox of modern football, whose financial imbalances have created the environment in which City’s level of domination is possible. The first quadruple in English history would be an extraordinary achievement; the oddity is that it’s oddly uninspiring to watch.