If Man City blow Chelsea away, then what is left of Premier League’s competitive balance? - (2021)
Pep Guardiola’s restless search for perfection at Manchester City takes him to some odd places. And I’m not talking coordinates on a map. “At Watford, at 2-0, we were not the best side. We can do many things better.”
Who’d be a guest in Guardiola’s head? Some perspective: Liverpool have made their best start to a season, 12 wins in 15 games and no defeats, yet they trail City by two points and an avalanche of goals. City are firing them in at an average of three a game and go to Chelsea today with a goal difference of +38, better than Liverpool by 14 and third-placed Spurs by 26.
In his attempts at politeness, Guardiola ends up patronising us. Claims that going to Chelsea presents a difficult challenge are baseless. That is not to say City’s fabulous returns come without effort. Pretty patterns are built on big shifts from athletic units. Yet such is the configuration of talent under Guardiola’s aegis, outcomes are as near certain as they can be.
Only Wolves and Liverpool have taken points off City in the Premier League without stalling momentum in the slightest. City are without Sergio Aguero as well as long-term absentees Kevin De Bruyne and Benjamin Mendy at Stamford Bridge, holes that elsewhere might take some filling. Guardiola simply whistles to the next in line and the machine purrs on.
“Tomorrow is a huge, demanding test. How is our behaviour against big teams? How are we going to react? We’ll focus 100 per cent,” Guardiola said on Friday. If the day is huge and the demand great for City then what is it for Chelsea, suddenly confronted by doubts after a solid start to the season under Maurizio Sarri? When Sarri says he hasn’t a clue how to beat City you believe him.
The Italian’s fears were triggered early by the Community Shield defeat to City in August when the champions blew through Chelsea in second gear. Though Sarri responded nattily to build confidence, successive away defeats of late at Spurs and Wolves have undermined progress and, worse, introduced confusion with the displacement of N’Golo Kante in order, principally, to accommodate Jorginho.
Kante will play in goal if selected though his obvious preference is for the role of defensive screen he provided first at Leicester and then at Chelsea in championship-winning teams. Maybe Sarri knows better and will somehow mould Kante to a more expansive gait. Conversely, he might yield to sentiment and return Kanté to a place he knows best and where he gives Chelsea greater stability in the face of City’s myriad threats.
In a sense, Chelsea are not playing only for themselves but a Premier League desperate to find an answer to City’s ball-breaking dominance.
Who would have imagined that fireworks as spectacular as City’s might be bad for business? The truth is City’s brilliance is stripping the life from the spectacle. There is nothing in sport as dull as a foregone conclusion, and absolutely nil joy to be taken from watching City pin teams to their penalty areas.
This is a problem new to English football. There have been dominant teams in the past but none took to the pitch with the same absence of jeopardy. There was always an ambush to be had somewhere in the shires. Not so now. City have not lost since blowing a two-goal lead at home to Manchester United eight months ago, and only twice in the league since losing at Stamford Bridge in April 2017. The other blip came at Anfield in an anomalous thriller that had Liverpool hanging on after standing 4-1 with 84 minutes played.
Philosophical black holes
Sarri argues City are the best in Europe. He playfully directs us elsewhere for answers on how to beat them. “Against Guardiola I lost every match, so you will have to ask somebody else,” he said. Sarri is wasting his time if he believes praise might lower Guardiola’s defences. Only in Plato’s forms does perfection reside, condemning Guardiola not only to a fruitless pursuit but a kind of madness.
He thanked Sarri for his compliment but paid no heed. “Thank you, but we are not the best. To be the best you have to win the titles. We have not won the titles to be the best team in Europe. I see my team and many things are good but still we can do better. To think it is not necessary to improve. That would be the most dangerous thing.”
And there we leave him, disappearing once more down philosophical black holes, bouncing around from ideal to ideal without any possibility of resolution. Meanwhile Sarri et al scratch their heads wondering how on earth they might give City a game.
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