The Guardiola supremacy: how City became too good for their own good

<span>Pep Guardiola embraces <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Phil Foden;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Phil Foden</a> during the title-winning celebrations after <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> make it an unprecedented four in a row.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

Once more, without feeling. The sun rose on Sunday morning, the Earth completed one full rotation around its axis, and Manchester City won the Premier League title, just as they did in 2012 and 2014, and 2018 and 2019, and 2021 and 2022 and 2023. One more trophy in the glass case, one more silhouette to add to the mural. The greatest saga in English football has been recast as church liturgy, its rhythms hardened into routine, and here Arsenal were simply the latest team to succumb to the myth that there was ever a race to be won.

Related: Manchester City beat West Ham to win fourth Premier League title in a row

For City there is of course a glorious familiarity to these rituals now, a muscle memory in those trophy‑bearing limbs, the arms that lift it and the legs that earn it. Of course there is the full‑scale invasion at full-time, which proceeds in contempt of the multiple big-screen warnings forbidding it, because by now it has become a sort of tradition. There are City fans in the lower North Stand who can boast more appearances on the Etihad Stadium pitch than Kalvin Phillips.

Finally everyone gets bored of walking around on the grass, and retreats back over the hoardings. Rostrums are assembled and carpets laid on the pitch. Expectant, beaming families gather in the tunnel. Pep Guardiola takes his bow, clad in some item of novelty apparel that will later retail in the club shop for a three‑figure sum. Then the moment itself, tickertape and pyrotechnics, a large but not overpowering roar of approval. And then it’s all over: back home to begin the excruciating 12-month countdown until City can win the Premier League again.

The problem, of course, is that at some point in the Guardiola supremacy City just became too good for their own good. Too good not just for their competitors but for the competition, for the product and the people whose job is to sell it. City claimed the title by winning their last nine games in a row, but even this only really tells a fraction of the story. All of those games were won by two goals or more, with the average time of the first goal being 17 minutes. Here Phil Foden smashed them 1-0 up within two minutes. We’re Manchester City. Pleased to meet you. Game over.

None of which, we should point out, is uniquely City’s fault. We can talk about the money, we can talk about the 115 charges related to alleged financial impropriety, we can talk about human rights in the United Arab Emirates. But if it hadn’t been City then, it would have been somebody else later. The point is that avarice and bad intentions have always seeped into sport through every crevice. It is in the very nature of sporting franchises to crave dominance by any means, and sporting businesses to crave certainty at any cost. And so it is the sacred duty of rule-makers and governing bodies to forestall them in advance, to build the structures that fix the distortions and imbalances before they materialise.

Related: Pep Guardiola admits he is ‘closer to leaving than staying’ at Manchester City

Instead the Premier League turned a blind eye to immeasurable autocrat wealth, cashed the cheques, bathed in the reflected glory, gripped above all by a faith in the intrinsic virtue of its product, a belief that competitive balance would just happen, was simply in its essential nature. The result – years later – is another Manchester City title that only Manchester City truly care about, and even they occasionally appear to be going through the motions.

The mood before kick-off was one of joviality rather than jeopardy, the City faithful congregating not in hope but in expectation. Emotionally speaking, the hard yards had been done at Tottenham on Tuesday. This was the fun part. Songs and banners. Kids kicking footballs around on the pitch. On the touchline, Noel Gallagher mumbled something into a microphone, and everyone was just relieved it wasn’t a new album.

Eventually the game began, although even as Foden scored the opening goal you got the feeling West Ham were still to receive the message. This is, after all, a club that has spent the past few weeks wandering round as a kind of ghost entity, a largely incorporeal sporting experience, essentially indistinguishable from a piece of paper in a filing cabinet with the words “West Ham” written on it.

David Moyes said last week that his side would struggle to stop City’s under-14 side, and everyone wrongly assumed it was a joke. Foden scored again. Jérémy Doku had a shot from 20 yards. Rodri poked a shot wide. In between, West Ham would simply give them back the ball so they could try again.

Ironically, it was the City transfer target Lucas Paquetá who made the mistake for Foden’s first goal. It was probably a strange afternoon for Paquetá, playing against a team you have to assume he is desperate to join. This is, of course, another of City’s strengths: a preternatural ability to hoover up the very best and most adored mid-table talent – John Stones, Nathan Aké, Jack Grealish, Matheus Nunes – and find it a gilded place on the Etihad Stadium bench.

Mohammed Kudus’s spectacular bicycle kick shortly before half‑time silenced what noise there was in the Etihad Stadium, as if some terrible social faux pas had been committed. Rodri’s goal on the hour started the party again. The VIPs in the cushioned seats started dancing the Poznan, their gold lanyards bobbing up and down as they did so.

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The temptation is to see this as a kind of pinnacle. Four titles in succession, a feat never before achieved, the kind of football never before glimpsed on these shores. But then, nobody has ever done five in a row, or six. Guardiola is still the best coach in the world. Erling Haaland is still the best striker. The backroom operation is still the envy of world football. The oil revenues are still flowing. The winning routines are grooved and drilled. We’ll see you all back here in 12 months.