Manchester City has rewritten the Premier League — for better or worse, or both

When Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City in 2008, the English Premier League was a relatively stable kingdom. Manchester United and the “Big Four” ruled it. For more than a decade, most of the same rules governed it. On the field, Arsène Wenger had disrupted it, but the pragmatism of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho still reigned. Most games, by 2024 standards, were slow, choppy, defensive and staid.

And City? Manchester’s other team was a so-called yo-yo club bouncing between the EPL and lower divisions. It hadn’t won a major trophy since the 1960s. Its best Premier League finish to date was eighth.

City was an outsider, an afterthought — until, within hours of the 2008 takeover, Emirati money began to flow, and everything changed.

The money, stemming from Abu Dhabi’s royal family, transformed City into a contender. It fueled the “Noisy Neighbors” to championships, allegedly dodging financial rules along the way. It lured Pep Guardiola, who went a few steps further. On Sunday, together, they won their fourth straight Premier League title, and sixth in seven years. No club, in the 124-year history of English football, has ever won at such a rate. The league’s annals will never look the same.

But City hasn’t just rewritten record books. Guardiola, a succession of brilliant players and the club’s ruthless overlords have reshaped the entire Premier League itself.

On the field, they’ve revolutionized it. Off the field, they’ve destabilized it. Their success and spending have rewritten everything from coaching philosophies to league rules, and defined the EPL’s modern era — for better or worse, or both.

Manchester City's head coach Pep Guardiola, right, and Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak celebrate with the Premier League trophy after the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and West Ham United at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday, May 19, 2024. Manchester City clinched the English Premier League on Sunday after beating West Ham in their last match of the season. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
That's six Premier League trophies and counting for Manchester City's head coach Pep Guardiola. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

When Guardiola arrived in Manchester, back in 2016, the Premier League’s superpowers had reached a relative nadir. They had just struck out on the Champions League semifinals for the third time in five seasons. They were playing regressive soccer, far from the cutting edge, and making a mockery of the English exceptionalism that coursed through the self-proclaimed “best league in the world.”

Guardiola, who’d won 21 trophies in seven seasons at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, confronted that exceptionalism. He brought possession and positional principles, which the Premier League had previously resisted. And in Year 1, he failed.

The English establishment questioned him after a fourth-place finish in 2016-17. Some derided his unflinching commitment to playing out from the back, through an opponent’s press. Some branded him “arrogant.”

Guardiola responded by doubling down, and opening up the EPL record books.

In 2017-18, his second season, while controlling games to the tune of 70% possession, City rampaged to 100 points, still the best Premier League season ever.

Over six subsequent years, they continued writing — by staying true to themselves, leading the league in possession every season.

Their tactics evolved. Players came and went, and shapes shifted. But Guardiola’s ideology hardly changed, and City just kept winning. They have now topped 90 points four times. They own six of the 11 highest-scoring seasons in Premier League history. They have won, and won, and won, interrupted only by a historic Liverpool team on one solitary occasion. And as they did, the establishment slowly realized that, ya know, this Guardiola guy might be onto something.

One by one, coach by coach, year by year, other EPL teams began to copy him.

They began holding the ball rather than panicking, and playing through pressure rather than over the top of it. In 2017-18, the average Premier League team completed 172 short passes per game; by 2023-24, that number rose to 198.

The number of aerial duels per game, meanwhile, fell from 38.5 to 26.9.

Made with Flourish
Made with Flourish

Guardiola wasn’t the only influential mastermind. Around the same time, Jürgen Klopp stormed into the Prem with his “heavy metal football,” and peers copied him, too. Presses intensified league-wide from 2016-17 to present. In theory, they could have forced ball-playing teams to adjust, by playing long to bypass them.

Instead, the opposite happened. Teams became more willing than ever before to possess the ball within range of their own goal. Defensive-third touches rose, from 29.5% of total touches in 2017-18 to 32.6% this season, according to FBref.

And the teams weren’t just Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal; they were Brighton and Burnley, Fulham and Wolves.

Guardiola’s implicit teachings spread far and wide, bucking conventional British wisdom — and no, they didn’t produce cagey chess matches. Coupled with Klopp’s (and with new stoppage-time protocol), in 2023-24, they helped produce 1,246 goals, the most prolific tally in EPL history — more prolific, even, than seasons featuring two extra teams and 82 extra games back in the 1990s.

The Premier League today is far more entertaining than it was back then. And Manchester City, in many ways, is responsible for the on-field evolution. But it is also partially responsible for the league’s uncertain future, and for a present full of legal battles and asterisks.

When Sheikh Mansour arrived in Manchester, back in 2008, neither the EPL nor UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, imposed restrictions on spending.

Doors, in other words, were ajar; and Abu Dhabi, with its limitless wealth, hatched a plan to burst through them, to the sport’s top table.

In 2009, UEFA tried to close those doors. In 2013, the Premier League followed suit. Both formulated rules — dubbed Financial Fair Play (FFP) and the Profitability and Sustainability Rules (PSR) — that would limit losses, essentially by imposing unfixed caps on salaries and transfer fees that varied from club to club, because the caps were a function of each club’s revenue.

The rules, in effect, would impede City’s rise — unless the club could juice its bottom line by inflating the value of sponsorship contracts with Abu Dhabi state-owned companies. That, according to leaked emails published by Der Spiegel in 2018, is exactly what club executives and owners did. For example, according to one series of emails, they reported that Etihad Airways was paying City a whopping 67.5 million pounds per year — even though only 8 million would actually come from Etihad; the rest would come from the holding company that Abu Dhabi’s rulers had used to purchase Man City.

This, of course, was the exact type of billionaire cash injection that FFP and the PSR were designed to prevent. The leaks triggered investigations. UEFA found City guilty, and banned the club from its Champions League for two years — only to lose in court, because a statute of limitations had elapsed and proof of City’s wrongdoing wasn’t quite conclusive.

The Premier League, though, dug deeper. In February 2023, it unveiled a mind-boggling 115 charges — which City, all along, has “vehemently denied.” They date back to 2009, and likely amount to an outline of the financial doping that contributed to City’s 2010s rise from afterthought to juggernaut.

They have loomed over club and league ever since, and underpinned a 16-month stretch defined as much by controversy and court cases as by soccer. Everton and Nottingham Forest were both docked points for much tamer violations of the PSR. Leicester City is also in the PSR’s crosshairs, and could begin next season at a deficit, unless its legal proceedings against the Premier League prove effective.

The flurry of cases, and the lack of agreed-upon penalties, have tarnished the EPL, so much so that league officials deemed the rules untenable. The PSR will be phased out by 2025-26, and replaced by new “squad cost rules.” Premier League owners will also soon vote to introduce another unfixed cap, which would restrict spending at the top of the EPL to some multiple of what the league’s poorest club can afford.

Manchester City, meanwhile, is readying for battle in court — with its case expected to climax with a hearing in October, and a ruling next summer. City reportedly launched a legal fight with the Premier League last May, disputing the legality of the league’s investigation. In February of this year, it also reportedly challenged the EPL’s rules on “associated party transactions” — which limit City’s ability to circumvent the PSR by dealing with, and profiting from, companies connected to its ownership group, such as Etihad.

The Premier League, to defend its rules, is reportedly spending eight figures annually on legal fees.

The British government, sensing instability, is pushing forward with an unprecedented effort to introduce an independent football regulator. The regulator could, potentially, block foreign states or unscrupulous owners who want to emulate Abu Dhabi and Man City; it could boost financial sustainability, but it also could deter investment in the league and the game.

All the while, Premier League board meetings have reportedly been more fractious than ever. Clubs are less united; they bicker over everything from the financial rules to VAR. They bicker because the entire regulatory structure of English football seems to hang in the balance. Manchester City has driven it toward a breaking point, and that, more so than any title, might ultimately be its biggest legacy.