What will the Manchester derby look like in a decade? Pretty much the same as tomorrow’s clash between City and United at the Etihad. The crowds should be back by then and the global television audience will probably be even bigger.
These are two clubs who do not have to worry about the future. Their prospects are assured. It is the rest of English football that should be concerned. In 10 years the derby might be contested amid the wreckage of the domestic game.
City are too good for the Premier League. If they beat United on Sunday it will be the 22nd consecutive win for Pep Guardiola’s team. That is impressive enough, but they have not trailed their opponents at any point in the streak. They will win the title even more emphatically than Liverpool last season, are on course to win the three domestic trophies and no one wants to draw City in the Champions League.
Normally March is too early to talk of teams winning multiple trophies but no one would be shocked if City won the quadruple. Guardiola has managed the squad beautifully to ensure his side are as close to prime condition as possible in this difficult and unprecedented campaign. The impact of coronavirus might cause the optimistic to believe that this season is an outlier and City’s supremacy is a consequence of the pandemic. In reality, Liverpool’s title success last year was the aberration. Covid-19 has merely magnified and hastened the Etihad’s tightening grip on the English game.
Guardiola has the best squad in the history of the sport. There have been superior teams – not many – but such strength in depth has never been surpassed. City fans and club officials point out that this is down to good management. A lot of it is. But the core reason Guardiola’s men are so far ahead is money. City apologists like to believe it is vulgar to talk about cash and the realities of being owned by an Emirate. This is the ownership model that will tear the sport apart and recast it in a form that will be destructive to all but the insanely rich.
United are one of those elite superclubs insulated from change. They have experienced periods of domination but they were nothing like City’s. Even during their greatest year, 1999, the season they won the treble, they were not so far ahead of the competition that they were a threat to the game. Football was in a period of change 22 years ago and developments would effectively ensure United could not turn the Premier League into a one-team division. The Arsene Wenger revolution was already under way at Arsenal and yet to hit its peak. Roman Abramovich was still four years from arriving at Stamford Bridge. The Russian brought a different sort of revolution and Chelsea’s spending had a huge effect on the nature of the top flight in England and a knock-on effect across Europe. An individual’s billions, no matter how many, are small change compared to the resources of Abu Dhabi.
The Emirate’s wealth is almost limitless. City are an instrument of Abu Dhabi’s soft power, bought to enhance the reputation of the country and its ruling dynasty. This is football as an arm of government and a projection of national pride. How can anyone expect to compete?
The Abu Dhabi project in east Manchester has been masterfully conducted. It takes more than mere finance to create something as magnificent as the Etihad Campus. City are now an extremely well-run club, arguably the best in the game. If they can continue to operate so successfully and maintain standards during the succession of managers in coming years, they will be unstoppable. They are on their way to controlling the Premier League in the same manner as Bayern Munich rule the Bundesliga.
Whatever your stance in the sportwashing/positive-projection-of-Abu-Dhabi debate, it is clear that the Emirate did not buy City to win over a few thousand people in Manchester who supported a quirky, underachieving football team. To get the full benefit of this exercise City need to go global. Their ascendency – like Bayern’s in Germany and Paris Saint-German’s in France – makes a European super league inevitable. In Abu Dhabi they see no point in their club playing Burnley or Fulham. Real Madrid and Barcelona, who will soon reassert their duopoly in Spain, are City’s peers.
Before we run away with making City the villains of the new age, it is important to remind ourselves that the rivals who hate what they stand for most want the same thing. Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, resent clubs like Crystal Palace who can go seven seasons in the Premier League without showing any ambition other than to stay up. They think teams in the bottom half of the table piggyback the appeal of big clubs, clog up the fixture list and hamper attempts to succeed in Europe. All while cashing in. Liverpool and United were the authors of Project Big Picture, which proposed a restructuring of English football’s finances. There were benefits for the wider game in the proposals but the core idea involved giving more power to the elite and more flexibility for them to adapt to the changing landscape of the future. The so-called Big Six despise City’s access to riches and power but will be first in the queue if the football wing of Abu Dhabi kicks down the door to a European Super League.
City need United in a way they do not need most of the Premier League. United are a superclub. The Manchester derby is safe and always will be. Few others are. It is now becoming clear that the foundations of the sport shifted the moment a football club became a vehicle for the interests of an Emirate.
City are more than a club. The team’s greatness needs context. It is state-sanctioned and unprecedented. They are unlikely to be challenged properly on the pitch in the foreseeable future because of this. Even in the Manchester derby.