MANCHESTER, England – Manchester City will still win the Premier League title. It will probably still set a record for the most points earned in a season and the most goals scored. It has, by any reasonable measure, been an extraordinary season. And yet somehow, improbably, implausibly, there is a shadow.
At halftime of a sensational 3-2 Manchester United win at the Etihad, City seemed well on course for the win that would have sealed the title, a title that would have been won earlier than any other in history. City led 2-0 and should have led by more. Chances had been wasted, but Manchester United looked like a mess–disorganized, disaffected, disgraceful. Paul Pogba, his hair weirdly dyed in City colors, had been dreadful, holding onto the ball too long, his touch frequently heavy. It seemed this could be a beating for the ages, the sort of humiliation that would echo through history.
Yet 10 minutes into the second half, United was level. Pogba, who had been the focus of the build-up with Guardiola’s claim that the midfielder’s agent, Mino Raiola, had offered him to City in January, suddenly became the focus of the game, latching onto Ander Herrera’s chest-down and then heading in Alexis Sanchez’s lofted pass forward. Suddenly he was winning balls, making passes, driving from one end of the pitch to the other. This was the Pogba United thought it had signed, the Pogba whose ability has been visible only in glimmers this season.
It made no sense, and yet it had happened, City’s rearguard, again, crumbling under the slightest pressure. It was baffling that United had not applied more pressure before halftime, given the lessons of Liverpool’s 3-0 win over City on Wednesday, but perhaps even more baffling that City should be quite so vulnerable.
City, perhaps, was still suffering the aftereffects of what happened on Wednesday. It’s not just that, barring something miraculous–an Istanbul by the Irwell–City is going out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals. It’s the manner of the two defeats, for in them has been crystallized the tiny doubt that has nagged deep in City’s souls all seasons. Yes, the football has been brilliant. Yes, City will be remembered as one of the greatest of Premier League champions. Yes, there have been moments of play of such aesthetic quality they have taken the breath away. But what if you get through the midfield? What if you expose the defense? What then?
What happens then is that City collapses. All the concerns glimpsed in the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool in January were laid bare on Wednesday and again here, and that’s no small matter. City is not successful enough, yet, to shrug at a league title, but it’s won the league before, won it under Manuel Pellegrini, won it under Roberto Mancini, won it under Joe Mercer, won it even under Wilf Wild, who led it to relegation the following season.
This time was supposed to be something more, something extra special. The club has been set up for Guardiola. The entire structure has been built to model that suits him. Vast amounts of money have been spent on players, and that increases the expectations. European success, a first Champions League, is needed to validate his reign.
And yet the focus on the negative is both relevant and deeply unfair. The sense of anti-climax is itself a testament to how good City has been. The league has essentially been won since November, and so the focus has moved on. That box will be ticked, if not next week then the week after. But the ticking of that box has been extraordinary, the movement, the pace and the imagination of the football mesmerizing. After his disappointing first season in England, we asked whether Guardiola’s juego de posición could really work in the Premier League. Yes, has come the answer; emphatically, yes.
The problem of perception has been that City’s progress has been a little too serene. We prefer our heroes to struggle a little more obviously with their genius. It shouldn’t come easily. A mighty and expensive force with a single fatal flaw isn’t the hero of the story; it’s the Death Star. That’s how narrative works, but it’s hard to reconcile with the reality of how aesthetically uplifting City has been for most of the season.
And the fact is, there was something slightly freakish about the game. Even with the defensive meltdown, City still probably should have won comfortably. Raheem Sterling squandered two golden opportunities. City was denied an obvious penalty for a foul by Ashley Young on Sergio Aguero. Twice City struck the post. David De Gea made an astonishing save on a late, point-blank header from Aguero.
Man City will still win the league, but the danger is that the trauma will linger, that the memory of the collapse will undermine the club in the future. Jose Mourinho spoiled the party, but more than that he–belatedly–exposed City’s weakness. And the memory of that may cast a shadow that stretches far into the future.