Are Manchester City the best team the Premier League has ever seen?
With Manchester City set to win the Premier League as early as a couple of week’s time, Nestor Watach and Colin Millar debate if they are the best of all time.
We live in interesting times. Last weekend, Manchester City had the chance to win the Premier League in April.
Of course, in the end, a resurgent Manchester United managed to turn around a 2-0 deficit to keep the Premier League trophy from travelling back across the city with Pep Guardiola’s men.
Frequently in the course of this season, the question has been raised whether or not this Manchester City side are the greatest to grace the Premier League since its inception in 1992.
Nestor Watach: For what it’s worth, I don’t think Manchester City are definitively the greatest ever Premier League Champions. But they belong in the conversation.
For one, there’s a basic problem of posing the question “are they better than X?” because, in absolute terms, of course they are.
Football develops so rapidly decade-by-decade that they’re just inherently going to be a more sophisticated and better-equipped team than say, Manchester United in 1999 or Arsenal in 2004.
Watch a game from 1999 and a meeting between the top six this season and argue otherwise. It’s impossible – it’s like watching a different sport.
So that leaves you with arguments applied in a pound-for-pound style, which is obviously problematic and sketchy.
But it’s really the only thing we can do. Even then – on most applicable metrics they’re up there with the best teams.
Colin Millar: One of football’s biggest problems is a failure to look beyond the last five minutes, of drawing ‘black and white’, permanent conclusions from events which, in reality, are much more complex.
The Premier League brand began in 1992 and, in the decades since, it has produced great sides, mediocre sides and poor sides aplenty.
Few would argue against this current Manchester City team being deserving league champions, nor against them playing football which at times is an absolute joy to watch.
Yet this is a side similar to one who finished just three points inside last season’s top four, a side which has failed with its European ambitions and one who was the victim of the biggest cup shock of the season.
All in all, Pep Guardiola’s men have suffered seven defeats this season and whilst they are clearly fantastic, they are a team who still have flaws – many of which have been exposed in their three most recent performances.
Before even talking about being ‘the best’ team in the Premier League era, this side needs to show it is capable of sustained success both at home and on the European stage.
NW: Sustained success is one measure of a great team, sure – but it’s not the only one.
Guardiola’s City couldn’t possibly compete on that basis because they’ve not had a chance to yet. We can’t discuss that until we see how Guardiola’s team tries to retain the title, so let’s not.
There are other criteria. Wenger’s Arsenal never retained a league title but they’re often cited as one of the all-time greats. Plenty of people frame great teams down to one standout season: Manchester United in 1999 and 2008, Chelsea in 2005, for example.
All I’m doing is comparing Manchester City to those great campaigns because it’s all I can do, for now.
CM: Each of the league’s last nine winners have failed to retain their title the following year, despite many being dominant in their own titles successes. Chelsea accumulated a huge 93-point tally last season yet were not being discussed as one of the league’s most accomplished ever outfits.
It is impossible to base such judgement calls on one season alone as being the ‘best’ involves so much more. Manchester United’s 1999 feat of winning the treble is unlikely to be surpassed, yet in the middle of February, many believed Manchester City would equal and even surpass such a feat.
For them to have win the league title and League Cup reflects their achievements this season but they have unequivocally failed in their two primary objectives.
Guardiola sides are ruthless in league campaigns – as shown at Bayern Munich – yet his relative lack of success on the European stage ensured that they did not match up to their achievements under Jupp Heynckes. At present, City fall into a similar bracket – they are the best in England but remain short of the level they aspire to reach.
NW: Perhaps people were a little rash in February but here we are in April and we now know what they’ve won and not.
The European argument is a valid one and it’s certainly one both Manchester United in 1999 and 2008 hold over this City campaign. But it’s not the be all and end all. Arsenal’s Invincibles campaign came up short in Europe – losing at the quarter-final stage to an English also-ran, Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea, who were unable to match them over a league season. Does that sound familiar?
The same applies to Chelsea in 2005, in their defeat to Liverpool. These are two teams that people repeatedly argue were far better than this Manchester City – so why don’t the criticisms of this team apply to them?
Whilst Manchester United boast the two European cups in ’99 and ’08 – which gives them an edge – they were unable to match the domestic dominance of this Manchester City.
People rightly reminisce about the glorious attacking play of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez but this team has already scored ten more league goals than that team did.
They already have five more points than the 1999 Manchester United did. That’s a significant difference – there are still six games remaining.
CM: Dominance is based on winning trophies and Manchester City have fallen short in two of the three primary competitions this season. Their goal tallies and points are, of course, impressive but comparing different seasons is a red herring as all 19 opposition teams are different.
Manchester United’s teams in 1999 and 2008 did not have any discernible weaknesses, neither did Arsenal’s side in 2002 or Chelsea between 2005 and 2008. This Manchester City side does and this has been exposed in their most recent three fixtures.
NW: Comparing different seasons is sketchy, of course. Without derailing this argument, this Premier League holds its own top-to-bottom.
Arsenal have been made to look a joke domestically but are competing for the Europa League. The reigning Champions are fifth. Liverpool are fourth and competing to win the Champions League. The bottom three are all teams who have been solidly mid-table in last few seasons without losing a great deal of talent.
By any quantifiable measure, this is a strong league. It’s a sign of a very strong team to dominate it so totally, beating every team in the division, putting five past Liverpool, four past Spurs, do the double over Chelsea and Arsenal, and be the only team to win at Old Trafford.
This is not a poor league, no matter how some want to use that argument to undermine City’s success.
CM: The only way of measuring top leagues is by performance in European competition and, since 2012, English clubs have not competed in the Champions League.
The English top flight’s most recent heyday was between 2008 and 2009, when the division contained four of Europe’s elite side. Now, Manchester City are threatening that bracket but one title success alone is not enough, or even close.
Chelsea accumulated a massive 93 points last season, but were generally not spoken of among the league’s best ever – despite coming within one match of the domestic double.
Nestor Watach: Manchester City’s main problem is they’ve been unable to match any one achievement of teams gone by: going unbeaten or also winning the Champions League. But in certain ways those teams shared a similar weakness and, in other ways, this team have surpassed them.
Another problem is they’re chasing history: deified players who literally have had statues built of themselves. In an age of constant scrutiny, with every defeat picked apart, they can’t possibly compete with legends.
David Silva, for example will soon be level with Dennis Bergkamp on Premier League titles but for some any comparison would be sacrilegious – even in the face of any evidence or stats.
Finally, the reason this is a “debate” itself stands in Manchester City’s favour. Football isn’t about distilling everything into a Wikipedia honours list – that’s why we’re talking. Guardiola may not have matched Heynckes treble but anyone who watches German football accepts he brought a level of football never seen there before.
Guardiola’s done the same in England. It’s obvious by simply watching the game but also backed up by the minutiae of the stats: total passes, possession, shots on goal. Record breakers. They have changed the game and that will be their legacy.
Colin Millar: Players and coaches reflect on their careers in terms of their medal counts, while fans remember the cup finals and lifting trophies. Ultimately, that is what defines seasons and not the idea of a points record or most number of goals scored. Sure, they are measures of what the team was capable of but at the crunch moments, how did their team perform?
Faced with their three most important matches of the season to date within the space of a week, Manchester City lost all three. Their showing at Liverpool reflected mass frailties while meekly surrendering the chance to beat Manchester United at home to seal the league title showed further underlying weaknesses.
Those did not exist in previous all-conquering sides. Barcelona may well break records in La Liga this season by going unbeaten and wracking up a points landslide, but few will fool themselves that their current side is stronger than it was under Pep Guardiola.
Seasons and teams are measured in various stretches but two trophies in two seasons – no matter how impressive those individual achievements are – do not match up with the very strongest in the Premier League era.
Who do you think makes the more persuasive argument? Let us know by commenting below.