As Manchester City stylishly swept all before them earlier in the season, a debate sprung up that looked peculiar then and positively ridiculous now.
The greatest Premier League side ever, it was claimed in some quarters. Events from the past few days have made a mockery of that. Pep Guardiola’s men will be worthy 2017-18 champions but the best the league has ever seen? That’s an insult to Manchester United and Arsenal sides of yore. It’s possible Chelsea fans will argue their 2004-05 team, with a record points tally and just one defeat all season compared to City’s two this time around, could be in the conversation as well.
Everyone has their own definition of what constitutes the “best” Premier League team in history but winning with style is only half the battle. This Manchester City side are aesthetically beautiful but the past few days have raised serious questions about their character and attitude when things do not go their way. They have a weakness about them that can be exploited. They wilted at Anfield in the Champions League — not even a shot on target — and collapsed at their own title party a few days later, caught in a whirlwind as Manchester United swarmed all over them, back from the dead when all hope had looked lost. They’ll likely end the season with the title and League Cup, just like they did in 2014, United in 2009 and Chelsea in 2005.
The greatest Premier League team in history is a straight fight between two sides, depending on your allegiance. Manchester United not only won it in 1999, they did so as part of an unprecedented Treble, maintaining a previously unseen quality at such a demanding level in the three competitions that matter most. Arsenal can quite rightly argue their 2004 vintage tops the list, going through an entire season without tasting defeat, all the while playing gorgeous football that was the envy of England. On what level can this Manchester City side compete with those achievements?
Guardiola’s men could end the season with 102 points, which would beat Chelsea’s 95 in 2004-05. They could end with the most wins and goals in Premier League history as well, which is why their advocates would place this side as the best the league has seen. Beyond the Premier League, though, they’ve been found wanting. Barring a miracle, they’ll limp out of the Champions League quarterfinals to go with an embarrassing exit to League One Wigan in the FA Cup. Their Premier League season deserves respect, but they remain a work in progress — which is rather terrifying for their rivals. But United ’99 and Arsenal ’04 were the finished product. In any case, points tallies are not the hallmark of the best teams anyway. United’s best Premier League side accrued “just” 79 points in that Treble season.
City’s mental fortitude remains in doubt and their defence in vulnerable. It’s a weakness, which pales in comparison to United and Arsenal’s best. Those two teams barely had a weakness between them. United were aided in their 1999 triumph by having a rival that refused to yield until the last day of the season. The rivalry — the best there has ever been in Premier League history — brought the best out of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger’s teams. City haven’t had that terrier snapping at them this season. They’ve waltzed past the lapdogs.
They have dominated the league — just like Chelsea last season, although in more attractive style — but have fallen short at key moments. However unpalatable it will be for the fans, players and manager to admit it, failing to beat United to clinch the league means the inevitable coronation will feel a little anti-climactic. They had their once-in-a-lifetime chance to win the title in the style their football deserved, but blew it.
Perhaps rather unfairly for them, they’ve been a victim of their own success and others’ failings. United in 1999 needed to keep their focus right until the last day of the season, somehow maintaining their attention to not only win the league, but to then find the reserves to add two further trophies to the cabinet. City have been strolling towards the title, without a credible challenger, which not only reflects their dominance but perhaps has led to a failure to maintain their focus in the other challenges they have faced.
As managers constantly grapple with fatigue at the business end of the season with more than one major trophy up for grabs — Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp each made five changes on Saturday from the Champions League quarterfinal first leg in midweek — it puts into perspective how much of an otherwordly achievement it was for United to win the Treble in 1999. Not only that, but they won the Champions League while remaining unbeaten. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Bayern again — European royalty lined up to topple Ferguson’s men, and nobody could do it. The FA Cup was secured after eliminating Liverpool and Arsenal — one an eternal rival, the other the biggest threat to them that season — en route. Ferguson rotated too, but he and his players had an alchemy that has eluded City and Guardiola this season.
Arsenal, meanwhile, possessed the mental toughness, resilient character and technical quality to avoid defeat throughout 2003-04, eventually clocking up a scarcely believable 49-match unbeaten run. It remains one of the greatest achievements in Premier League history, a feat unlikely to be repeated.
That is not to say City won’t get there eventually. United’s title in ’99 was the first of three in a row, a feat replicated again from 2007-2009. If Guardiola hangs around long enough to oversee two more title wins to go with the one they’ll celebrate soon, then perhaps the conversation regarding the best ever can be revisited. They’re more than capable of ironing out the deficiencies that blight them at the moment.
But as it is, dubbing them the greatest is as premature as the celebrations at 2-0 up on Saturday. Close, but no cigar.
Alex Shaw is General Editor at ESPN FC. Follow on Twitter: @AlexShawESPN.