In 1953, socialist football conquered England. That November, Hungary’s “Golden Squad” — the Aranycsapat, Olympic gold medalists who hadn’t lost in three years — traveled to Wembley and essentially reset the course of British soccer. England hadn’t ever lost at home to continental opposition, but what was billed as “The Match of the Century” quickly turned into a rout.
Behind a never-before-seen kind of slick, positional fluidity, the Hungarians won 6-3, marking what Jonathan Wilson described in Inverting the Pyramid “not the moment at which English decline began but… the moment at which it was recognized.” Hungary manager Gustav Sebes took it a step further. As Wilson writes, “[He] insisted Hungary’s success, so obviously rooted in the interplay of the team opposed to the disassociated individuality of England, was a victory for socialism.”
Well, 65 years later, collective football has returned to British shores. It’s just that this time it’s being funded by a Middle Eastern royal family worth over a trillion dollars and one of the largest payrolls the Premier League has ever seen. And while Hungary haven’t qualified for the World Cup in over 30 years, Man City’s dominance (barring outside intervention from an international governing body) doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.
Before the 2017-18 season, no Premier League team had broken the 95-point mark in a full campaign. City have done it twice since. Last year, they relegated Liverpool’s 97-point season to second-best and won the domestic treble in the process. This year, they’re the betting favorites to win the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Carabao Cup, and the Champions League. Oh, and they’ve already nabbed the Community Shield.
This season, every dropped City point seems accompanied by either a Puskas-nominated goal or some form of controversial technological intervention. The natural order of things is a City win; anything else is an aberration.
The only other teams to reach that level of inevitability this decade were a handful of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid sides. But Bayern had the spine of the World Cup-winning German national team along with perhaps the greatest pure wingers of their generation, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. And Barcelona and Real Madrid? Well, they had Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the only two players who were inarguably better than not just Robben and Ribery, but pretty much anyone else who’s ever played the game.
After breaking 100 points to win the title in 2017-18, the consensus seemed to be that Kevin de Bruyne was Man City’s skeleton key. He finished No.1 for attacking midfielders in the FC 100 and the Guardian had him at No. 4 in their 2017 annual ranking of the top 100 players in the world; no one else on the team was in the top 15. In 2017-18, he led City in outfield minutes and Pep Guardiola’s decision to slide him back into the midfield, coupled with his ability to still produce like an attacker from deep (eight goals and 16 assists), vaulted City into a stratosphere of their own.
Before last season kicked off, “a KDB injury” was probably No.1 on the List of Reasons Why City Won’t Repeat. A KDB injury is exactly what happened; he played fewer than 1,000 minutes in 2018-19 after struggling with injuries and yet, City were basically as they good as they were the year before. In fact, according to TruMedia data, their expected-goal differential actually improved after the 100-point season. Guardiola has his third “superteam” but this time, they don’t have an irreplaceable superstar.
The soccer consultancy 21st Club has developed a player-rating system that calculates how many points an individual player is worth compared to a league-average player. It’s a rough version of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement statistic.
“[Raheem] Sterling, [Sergio] Aguero and De Bruyne are fifth, eighth and ninth respectively in our ratings,” said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at 21st Club. “Our top four are [Lionel] Messi, [Mohamed] Salah, Neymar, and [Cristiano] Ronaldo.”
Since the Abu Dhabi Group purchased the club in 2008, City have spent more on transfer fees than any other team, but not a single transaction breaks into the top 20 of the most expensive transfers of all time.
“They have a group of outstanding players,” said Chaudhuri, “but not any true superstars.”
A team like PSG, with both Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, the two most expensive players ever, has to sacrifice depth and quality elsewhere in the squad because of the resources put into those two players. And so the top-heaviness makes them more vulnerable to an individual injury. Neymar has missed the knockout stages of the Champions League two years in a row, and PSG have gone out in the Round of 16 both times
Guardiola doesn’t have that problem. According to the 21st Club model, City have five players in the top 20: the three Chaudhuri mentioned plus Leroy Sane and David Silva. Liverpool and PSG (three each) are the only other clubs that have more than two.
De Bruyne goes down and in steps Bernardo Silva, who’s suddenly one of the best pressing midfielders in the world. If Sergio Aguero, perhaps the greatest goalscorer of the Premier League era, gets hurt, guess who backs him up? Gabriel Jesus, a guy with an even better goal-scoring rate. Leroy Sane, who was second in the league last year in non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes, might miss the whole season but it almost doesn’t matter because Sterling, Bernardo and Riyad Mahrez are there to eat up his minutes.
Oh, and this summer they spent a club-record £63 million on Rodri to answer the lingering question of what happens when Fernandinho‘s battery dies, and Joao Cancelo came over from Juventus to add cover for the ever-present Kyle Walker.
“City hit teams with a double whammy,” said Mark Taylor, an analyst who works with various Premier League clubs. “They have the best [Premier League] players in their position, and they are generally very consistent. They don’t run hot and cold.” According to Taylor’s game-by-game performance ratings, most of City’s players “don’t stray too far from their average,” he said. “You don’t catch City on a collective off day.”
Even when there’s a roster question without a clear answer, Guardiola still seems to find one.
Two seasons ago, Benjamin Mendy, the £52 million left-back purchase from Monaco, went down with a season-ending knee injury in September. Then Guardiola turned Fabian Delph, at that point an unspectacular journeyman midfielder, into a full-back good enough to start for a 100-point team. Last year, Fernandinho only played 90 minutes in one league match after February, and City ended the season on a 14-game win streak.
“They’ve reached these heights in large part due to improving the performance of many existing players,” said Chaudhuri. “There’s no player you would say has gotten worse under Pep, which I think shows the gains clubs can make through good coaching instead of recruitment, which is often seen as a panacea at other clubs.”
Of course, Guardiola is the one through-line that connects the great Barcelona teams with the great Bayern teams with the current great City team. There’s still one thing left to be accomplished and much like his time in Germany, his stint in Manchester likely won’t be fully appreciated unless the team wins the Champions League. However, in an era where the Premier League has more money and more managerial talent than ever before, Guardiola and Co. put together the competition’s best-ever season with just one player who finished in the top 15 of Ballon d’Or voting… and then they followed it up by winning even more trophies while he sat on the sideline.
Globalization and previously unimaginable amounts of money have transformed the sport — and especially this club — but City’s on-field cooperation, albeit bizarrely, does evoke the success of Sebes’s Hungary side. Given all of the resources behind Guardiola and given how his team has been able to dominate the most competitive league in Europe with a rotating cast of key characters, it’s hard to see anyone else in England catching up for as long as he hangs around.
“To me, the tragedy was utter helplessness… being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook,” Harry Johnston, one of the England center-backs for the defeat against Hungary, wrote in his autobiography. Over half a century later, the rest of the Premier League might soon start feeling the same way about Man City, if they don’t already.