Manchester City spent the better part of five years churning out wins and trophies like an unassailable machine, claiming cup after cup and three Premier League titles in four tries, and positioning itself for a fourth in five. All City had to do at its Etihad Stadium on the season’s final day was beat Aston Villa, lowly Aston Villa, for yet another Premier League crown.
It sounded simple, anti-climactic, almost automatic.
It was, over two dramatic hours on Sunday, anything but.
They concluded, almost unbelievably, with City triumphant, but only after the reigning champs roared back from two down with 15 minutes remaining to win 3-2. Ilkay Gundogan’s second goal, and City’s third, sent limbs flying at the Etihad and tears rolling down Liverpool cheeks.
Forty miles to the west, Liverpudlians had dared to dream. They awoke from peaceful Sunday slumbers hopeful but helpless, knowing their title hopes hinged on an unlikely City slip-up. But their optimism simmered as City wobbled, then exploded as the favorites seemingly wilted. Matty Cash put Villa ahead in the 37th minute.
Philippe Coutinho, a former Liverpool star, doubled Villa’s lead with 21 minutes remaining, and the romantic script, written off as too improbable, was suddenly unspooling. Steven Gerrard, Villa coach and Liverpool legend, was really going to lift his boyhood club to a Premier League title. Liverpool’s “quadruple,” with League Cup and FA Cup already won, and a Champions League final still to come, really was in play.
Liverpool, at this stage, just needed to win, and that was proving more difficult than expected. Wolves had stunned Anfield with a third-minute goal. The Reds equalized on 24 minutes, but labored in search of a winner. Fans leapt from their seats when news of Villa goals filtered through smartphones, but then groaned as the visitors launched counterattack after counterattack, threatening to spoil the narrative.
But it was City, the ultimate narrative killers, who put their foot down, and wrote a remarkable story of their own.
Gundogan, a second-half substitute, brought them back into the game with a header at the far post.
Two minutes later, Rodri guided a 20-yard shot into the bottom corner, and sprinted back toward the center circle, his eyes on one more.
Three minutes after that, Gundogan incited wild celebrations with a tap-in. And City, the double-faced footballing artists whose ruthlessness and riches have made them reviled, completed a comeback that overpowered all those reservations.
They won their fourth title in five years, and sixth in 11, because for 38 weeks they were ruthlessly efficient. And they are ruthlessly efficient, presiding over the Premier League with clockwork superiority, because way back in 2008, Abu Dhabi bought the club and fueled an overhaul.
Some of the fuel has been murky and allegedly illicit. City was nearly banned from the Champions League, accused of “financial doping.” Leaked documents revealed a covert scheme to illegitimately boost the billions of dollars that Abu Dhabi has poured into the club, and further boost the success it has bought, in part to cleanse the emirate’s international image.
Some of the fuel, though, has been institutional and sharp. Oil money has been known to fail; Man City paired it with the structure and intellect of a Fortune 500 company, or a proficient national government. From the very beginning, chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak has led the charge, and run the club like the Abu Dhabi government strategist that he is. He brought in consultants, who identified FC Barcelona as the on-field industry standard. Rather than try to simply emulate the Catalan club, he hired its CEO and sporting director – and then, a few years later, its revered former manager, Guardiola.
Beneath and around them, City built an ultra-modern club, carefully designed to make the money that could be lawfully spent in lucrative sums, and to identify and then accommodate the players worth spending it on. They have covered every base imaginable, and some previously unimaginable, in their construction of this machine tailored to never lose. These days, they hire everyone from 21-year-old goalscoring fiends to a former Harvard research scientist and Yale astrophysicist. And no, they do not all contribute meaningfully to points and trophies, but the point is that City refuses to ignore anybody who might.
Liverpool has done much the same over the past half decade, and its unimpeachable recruitment has lifted it to City’s level. Jurgen Klopp and his ever-willing players, and their ability to blend tactical acumen with the passion that defines their club, have transformed them into City’s equals, City’s perennial challengers, a constant “pain in the ass,” as Guardiola once said.
But they haven’t had limitless Emirati money. They haven’t quite assembled endlessly deep squads worth over $ 1 billion and capable of producing 91.6 points per season over the last five. They haven’t had Guardiola, the coach who wrote the code for systemic dominance.
So they entered the final day one point behind and impotent.
They surely assumed, like the rest of the world, that City would cruise to another title; that the machine-like champions had an ounce too much for their challengers to overcome.
But City had proven unreasonably susceptible to calamity. Soccer’s randomness had conquered Guardiola’s brain and Kevin De Bruyne’s skill and Abu Dhabi’s wealth. They entered Sunday without a 2022 trophy, and for 75 minutes, they fed fears that they’d collapse again.
Instead, in six remarkable minutes surpassed only by Sergio Aguero and 93:20, they embraced the randomness and the chaos that define this sport. After embracing the unrelenting Premier League grind for nine months, they sent thousands of sky-blue-clad fans spilling onto the pitch in an instant. They’ll forget the monotonous winter wins and the billions of dollars behind them. They’ll remember this moment.