It’s impossible to be neutral on Manchester City. If you support a club that has to compete with them in England or in Europe, it’s likely they are a symbol of all that’s wrong with the modern game, given their state ownership, and bottomless financial resources. If you don’t belong to one of those support groups, then perhaps they are just this unfathomable monster that plays a different sport than wherever your interest lies — something completely foreign, mutant, celestial, or perhaps all three.
Wherever you fall on the City-esteem spectrum, and no matter what you think of the process of how they got there, it would also be equally impossible to not appreciate what they do on the field, where since the calendar flipped to 2023, especially last night, as they turned Real Madrid into mere scraps of meat on barely assembled bones, they seem to have solved soccer.
Only for the first 20 minutes last night did the usual Real Madrid Stockholm Syndrome kick in, as they were dominated in the same fashion as they were in the first leg. They couldn’t get a sniff of the ball, barely left their own penalty area, and on the rare occasion that City lent them the ball out of sheer pity, they were as helpless with it as a high school team. Luka Modrić even misplaced a couple passes. Toni Kroos had some loose touches and was easily dispossessed. Karim Banzema was smothered. Vinicius Jr. might as well have just taken a seat in the second row, such was his involvement.
We’d all seen this before, at least that’s what we told ourselves. It was the same trap that they’d set for City in the first leg, and then with the same combination of just a couple touches, and one run they’d strike. That’s what they do, it’s what they always do.
And yet, as the clock ticked on it looked only like Madrid were sinking deeper into the quicksand. They were that dog saying everything is fine, except they were actually on fire and charring. They sat deeper, the touches got worse, and the passes missed their targets by more open yards.
And it felt as if it wasn’t their fault, somehow. Every City player save the keeper Ederson, who literally had nothing to do, was meticulous, and elegant with the ball at their feet. Their constant movement was a light show, constant motion, and yet in perfect harmony. When they did lose the ball, their press was…violent. There was brutality to their elimination of Madrid yesterday, especially when City hunted them down in their press. They seized the ball in a predatory manner as if it were an insult to them. It was hard to comprehend a side that could be so elegant in one instant and savage the next. This was a constantly evolving and shape-shifting beast.
There may not be any better representation of how City turned Madrid into a cowed creature pissing down its own leg than City’s second goal when you see how much space Dani Carvahal gives Jack Grealish on the left wing. He’s not even within 10 yards, such is his terror of getting utterly torched again. Which he does anyway:
City battered every Madrid player into that kind of caution or outright fear, which only opened up more space for them wherever they desired. The magnetism that Erling Haaland creates in the penalty box means Ilkay Günduǧan and Kevin De Bruyne have acres of pasture to frolic in, which only sucks in a defense, leaving Bernardo Silva, and Grealish an orbit’s-worth of space themselves. It’s unsolvable.
A rout long in the making
We had described before how Pep Guardiola had spent years sharpening one aspect of City’s play, whether it was their freakish expression with the ball, their ability to control a match with the ball, then being able to defend to a point of sucking all the oxygen out of a match, the positionless death from everywhere, and a pirate’s sensibility of counter-attacking, and putting it all together this season. Yesterday seemed like the culmination of all of it.
This is what Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, and Bayern Munich all feared would happen. Given their abhorrent financial wealth boosted by the Premier League’s financial dominance of Europe already, City would achieve a level that simply cannot be touched. That those clubs would be removed from the discussion of most powerful on the field and soon off the field as well. There would be a new emperor.
And maybe that is what yesterday signaled, but to merely relegate it to the status of simply being the result of more money than everyone else isn’t entirely accurate. While it couldn’t have been achieved without the money spent, that does a disservice to the work Guardiola has done. John Stones was only a decent ball-playing center back when he arrived from Everton. He was not a hybrid defender/pivot-point in midfield. Kevin De Bruyne was not the best passer in the world. Bernardo Silva couldn’t play four positions at once. Grealish couldn’t really fit into a team. Haaland…well, he was a goal machine before but his edges have been smoothed too. Perhaps City’s money unfairly makes them the only place where Guardiola could paint such a thing, one of the few capable of creating this masterpiece with an endless supply of players, money, and time. But it still has to be done.
Perhaps City’s competitors should just comfort themselves in the knowledge that Pep won’t be around forever. He’s changed the game at two clubs now, introducing tiki-taka in Barcelona and the thundering high press and control, and positional changes at City. But there aren’t many around who can do the same when he leaves. PSG are an example of what happens when you just assemble talent and tell a new manager every 18 months to make it work. Maybe Guardiola is the only one who can get the City hierarchy to heel and have the patience to build something over a span of years. Of course, Guardiola is the only one who can also keep winning the Premier League while he builds. City are the only club where that’s possible.
It’s the only hope. They may never be universally loved, or even non-loathed. But City are certainly now universally-appreciated for the soccer they play. That will be more than enough.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he convinces himself that Alexis Mac Allister and Mason Mount will be enough to run with this ridiculousness next season.