The fundamental idea undergirding the pervading ideology of Premier League exceptionalism is that the English league is uniquely competitive. All the manifestations of this exceptionalism—from the holding of the Premier League title above all other domestic league trophies and nearly on par with the European Cup, to the skepticism of any great player who has not proven his greatness in the gauntlet that is a damp and clammy midweek night in Stoke, to the devaluation of almost every achievement of a club or a player performing in the acquiescent competitions of mainland Europe—stem from the underlying notion that the Premier League is just different, because on any given Saturday, any of its 20 clubs could beat any other. The most remarkable aspect of Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Manchester City is how it has destroyed that notion.
More than any trumped up ideas about philosophical revolution or tactical sophistication, what Guardiola has brought to the Premier League is the idea of perfection. As everyone who’s ever encountered Guardiola has said, the man is a true perfectionist. He wants to win every match by 10 goals with 99 percent possession and zero shots allowed, and he will work himself and his players to the point of insanity to do so. But while anyone can expect or demand perfection, what makes Guardiola special is his ability to realize it. And it is his latest creation of something close to perfect that has fundamentally altered the Premier League.
Yesterday, City entered the notoriously fearsome stadium of their biggest rivals, Manchester United, and walked out with a convincing 2-0 victory. That match was to be the last big challenge remaining on the Citizens’ league schedule. It was the best hope fellow title hopefuls Liverpool, who sit a single agonizing point behind City with just three matches left in the season, had for City to slip up and let the Reds overtake them for the trophy Liverpudlians so desperately yearn for. And yet against such a formidable opponent in such a tense moment in the Best League In The World™, City dispatched United with the same poise and confidence the club swats away the rest of its domestic competition. Wednesday’s match wasn’t Any Given Saturday, Anyone Could Lose, it was Every Given Saturday, Man City Will Win.
In the British public’s and media’s giddy eagerness to declare Guardiola a fraud when he first came to the league, you could see the conflict between Premier League exceptionalism and Guardiola’s idea of perfection. Perfection wasn’t supposed to be possible there. The historically great teams Guardiola oversaw at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the thinking went, were only possible because of La Liga’s and the Bundesliga’s relative weakness, both leagues cheapened by a lack of elite competition for the one or two real title aspirants and a soft underbelly of mid- to lower-table teams that were far inferior to their English counterparts. Who was Guardiola to believe he could come to the Premier League of all places, implement his style, and expect to conquer all challengers the way he did before?
But what we’ve seen over these past two seasons in the EPL has proven Guardiola right. Perfection is possible in England—it’s just that no one had been able to realize it before.
Last year, City set the league on fire, orchestrating easily the greatest Premier League season of all time. City set EPL single-season records in: most points ever amassed in a single campaign (100), the largest ever margin between first place and second (19), the most goals ever scored (106), the largest goal difference (+79), the most victories (32), the longest winning streak (18), and even more. This season has been more of the same. If City win each of their three remaining matches, they will repeat as champions with 98 points, more than any other EPL team has piled up in a single season other than this same City team last year. That would mean the two greatest Premier League seasons ever came in back-to-back years from the same club in an era when the league as a whole is widely regarded to be at its best and deepest ever.
By slapping up on United yesterday en route to a historic year that follows up the greatest season ever, City have demonstrated that the Premier League can be utterly dominated, that an English team can achieve a level of greatness so overwhelming that it can crush all comers, that the purported inevitability of losses to Stoke and Newcastle and Everton on any given Saturday is a lie. Not only that, but perfection is now the standard by which all other title aspirants must hold themselves to. Liverpool are still right there nipping at City’s heels in the title race, and it’s because they too have achieved a level of perfection. Should Liverpool win out, they will end the season with 97 points, a total that would’ve been good enough to win every single Premier League season other than last year’s and possibly this year’s. It would be cruel that only one of these staggeringly great teams can win the title this season if it weren’t so damn thrilling.
The current iterations of City and Liverpool are two of the best teams England has ever seen. (Though, for a myriad of complex reasons, City have not been able to translate this domestic form to the Champions League.) They have demonstrated previously unthinkable levels of focus and consistency and determination to believe and then reify the belief that they can and should defeat absolutely everyone. That belief was almost heretical in the vaunted Premier League, and it took Guardiola, the master of perfection, the titan of league play (should City hold on to their lead and win again this season, Guardiola will have won the league in nine of the 11 seasons he’s managed), to prove there is another, better way. Guardiola and City sought perfection and then attained it, and the Premier League will never be the same.