Runaway leaders Manchester City are off to the best ever English league start with 52 points off 18 games, as of last weekend. By the time you read this, City’s home game against Bournemouth would already have taken place, and if all goes according to plan, they should have 55 points out of 19 — which would beat the previous half-way record of 52 points held by the 2005/06 Chelsea side under Jose Mourinho. Of course, a draw would’ve sufficed for Guardiola’s side yesterday as well.
After beating Manchester United — the team closest to them in the league, already 11 points adrift, two weeks ago — and then overpowering Tottenham Hotspurs last weekend, the talk no longer is whether City would win the league. The debate now is what records this side would set and just how great this team is.
There are two prominent questions as things stand. First, is this team the greatest ever Premier League side? Second, is this the greatest ever Pep Guardiola side?
While both these questions would only be answered in May, let’s take a look at what might need to happen for both, or either, to be answered in affirmative.
City are competing with four Premier League era sides for the greatest ever crown: Manchester United 1998/1999, Arsenal 2003/04, Chelsea 2004/05 and Manchester United 2007/08.
The question of greatest ever has further sub-categories. Are we talking about the team’s overall performance in the league or all competitions in a given season? Or is it about a team across all competitions and multiple seasons?
For the latter, the benchmarks would be Manchester United 1998-2001, Chelsea 2004-2006 and Manchester United 2006-2009. But since we’re in the middle of what looks like the first league win for Guardiola in England, the argument would be limited to one season performances.
For a single season, the aforementioned four teams have four different claims to fame.
The United batch of 1999 won the treble, which is one trophy more than the 2008 batch, hence in terms of silverware puts the latter out of the debate.
The Chelsea team of 2005 holds the record for the most points in a single Premier League season with 95 points, which on current form City could romp over.
It is the achievements of Arsenal’s Invincibles in 2004 that is deemed by many as the greatest ever league performance, considering that they remain the only side to have gone unbeaten throughout the season.
So the task for City is simple: remain unbeaten in the second half, get more points than 95 — ideally overcome the 100-point barrier — and match United’s treble, and they would be the undisputed greatest Premier League side ever.
But of course it’s really not that simple at all.
“That is not going to happen. Of course not. What we’re living isn’t real,” Guardiola said on Tuesday after being asked if City could achieve the quadruple — league, Champions League, FA and EFL Cup — which is yet to be pulled off by an English side.
But yes, matching or overcoming the claims to fame of any of the aforementioned three sides would put City very much in contention for all-time greatness come May.
Now to the slightly more complex question: could this turn out to be the greatest ever Guardiola side?
City’s 52 points in 18 games is Guardiola’s best ever league start, three points more than Barcelona 2010/11 and Bayern 2005/16.
The two best Guardiola sides — also hailed by many as among, if not the best ever league teams — are Barcelona 2008/09, which won the treble, and Barcelona 2010/11, which won the league and cup double, but played a brand of football that was the culmination of everything that Pep ideologically stands for in football.
Needless to say, any claims to be Guardiola’s best ever side would be hollow without a Champions League win, which is what hampered his tenure in Germany, where he actually won the league in all three seasons with Bayern Munich, two of which culminated in league and cup doubles.
And so, where double winning sides failed to live with the two Barcelona teams that were comfortably the greatest sides of modern times — if not all time — it is absolutely premature to compare this half-a-season old City squad that is yet to win anything.
Even so, this City team has one factor which, if coupled with success in the latter half of the season, could see it overcome the previous English clubs and sides that Guardiola has managed — in terms of the sheer magnitude of their achievements, if not pedigree.
First, the teams managed by Guardiola thus far were finished products in their own rights — that’s an important reason why he won the treble in his very first season with Barcelona and won Bundesliga with Bayern in all three seasons — whereas this City team has been clearly constructed by him, albeit not from starch and with a very generous budget.
Second, the core of this City team is youthful, and hence unlike Barca and Bayern where he had multiple global superstars at his disposal — not to mention a certain Messi-Xavi-Iniesta troika — in Manchester he is elevating the pedigree of his troops, and creating superstars.
Hence, it’s safe to say that a Champions League win for this Manchester City team would be Guardiola’s greatest achievement. And if they manage to replicate the league form in the second half, Manchester City could carve out a dynasty in England and Europe over the next couple of years, which would be well and truly founded by Pep Guardiola.