“The hardest thing is to maintain a level of success that keeps going year after year. There might be several factors involved in it. I have never looked back, always forward.”
Sir Alex Ferguson
Last season Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City staked their claim as one of the greatest teams English football has ever seen. With 100 points and 106 goals, the meticulous Spaniard’s methods saw records broken for the most points accrued in a top flight season, and the most goals scored in a 38 game top flight season. Some were even bold enough to claim that City had earned the status as the very best team the country has ever seen, such was their dominance. Even without taking the 103 years prior to the inauguration of the Premier League into account, there are at least two teams that might have something to say about that.
Since 1992, only two teams have won back-to-back Premier League titles. Chelsea, in the brave new world of the Roman Abramovich regime, managed it in 04/05 and 05/06, while Manchester United have done it six times in the last twenty-six years. While each league champion must be judged on their own merits - and undoubtedly City’s 17/18 victory sits alongside Arsenal’s unbeaten season as one of the great feats in the modern game - received wisdom suggests that, for a team to truly be held among the pantheon of greats, they must successfully defend their crown. Ahead of the 18/19 season most pundits had Guardiola’s side penned as eventual champions. The manner in which they won the league last season, finishing a staggering nineteen points ahead of second place, made them seem untouchable. Now, with just over half the season gone and with Liverpool sitting top of the pile, doubts have crept in. So what’s the secret behind retaining the Premier League title, and do Manchester City have what it takes to become back-to-back champions?
First, a history lesson. We tend to associate decades with dominant teams. The 1920s belonged to Herbert Chapman’s Huddersfield Town, before the trailblazing manager took his pioneering methods to Arsenal for a decade of dominance in the 30s. More recently Liverpool have laid claim to the 70s and 80s, while Manchester United became the team of the 90s. Despite this clutch of juggernauts, the English league title has only been retained twenty-five times in its 130 year history. Ironically, Preston North End won the First Division in its first two seasons, while Aston Villa followed suit with a pair of defences at the end of the 19th century. Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Arsenal, Portsmouth and Wolverhampton Wanderers all added their names to the illustrious list back in the sepia-tinged days of the mid-20th century, before Manchester United added to their back-to-back win in the 1950s by making title defences look easy at the beginning of the Premier League era.
“Sir Alex Ferguson made the observation that a ‘team’ lasts for about three years before it transitions again. If a club built a core as good as Manchester United’s during those years, and had a manager as effective as Ferguson, that might win them three league titles. If you look at La Liga you’ll see a Barcelona side capable of retaining the title for 2 or 3 years thanks to a strong core of club loyalists and a healthy and competitive squad.“
On average, the English league title has been retained once every five years. That figure is skewed by Manchester United’s haul of Premier League trophies of course, but it’s a far cry from the other top leagues in Europe. Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint Germain currently hold a monopoly over their respective divisions, save for the occasional surprise challenger, while Barcelona and Real Madrid regularly exchange the honour in La Liga. Curiously, as those contemporary leagues have become less competitive, the Premier League has lurched the other way, with no back-to-back winners since 2009. Indeed, across the 55 UEFA member nations, only one has failed to produce a defending champion in the last ten years. Should Manchester City fail to win it this year, it’ll be the first time since the 1960s that a full decade has passed without a team retaining the top flight trophy.
All of which suggests that, compared to its continental brethren, the Premier League offers more competition, making that second league win all the more difficult to achieve. That competition is often cited as the primary hurdle for sides failing to record successive first place finishes, and there is evidence to support the claim. In recent seasons both Leicester City, with their direct counter-attacking football, and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, whose 3-4-3 formation saw the league won at a canter before the world and his wife (and even Arsene Wenger) adopted the same setup, both stuttered in their bid to win a second title due to wiser opposition and increased competition. So far this season it seems Manchester City have suffered a similar fate. With their fearsome, one-touch, free-flowing attacking football last year, the best tactic opposition managers could come up with to counter Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side was to sit deep, defend, and hope to catch them on the break. As a result, City finished the season with an average possession percentage of 66.4, facing an average of just 6.2 shots per game. By the midway point of the season they’d accrued 55 points.
“Competition in the Premier League is definitely stronger, and managers are analyzing the weaknesses of the best teams at much improved rates, but the onus falls on the defending champions, really — they have their own standard to match, and recent ones have failed to do so. If their own benchmark is not met, champions will find it impossible to retain their title given how quickly the competition is evolving and improving.“
This season, City picked up where they left off, and emphatic victories over Huddersfield, Fulham, Cardiff, Burnley and Manchester United suggested that teams were yet to find a way to stem the sky blue tide. That was until December, when Chelsea condemned the champions to their first defeat of the season. Though Sarri is a manager that cherishes possession, he also recognises the importance of being effective with it, and the eight shots on goal that the Blues conjured up at Stamford Bridge brought two crucial goals. Crystal Palace used Chelsea’s game plan as a blueprint for their shock victory at the Etihad, scoring with all three shots on target, while Leicester City ensured Ederson was kept busy on Boxing Day by firing ten efforts at goal, scoring twice to earn a 2-1 win. In the corresponding fixtures last season, City had allowed just eleven shots on goal. This year, their three conquerors managed twenty-three. By the halfway point of the season, City’s average possession had dropped to 64.2%, whilst their defence had faced an average of 7 shots per game. Premier League titles are won and lost on such fine margins.
But it takes more than a few well-drilled teams to stop a side retaining the title. Perhaps the biggest hurdle Manchester City will have to overcome this season is the emergence of a serious challenger for their crown. Last year second placed Manchester United finished nineteen points behind City, and trailed by thirteen points at the halfway stage. This season, Liverpool were top coming into the new year with a seven point cushion. Depending on your outlook, the omens are both good and bad for the holders. No team has had more than City’s 47 points at the halfway stage and not gone on to retain the title. However it’s also the case that no team has been behind the eventual runners-up after nineteen games and gone on to retain the title. Manchester United trailed Liverpool at Christmas in the 96/97 season, but went on to comfortably win the league seven points ahead of Newcastle. In fact, only twice (07/08 and 08/09) has a team retained the title with a margin smaller than three points, as Chelsea pushed Manchester United all the way on both occasions.
Given their activity in the summer transfer market, it has come as no surprise that Liverpool have emerged as the main challengers to Manchester City’s crown this season. The £168m splashed out on Alisson Becker, Naby Keita, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri, combined with the £75m spent on Virgil van Dijk last January, has gone a long way to solving the persistent issues that have dogged Jurgen Klopp’s team for the past few years - namely a shaky backline and a lack of strength in depth. City, meanwhile, made just one major signing in the summer - the club record £60m purchase of Riyad Mahrez. Dipping into the transfer market off the back of a league win has often been a bone of contention, but when it comes to retaining the title should a manager stick or twist?
“In 2013 and 2015, City were hamstrung by poor transfer windows. They won the league and then didn’t improve the squad. In 12/13 the transfer business was that bad it was almost like self-sabotage. They brought in Jack Rodwell as their first signing on the day of the Community Shield, and followed it up with deadline day signings of the likes of Richard Wright and Scott Sinclair. In 2015 they faced an FFP punishment and had limited funds to spend - and then blew pretty much all of it on Eliaquim Mangala“
David, Blue Moon Podcast
In the first decade of the Premier League, Sir Alex Ferguson tended to stick with a winning formula. Having won the title in 92/93, Manchester United added one new face to their squad for the following season, signing Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest for a British record £3.75m. Blackburn Rovers, their closest challengers that season, were the busiest in the transfer market, spending £8.65m on the likes of Tim Flowers, David Batty and Kevin Gallacher, but still finished eight points behind Ferguson’s men. In 96/97, it was Newcastle’s turn to make a statement, breaking the world transfer record to bring Alan Shearer back to Tyneside for £15m, while reigning champions United spent half that amount on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Jordi Cruyff, Karel Poborsky and Ronnie Johnsen. Though not all were successful signings, Solskjaer in particular proved crucial in returning the Premier League trophy to Old Trafford.
The trend of low spending champions continued into the late 90s, as Ferguson continued to gently tweak his squad while Arsenal threw money around building the side that would eventually become the Invincibles. Roman’s rubles changed all that and, having won their first league title for fifty years, Jose Mourinho and Chelsea weren’t about to give it up easily, becoming the first back-to-back champions to outspend their rivals, with £50m bringing the likes of Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips to Stamford Bridge to bolster the Blues squad. Once United had wrested the trophy back from West London, Ferguson followed suit. In 07/08, £50m was spent to add silk and steel to the Red Devils’ midfield, as Owen Hargreaves, Anderson and Nani all arrived in the summer, while another £30m secured the services of Dimitar Berbatov the following year. On both occasions even the new money of Abramovich was unable to compete with United’s spending power. Relatively speaking, City have been passive in the transfer market this season. Whether that will cost them a second successive league win remains to be seen.
Without a collection of new recruits to fall back on, Guardiola must rely on the team that won the league last season, and it’s the make up of this squad that perhaps holds the key to retaining the league title. It’s no secret that, over the last decade, Khaldoon Al Mubarak and his associates have been attempting to build the most indomitable group of players the Premier League has ever seen, but beyond transfer fees, is there any evidence that City’s squad has what it takes to secure that second title?
“The biggest problem for City has been that element of complacency. Even in the first half of this season, you could argue that the players just haven’t hit the same heights after winning the title. Keeping the players motivated to outperform their previous best has been difficult.“
David, Blue Moon Podcast
Statistically, the make-up of the squad is ideal. Guardiola has a core of twenty players that are regularly given minutes, with a supporting cast of promising youngsters that can be relied on in the first team. Consistency in team selection is key, and since the Premier League began it’s rare to find back-to-back title winners using more than thirty players in a season - usually the preserve of crisis teams. Manchester United and Chelsea averaged around 27 players used when retaining the trophy. So far this season, City have used just 21 - the same as Liverpool - but once the Champions League returns in February this number is expected to rise.
Alongside strength in depth, experience is also cited as key to any title-winning team, but the suggestion that you’ll never win anything with kids is wide of the mark. Since Manchester United’s first back-to-back league win in 1994, every repeat champion has won their second title with a squad younger than their nearest challenger. The average age of United’s team in ’94 was just 24 years old, despite the experienced presence of Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce. In ’97, a year after Alan Hansen’s ill-fated judgement of Fergie’s Fledglings, the Class of 92 drove United to their second successful Premier League title defence, making up a squad with an average age of 23.2, a full two and a half years younger than Newcastle’s squad. At 26.3, the average age of City’s squad is older than previous back-to-back winners, but younger than Liverpool’s by four months.
Experience, though, comes in many forms. Not just in Teddy Sheringham’s crows feet or Ricardo Carvalho’s alarming hairline, but in being part of a winning team. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, winning was bred into Manchester United’s players and, after that first one-two, each of United’s subsequent defences were spearheaded by those who knew what it took to retain a league title. Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona were able to call on that experience in 96/97, a season that provided the same experience for David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Nevilles ahead of the 99/00 and 00/01 defences. When his squad looked short of the nerve and steel it took to win back-to-back titles, Ferguson brought in players like Edwin Van Der Sar who knew what was necessary to achieve the feat.
“A coach goes a long way in terms of refining the culture of a club, but instilling a deeply rooted win-at-all-costs mentality is a drawn-out process and Pep hasn’t been at City for long enough to do that.“
While Guardiola can call upon Claudio Bravo (Barcelona), Nicolas Otamendi and Danilo (both Porto) for successive title-winning experience, a big question mark remains over the mentality of Manchester City’s squad. At United, Ferguson was unafraid of casting his star players aside for the good of the team. In the season before he left Old Trafford, Ruud van Nistelrooy had scored 21 goals in the Premier League for United. After he was sold, the Red Devils won three league titles on the bounce. The element of fear instilled into his players helped Ferguson guard against complacency - something Guardiola has seemingly yet to master.
And what of the tiki-taka taskmaster? Does Pep have what it takes to become only the third manager in the Premier League era to win the league two seasons on the spin? His record in both Spain and Germany would suggest so, with the Catalan born coach winning three La Liga titles in three years with Barcelona, before repeating the feat with Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. Sceptics will point to the fact that the top flight in Spain and Germany is nowhere near as competitive as the Premier League, and the stats bear that out - La Liga has been retained 31 times in the post-war era, while the Bundesliga has seen 20 repeat champions since its induction in 1963 - but to suggest Guardiola is anything other than one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game is nonsense. On both occasions, the manager saw the importance of keeping his side’s approach fresh, swapping the pace of Samuel Eto’o for the physical presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the Camp Nou, before significantly weakening Bayern’s title rivals by poaching Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund. This season may be unchartered territory for the former Barcelona man, but there are few in the game you’d trust more to get the job done than he. The new year meeting with Liverpool provided a timely reminder that Manchester City’s manager can construct and execute a gameplan in high-pressure moments.
“If United were in City’s place behind Liverpool right now, I’d bet on us to win the League.“
In the most overhyped fixture in Premier League history since the last one, certain sections of the media were billing Liverpool’s trip to the Etihad as a title-decider. Admittedly, had Klopp’s side made the trip back down the M62 with a ten point lead over the champions, it would take a collapse of Steven Gerrard proportions for City to overhaul the Reds. In the event, the spoils from a frantic encounter fell Guardiola’s way. Permitting his players to cede possession to the visitors, and encouraging fierce, full-blooded attacking play paid off for the Spaniard, as City’s intensity and a sprinkling of luck saw Leroy Sane’s goal settle a chaotic contest. The dream of back-to-back league titles is back on, and only a fool would rule Manchester City out.
There may not be a defined recipe for retaining the title. Great teams full of great players trained by great coaches consistently win trophies, and City are undeniably formidable. What does seem clear is that the sustained periods of dominance we saw from Ferguson’s team in the 90s and Liverpool before them are over. With no end in sight to the money being pumped into the Premier League, the top four being extended to the top six, and a secondary league full of teams who can afford to splash the cash on talent, the only way to ensure a team remains on top is to constantly evolve. For now, Manchester City’s eyes remain firmly on the prize.
Thanks also to Invictus and Jojojo, staff writers from United forum RedCafe.net, for giving us the view from the red half of Manchester.