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Is this Man City team the Premier League's greatest ever?

By Alex Keble 20 May 2024
Man City cele

Alex Keble looks at how Guardiola's newly-crowned champions compare to previous title-winning sides

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Alex Keble analyses why Manchester City's 2023/24 title-winning team could be the greatest ever Premier League champions.

Manchester City have become the first team in 135 years of English football history to win four consecutive top-flight titles. Of all the records Pep Guardiola has broken, this is surely his best.

2023/24 Champions

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Man City MCI 38 +62 91
2 Arsenal ARS 38 +62 89

Sunderland and Aston Villa in the 1890s; Huddersfield Town in the 1920s; Arsenal in the 1930s, Manchester United in the 1960s; Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s; Man Utd in the 1990s and 2000s - not one of them did what Man City have done.

But does it make them the greatest ever Premier League team?

Man City’s seven-year brilliance comes from constant evolution

Guardiola has won six of the last seven Premier League titles, with tweaks and mini-rebuilds, the secret to his longevity at the top in English football.

In that period, Liverpool have had at least one major overhaul. Arsenal have been through all kinds of iterations. Chelsea have experienced so many cycles that Antonio Conte’s title-winning season feels like decades ago, yet it actually coincided with Guardiola’s first year in England.

Man City have changed a lot in that time too, but only ever in gradual steps.

The transition from the Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling years, through the Ilkay Gundogan-led period to the four-centre-back City we see today, has been seamless and almost imperceptible, to the extent that we can say Man City’s last eight years constitutes a single era.

And what an era it has been. Leaving out the first year when City came third, on average: 91.1 points, 96.4 goals, 30.0 goals conceded, 4.6 defeats, and a 75.9 per cent win percentage per season in the Premier League. Seventeen trophies won, including the Treble in 2023, plus a domestic Treble in 2019, and Double in 2023.

Here’s how it compares to the great Premier League teams of the past.

Man Utd 1998-2001: Treble winners were tactical innovators too

The only other English side to win the Treble – Premier League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League – were Man Utd in 1999, who also lifted the title in the following two seasons.

By statistical measures they do not stand up to Guardiola’s City on any count other than, perhaps surprisingly, their number of defeats, which average at 4.0 per season compared to Man City’s 4.6.

Ferguson's Man Utd v Guardiola's Man City
Stat Man Utd
1998-2001
Man City
2017-2024
Ave. points 83.3 91.1
Win % 64.9% 75.9%
Ave. defeats 4.0 4.6
Ave. goals for 85.3 96.4
Ave. goals against 37.7 30.0
Ave. trophies 2.0 2.4

But any comparison between City and other great teams should also include subjective judgement.

Man Utd’s Treble was unprecedented. They were the first club from Europe’s “Big Five” leagues to win the Treble, a feat unthinkable at the time.

That it has been achieved six times since – by Man City, Bayern Munich (twice), Barcelona (twice), and Real Madrid – indicates that in the age of the “Super Club”, when a small number of European teams dominate their domestic leagues, it has become easier to do.

What’s more, this Man Utd team were arguably as innovative as Guardiola’s City.

Patient in possession

As Michael Cox explains in his book “The Mixer: The Story of Premier League”, tactical ideas in mainland Europe were well ahead of England in the 1990s and Man Utd’s Champions League excursions - back when only the champions qualified - gave Sir Alex Ferguson unique access to them.

United became more patient in possession where the rest of the Premier League was still in a phase of bruising midfield battles, while what modern eyes would see as minor tactical tweaks - David Beckham tucking inside from the right, Ryan Giggs bursting forward from the left - were major breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Man Utd only had one competitor at the time (Arsenal were runners-up in all three seasons) while Man City have seen off Liverpool and Arsenal in this period.

Man City are surely technically superior to this United team and won more, too. But the way Ferguson broke new ground, both tactically and by winning the Treble, makes a strong case.

Arsenal 2001-2004: Wenger’s team still stands alone as Invincibles

The pinnacle of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal was between 2001 and 2004, beginning with a Premier League and FA Cup Double (which included going unbeaten away from home) and ending with their never-equalled “Invincible” season.

On raw numbers, this doesn’t compare to Man City under Guardiola, aside from number of defeats.

Wenger's Arsenal v Guardiola's Man City
Stat Arsenal
2001-2004
Man City
2017-2024
Ave. points 85.0 91.1
Win % 65.7% 75.9%
Ave. defeats 3.0 4.6
Ave. goals for 79.0 96.4
Ave. goals against 34.7 30.0
Ave. trophies 1.7 2.4

But to have gone an entire 38-match season without losing a single game (and 49 in total, ending in October 2004) is an astonishing feat, still unmatched in England. Not even Guardiola’s Man City at their peak managed that.

And they did it in style. The team including Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira, was beautiful to watch, bringing an aesthetic flair to English football that has arguably never been bettered.

To combine the psychological strength required to go unbeaten with such technical artistry is reason to call this Arsenal team the Premier League’s best-ever, although failing to win the title in 2002/03 is an obvious mark against.

The quality of their competition is another. Man Utd were in a relative fallow period, and in the two seasons Arsenal won the title Liverpool, with 80 points, and Chelsea, with 79, were hardly menacing adversaries.

Comparing them to Guardiola’s Man City is a question of aesthetics. City have won more, and won more consistently. For some that makes them categorically better. Others, not least Wenger himself, would prioritise beauty over raw output.

Chelsea 2004-2006: Mourinho’s defence was a different kind of masterpiece

Chelsea’s back-to-back Premier League titles in 2004/05 and 2005/06 with Jose Mourinho were two of the most dominant seasons in the competition’s history.

Both titles were won with more than 90 points - the first this had happened in consecutive years - while Chelsea’s incredible defensive performance in that first season, conceding 15 goals, remains the Premier League record.

It might come as a surprise to learn that Mourinho’s 2004-2006 Chelsea team averaged more points and a higher win percentage than Guardiola’s Man City of 2017-2024.

Mourinho's Chelsea v Guardiola's Man City
Stat Chelsea
2004-2006
Man City
2017-2024
Ave. points 93.0 91.1
Win % 76.3% 75.9%
Ave. defeats 3.0 4.6
Ave. goals for 72.0 96.4
Ave. goals against 18.5 30.0
Ave. trophies 1.5 2.4

Mourinho’s arrival in England was an explosion. He began as he meant to go on with that iconic “Special One” line at his unveiling, and for the next three years the Premier League was swept up in the charisma, controversy, and genius of a Chelsea manager who changed English football.

Defence-first football

The 2004/05 season was the pinnacle. John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, and Petr Cech formed a partnership that conceded a mere 15 goals, won 95 points, and were only a single defeat short of an invincible campaign.

The next half-decade would be dominated by cautious defence-first football, with Liverpool’s Rafael Benitez helping to influence Ferguson’s Man Utd until it felt like every year the Champions League’s latter stages were 0-0 draws between English giants.

That, perhaps, is a mark against this Chelsea team when comparing it to Guardiola’s Man City, who have been far more entertaining. What’s more, Mourinho’s side only won one EFL Cup to go with those two Premier League titles.

However, Mourinho more-or-less introduced England to the 4-3-3. He gave us the “Claude Makelele role”. More importantly, he was the first genuine tactician to win the title; the first person to obsess over the details and devise specific instructions to counteract opposition strengths and punish their flaws.

In many respects he is Guardiola’s antithesis. They are perhaps too radically opposed for direct comparison.

Liverpool 2018-2022: Can runners-up really be one of the best?

A straight toss-up between Guardiola’s Man City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool only gives one result. They went head-to-head, after all, and clearly over the years City have come out on top.

But any conversation about the best-ever Premier League teams has to include Klopp’s peak years which, forgetting their trophy count for a moment, were astonishingly good.

 Guardiola's Man City v Klopp's Liverpool
Stat Liverpool
2018-2022
Man City
2017-2024
Ave. points 89.3 91.1
Win % 72.4% 75.9%
Ave. defeats 3.8 4.6
Ave. goals for 84.3 96.4
Ave. goals against 30.8 30.0
Ave. trophies 1.5 2.4

In 2018/19 they won 97 points, which remains the fourth-highest total of all time. Had they drawn with Man City in the 2-1 defeat at the Etihad Stadium when at 0-0 John Stones cleared the ball off the line with 1.12cm to spare, they would have won the league, topped 100 points, and been invincible.

John Stones goalline clearance v Liverpool 2019

The following year they claimed their first title in 30 years, winning 26 and drawing one of the first 27 games of the season. By February 2020, their form when put together with 2018/19 read: 56 wins, 8 draws, and 1 defeat from their previous 65 Premier League matches.

Nobody else has come near such absurd levels of domination.

Liverpool went close again in 2021/22, when 92 points wasn’t enough to win the title, even with Aston Villa 2-0 up at Man City with 15 minutes to go on the final day.

Coming agonisingly close on so many occasions must still hurt. They won seven trophies under Klopp, but came runners-up twice on 90+ points and lost two Champions League finals.

Those silver medals mean Man City 2017-2024 should be crowned the better team.

Guardiola’s revolution still tops the lot

The stats tell us Man City are at least as good as any of the other greats, and of course they get extra points for sustaining it over seven seasons. Each of the teams compared here were a maximum of three.

That alone is probably enough to crown them the best the Premier League has ever seen - but there is one factor we are yet to consider that surely puts Man City over the top.

Guardiola has revolutionised English football like nobody else before him. From the way we think about football to the tactical foundations supporters expect from their teams, from his disciples who now litter the division (Arteta chief among them) to fashion choices on the touchline, we are living in Guardiola’s world.

So overwhelming is his influence on the Premier League we have stopped noticing it. “Positional play” - football tactics defined by strict positional instructions when in possession - is so universal as to be the air we breathe. 

Here is final evidence that his Man City achievements - the four in a row, the Treble, the six titles in seven years - represent a new highpoint in the Premier League era.

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