MANCHESTER, England — It may actually turn out to be a positive for Manchester City that they were unable to clinch the Premier League title by beating Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium little more than a week ago.
As sweet as such a triumph would have been — United’s 3-2 win, after being 2-0 down, denied their neighbours the title that day — the emphasis placed on being crowned champions by defeating their bitter rivals might just have overshadowed the true magnitude of City’s third domestic championship in six years.
City’s supporters are now discovering that winning the title without even playing, courtesy of West Bromwich Albion’s unexpected 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Sunday, does nothing to diminish the joy of planting your flag at the summit while the rest look on enviously below you.
In truth, City have looked down on everyone this season virtually since the first ball was kicked last August. Their dominance of the title race has been so emphatic and convincing that every one of their so-called rivals has been beaten by City at least once, and none of them has been able to prevent Pep Guardiola’s team from winning the title with a month to spare.
Had they won it last week against United, that would have defined Guardiola’s first title, but City have been so much more than that this season, which is why the long-term uplift of sealing it as they have will do them no harm. It means we can now focus solely on the breathtaking football, the power and vision of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling’s development, Leroy Sane’s unstoppable surges down the left, Kyle Walker’s dominance of the right flank and Guardiola’s determination to win his way.
The debate will now rage as to whether this City team is the greatest the Premier League has ever produced, and it is one that has no undisputed answer, with the best teams of United, Arsenal and Chelsea all having their justifiable claim to that title. But what cannot be argued against are the records that City have smashed on their way to the title this season.
They set new English records by recording 18 consecutive league victories, 11 consecutive away wins and 20 successive wins in all competitions. Guardiola’s men also broke club records by going 28 games unbeaten in all competitions and, incorporating the end of last season, went 30 games unbeaten and recorded 20 consecutive wins at home.
By winning the title this weekend, they also equalled United’s record, set in 2000-01, by clinching it after 33 games. They are still on course to become the first club to hit 100 points in a Premier League season, breaking Chelsea’s 2004-05 record haul of 95 points in the process, and they are also in with a chance of surpassing Chelsea’s 2009-10 mark of 103 league goals in a season.
Wherever you look, City have broken records or stand on the verge of creating another. United’s record winning margin of 18 points, set in 1999-2000, is another that is within City’s reach.
Inevitably, it will be the failures of this City team that will irritate Guardiola and his players, at the same time offering the critics the opportunity to find fault.
The home defeat against United, which was sandwiched between the back-to-back Champions League quarterfinal losses to Liverpool, will be held up as a reminder that City can be beaten and perhaps even caught next season, while the FA Cup exit against Wigan Athletic may go down as the game that cost Guardiola and his team a domestic treble.
And Arsenal, in 2003-04, remain the only team to go through a Premier League season unbeaten, so there are some achievements that this City team has been unable to chalk off.
But the manner of their title confirmation is perhaps the best evidence of City’s quality and the shortcomings of their rivals.
They travelled to Tottenham on Saturday — an in-form Tottenham, unbeaten in the league since December — and tore them apart at Wembley. It was supposed to be a game that would see City stumble again and perhaps suffer a fourth successive defeat, yet they did what all great teams do by winning and winning well.
When the pressure was really on, City delivered, but the same could not be said of their rivals.
Liverpool may be flying now, but their early-season problems killed their challenge before it even began, while Arsenal and Chelsea have been out of the reckoning since the autumn.
Spurs showed flashes, and they might be the closest challengers next season, but they could not sustain it, while United’s Jekyll-and-Hyde season was summed up by their defeat against West Brom. Just a week after winning at City, Jose Mourinho’s team could not even avoid defeat against the Premier League’s bottom club to keep their neighbours waiting a while longer to claim the title.
Only time will tell how good this City team is, and whether they are the best we have ever seen in the Premier League, but one thing that cannot be denied is that they are the best we have right now — and by some distance.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_