City’s mismatch of an FA Cup final with Watford highlights need for change | Football
Goals! Goals! Goals! Trophies everywhere. Manchester City were brilliant on Saturday, relentless and remorseless and thoroughly deserving of equalling the record-ever margin of victory in an FA Cup final. The domestic treble is unprecedented and so too is the quality of their football: 169 goals in 61 games in all competitions, 11 times they have scored five or more in a game this season. And yet, and yet …
It is not just that this feels so unlike City, not just that it feels a few episodes have been skipped in a satisfying character arc from likeable buffoons to ruthless killing machine, it is that this felt so unlike a Cup final. In terms of competitiveness, you may as well have placed a yellow-and-black blancmange in the middle of pitch and smashed it with a sky blue oar.
This is City’s problem. They are too good – and that has brought to the surface concerns about their ownership and financing that perhaps should have been more prominent earlier. There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola makes players better, and there is no doubt that City have spent their money incredibly efficiently. But equally the scale and source of those resources is something unprecedented – even if the latest Uefa investigation does not prove wrongdoing. Saturday’s final was not a game; it was a strangely gruesome exhibition.
There is no point pretending any more. Watford may have finished 11th in the Premier League but they were 48 points adrift of the champions. City and Watford are not playing the same game any more. It is true this was only the joint biggest win in an FA Cup final but Bury in 1903 had not just won the league, had not just collected 198 points across two Premier League seasons and were not funded by the sovereign wealth of an emirate. Bury, in fact, have not won a trophy since; it seems very unlikely City are about to embark on 116 years of hurt. Their situations are not comparable.
Football is broken. It is not just that Watford have lost their last 11 games against City, that they have not beaten them in 30 years, it is that without major structural changes in the finances of the game, or the arrival at Vicarage Road of a sheik, oligarch or nation state looking to enhance its global reputation, there is no prospect of them being able to challenge over any sort of sustained period.
There have always been big clubs before, rich clubs, but never clubs whose status at the top of the game is so systemically secure. In 67 Premier League games this season one side had 70% possession or more; 15 years ago there was one. That is one in six games that are not in any meaningful sense a contest. Yes, no empire lasts for ever. Yes, City may falter. And, yes, there is something a little unfair that City’s very excellence is what makes these concerns so pressing. If anything, Clive, they have used their resources too well.
But Saturday was miserable, the traditional showpiece of the English season reduced to a grim parade, devoid of any drama, there to satisfy the propaganda wing of a faraway regime. Perhaps some people enjoy watching eviscerations like this: Romans, after all, flocked to the Colosseum for fixtures between lions and Christians that were only marginally less one-sided than this. But even City fans did not seem particularly enthused, grumbling on the underground about a fifth trip to Wembley this season and cheering goals with the weary satisfaction that used to be reserved for a top-flight team battering a minnow in the third round.
Maybe there is some pleasure to be derived from watching masters at work, whatever the profession – and City are masters, it is just that in games like Saturday’s it feels a pointless virtuosity. Abattoirs, perhaps, should fling their doors open. Roll up! Roll up! Watch the greatest butchers in all of Europe slice the carcass!
The gulf between the elite and the rest has never been as defined as this. It is not just City; it is not just England. Bayern Munich wrapped up the Bundesliga title on Saturday to mean that, for the first time in history, the league title in each of Europe’s big five leagues has been retained. At least in the Premier League it is the first time since 2009; there is at least a notional six challengers. Elsewhere, retention has become the norm.
There comes a time at which you have to step back and say this is pointless. Teams such as Watford should not just be patsies.
They and their fans deserve better than to be mice tossed into the tank for the python to feast upon. The disparities in wealth are going to get bigger from next season as the richer clubs receive a greater share of overseas television rights, and they are almost certain to grow even more when the Champions League is revamped from 2024.
Greed has won, big finance has won. Whatever small role elite clubs still play in the local communities from which they grew is dwarfed now by their position as global brands. It is desperately sad to say it but if the future is more mismatches like Saturday’s, or the sort of coronation procession that so many leagues have now become, maybe the least bad solution is just to let them go, let them have their super league.