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At Manchester City, Clinical Success Leaves Outsiders Cold

MANCHESTER, England — All that remains, now, is to fill in the final few administrative details. Manchester City may not need to kick another ball to claim the Premier League title for the third time in three seasons, should its last rival standing, Arsenal, slump to defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday.

Failing that, a single victory in City’s final three games should do it. Most likely, that will come against its first opponent: Chelsea, a team that now essentially functions both as City’s antithesis, chaotic proof that having money to burn is not enough to guarantee success.

In reality, of course, whichever scenario materializes will do nothing more than tie a bow on something that has been a fait accompli for some time. Quite where the turning point of this season came is open to interpretation. It may have been City’s dismantling of Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in February. Or its humbling of the same opponent at the Etihad Stadium two months later.

Pep Guardiola has suggested that neither moment is exactly right. Everything changed, he has said, with an impromptu meeting in the aftermath of a February draw with Nottingham Forest. That was the moment, the Manchester City manager either believes or wants to believe, that his players buckled down, took control, and bent the Premier League to their will.

Or, perhaps, none of that is true. Perhaps there is no turning point to identify. There is a very good chance that the season has simply ended the way it was always going to end, the way that Premier League seasons increasingly tend to end. Perhaps the outcome was preordained. Perhaps we all knew, deep down, how this was going to go.

Regardless, another item will be crossed off the Manchester City bucket list any day now. Only a handful of teams — four, to be precise — have ever won three English titles in a row: Huddersfield Town in the 1920s, Arsenal in the 1930s, Liverpool in the 1980s and Manchester United, twice, in the early part of this century.

It is an accomplishment that has, until now, been the exclusive preserve of only two managers: Herbert Chapman, with Huddersfield and Arsenal, and Alex Ferguson. (Liverpool changed its coach in the middle of its run.) It has long been seen as the ultimate threshold for greatness, the game’s undisputed pearly gate. Manchester City, and Guardiola himself, will now pass through it.

In doing so, City will have reached another milestone in what appears to be a deliberate campaign to build a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that this is the greatest club side England has ever produced.

Over the course of Guardiola’s six-year tenure, City has gobbled up every record it can find, etching its name at the top of almost every one of the sport’s statistical leader boards. It has the most points any team has ever collected in a season. And the most goals. It has won the most consecutive games in a campaign, and had the highest goal difference, and the biggest winning margin.

It was the first team to complete a clean sweep of all four domestic trophies. In Erling Haaland, it can lay claim to possessing the most prolific striker in a single Premier League season. At some point, it may not even need that caveat: Haaland has five games to score 12 goals and pass the all-time high-water mark. If he does not do it this year, he may well do it next.

Indeed, such is City’s domestic supremacy that it now has to search ever more distant horizons for other worlds to conquer. See off Manchester United in the F.A. Cup final and Inter Milan in the Champions League final and City would have its very own treble, that most fabled and hallowed accomplishment, something that has only happened once in English history.

After that, its ambitions turn to the faintly fantastical. No team has ever won four English titles in a row. Nobody has ever won seven competitions in a single year, or done a quadruple. No English side since Nottingham Forest has retained the European Cup. Perhaps City could try and become the first team to win a game in zero gravity, or while only using their left feet, or with a lineup comprised solely of people called Neil.

It has become a reflex to suggest that this is simply the nature of soccer. There is, as the former Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany put it, always an “ogre,” a team that sits at the top of the pile, that towers over the landscape, that sucks up all the oxygen. “It’s never been any different,” Kompany told The New York Times in an interview earlier this month. “Liverpool was an ogre. Manchester United was an ogre.”

There is some truth in that logic, but not the whole truth. In its years of plenty, in the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool was undeniably a rich club: In the years before broadcast revenue and television deals and money-spinning global tours, it had the one advantage available, that of being a big city team in a big city stadium.

But it was not drastically richer than most of its rivals. Its challengers were sometimes Manchester United and Leeds and Everton, but they were also Ipswich and Derby County and Nottingham Forest. The game’s hierarchy was much flatter, its stratification not nearly so ossified.

Twice, between 1977 and 1991, Liverpool held the British transfer record, but only for a sale: first Kevin Keegan to Hamburg, and then Ian Rush to Juventus. In that time, West Bromwich Albion, Wolves, Forest and City all spent more money on a player than anyone had previously. Liverpool did not break the £1 million barrier until 1987.

United’s primacy was much more modern, much more recognizable, built on the club’s commercial heft. It is worth parsing, though, one of the phrases that entered the sport’s lexicon during that period: Fergie Time, the idea that referees generally gave United as much time as required in a game to find a way to escape disappointment.

That was not true, of course. The reason United developed a reputation for late winning goals was because of the character and resilience of Ferguson’s immensely gifted team. But the idea stuck nonetheless.

United was the dominant team of its age. It was possible, though, for opposition fans to trick themselves into believing it was all down to luck, to the grace and favor of the powers that be, and that if only the fight was fair then United would receive its comeuppance.

The same cannot be said of Manchester City. All of those records, the monopoly it has started to exert on the game’s history, point to a type of hegemony that English soccer has not previously experienced. City has not just reconfigured what it takes to succeed in the Premier League, but redefined how the game thinks of excellence. Its dominance feels more extreme than anything that went before, largely because it is.

And yet the response to it has not been the loathing that was generated by Liverpool and United — an animus so potent that it has been passed down from one generation to the next — but a sort of acquiescence. Guardiola’s style of play is widely admired. The beauty of his team, the ingenuity of his ideas, draws fulsome and fawning praise.

The success of the club itself, though, feels somehow cold, clinical, detached. Manchester City has the air of a machine, both in the way the project has been constructed and the manner in which the team plays. It should not be a surprise, then, that it should elicit roughly the same emotional response. This is a state-backed enterprise of bottomless wealth and grandiose vision. It may not be easy to love, but it is even harder to resist.

City’s advantage is not, as is often lazily suggested, that it can spend more than anyone else, though few teams could afford the squad that Guardiola has at its disposal. Manchester United has frittered away hundreds of millions in the transfer market. Chelsea, too. Liverpool commits almost as much in salary to its squad.

The edge is in the consistency. City is rarely — if ever — forced to sell a player on anything other than its own terms. That is what separates it, as much as anything, from all of its peers. Plenty of clubs have a plan. City is the only one that has the privilege of seeing it through without the unwelcome intrusion of reality. It is a club that does not operate under the same pressures as everyone else.

That is not the same, though, as not playing by the same rules. It is a coincidence, doubtless, that the run of form that will end with Guardiola’s team claiming yet another title began after the club was charged with 115 counts of rules breaches — dating back over a decade, the whole span of its dominion — by the Premier League.

Those charges retain the capacity to alter, on some fundamental level, all of the mosts and firsts and bests that City has accrued over the years. The titles, the trophies, the records — they are all contingent on that case.

It is just about possible for fans, for the game, to swallow the idea that a club owned and operated for the purpose of furthering the interests of a nation state is acceptable. It is just about possible for the television networks and media outlets that rely on that rolling soap opera to wallow in whatever moral gray area they can find.

It would be much harder, though, to excuse and explain and — above all — to accept that one team felt that the rules it had signed up to did not really apply, to decide that it did not need to be subject to the same constraints as everyone else. Manchester City will claim a third title in three seasons. It is on the verge of a treble. It has written its name next to almost every record English soccer can offer.

What it has done, over these last few years, is plain for all to see. How it will be remembered is yet to be decided.

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