Manchester City are magnificent but struggle to match thrills of United’s treble | Jonathan Wilson

Manchester City are brilliant. They can win games with and without the ball. They can stifle teams with possession or eviscerate them on the counter. They can produce moments of breathtaking combination play but also have in Erling Haaland a centre-forward with a set of attributes, physical and technical, that has been seen only perhaps half a dozen times before. They are magnificent and seemingly on course for a treble. They are also a symptom of the financial structures that are destroying the game football was once understood to be.

The naive and the wilfully blind will say there have been dominant teams before, but not like this there haven’t. Assuming City do go on to win the Premier League, this will be the third time in English history a club have won five titles in six seasons: Liverpool did it between 1979 and 1984 and Manchester United between 1996 and 2001.

But Liverpool’s average points total over that six-year span, scaled down to a 20- rather than 22-team division and awarding three points for a win throughout, was 75.40. United’s over their six years of dominance was 80.67. City’s average, extrapolating this season pro rata to 89.48 points, is 91.25. Which is to say that City are 17.4% more dominant than the previously most dominant team in the history of England’s elite league.

Perhaps there is a significant constituency who do only want to see who the big boy will beat up this week – nobody, after all, ever went to the Colosseum wondering if the Christians might compete. “Couple of big names rested, Alan: any danger of complacency from the lions?” But this feels problematic.

City have spent wisely. There have been few missteps in terms of transfers. They identified the best manager in the world, employed him and built the club to his specification. They are that rarest of things in football: rich and clever. Even then, when at some point Pep Guardiola leaves, a downturn is likely. For now, though, the combination of a deep and richly talented squad and a tactically imaginative coach has produced a team that are essentially untouchable.

When United won the treble in 1998-99 there was the sense they could slip up at any time. Late comebacks became a defining theme. To be sure, rivals and neutrals found their continued success aggravating but there was an undeniable sense of excitement.

FA Cup games such as their fourth-round win over Liverpool (Dwight Yorke 88, Ole Gunnar Solskjær 90) and their semi-final replay victory over Arsenal (Roy Keane’s red card, Dennis Bergkamp’s missed penalty, Ryan Giggs’s goal) remain classics.

Does anybody, even now, remember that without an effort City beat Chelsea and Arsenal in the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup? A Manchester derby in the final, the chance for United to be the treble-deniers, just as they denied Liverpool in 1976-77, perhaps holds the possibility of a historic encounter, but only if United find a new level in the next five weeks.

United’s final 15-game Premiership surge in 1998-99 featured only three wins by more than a single goal. City still have seven of their final 15 games to play but have already won six by more than a single goal, including Wednesday’s title showdown, in which they were wholly dominant. The title is likely to be confirmed three or four games from the end of the season – and that despite Arsenal having an exceptional campaign.

In the late 90s, Europe still had the nature of a quest for English teams. By the time United won the Champions League, there had been 15 years without an English winner. The group games against Barcelona, the wins over Internazionale and Juventus, even before the characteristically dramatic victory over Bayern Munich in the final, all had a sense of the epic.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær lifts the European Cup in 1999.
Manchester City may match Manchester United of 1999 for trophies, but never for drama. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Does anybody other than City fans recall any of their group games this season? Haaland’s five goals in the last-16 victory over RB Leipzig were eye-catching, but the game never felt like a serious contest. Even Bayern were cuffed aside 3-0 in the first leg.

Real Madrid, of course, should represent a proper challenge in the semi-final. If they are not, there is a serious danger that the fulfilment of City’s owners’ European dream comes without real jeopardy. To ask for a repeat of the Sergio Agüero moment that sealed a first Premier League title in 2012 is perhaps too much, but City could do with something that will lodge in the neutral’s memory. Glory, after all, lies not merely in excellence but in drama.

Which is to say what? That City are too good to be loved? Perhaps. It’s not their fault that it has become customary to field weakened sides in the FA Cup. Nor is it their fault that the Premier League’s broadcast revenues allowed it to ride out the pandemic better than Europe’s other leagues, with the result that six of the continent’s 10 richest clubs are based in England. They are now benefiting from the rich-get-richer model Europe’s elite clubs instituted to satisfy their own greed, a mindset that now has Aleksandar Ceferin, the Uefa president, imagining Champions League finals played in other continents, of clubs as essentially global franchises.

The story of City’s disruption of that model, meanwhile, remains shrouded in Premier League charges of 101 breaches of competition rules. “Repressive state throws money at project in a perfectly legal way until it crushes opponents” doesn’t sound much like the inspiring sporting fables of old.

The Premier League’s unique selling point among Europe’s big five leagues used to be its competitiveness. Below City, to an extent, it still is. But it is in danger of tipping into Ligue 1 or Bundesliga territory.

Perhaps Newcastle, another state-backed side, will become notable rivals – which presents problems of its own, not only for ethical reasons given the nature of the states involved, but because state clubs are essentially unable to be regulated. If football’s authorities struggled to deal with the Oystons at Blackpool, you can’t expect them to deal with the House of Saud.

And if another competition is transformed into a monopoly, what purpose is served by defending domestic leagues? If the current model is broken, why not try a new one?