There is no precedent for City's dramatic rise to the top of English football. To stay there, the Blues will need to lay a stable foundation.There is no precedent for this. Even if you set aside for a moment the high drama of Manchester City’s first English league title since 1968, what the Citizens achieved on Sunday has never been done before.
During the modern era, no other club has risen to win one of the major European domestic league titles from a hopeless position so quickly. No club has spent so extravagantly and bought itself so many cosmetic upgrades so as to turn itself from lovable mid-table screw-ups – who were perhaps charmed to be even that – into a contender, then a powerhouse, and then a champion in as little time as City has.
In August 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group bought the club, which had finished between 8th and 16th in the six seasons it had spent in the top tier since getting promoted. In less than four years, City has won the most competitive league in the world. Along the way, there have been false starts, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on new players, many busts among them, and growing pains. Yet that coveted and all-important title was won.
The closest comparables are post-Roman Abramovich takeover Chelsea – which won a league title the second season after his June 2003 takeover – and Sergio Cragnotti’s 1990s Lazio, which he took control of in 1992 and won the Serie A title in 1999-2000. Yet both those clubs were already among their countries’ biggest by the time their angel investors-slash-sugar daddies showed up. City was not. City, while always well-supported, had much more ground to make up than Lazio or Chelsea, had to spend more excessively.
Since City is unique, there is also no precedent for what happens next. Chelsea has sustained its competitiveness, thanks chiefly to Abramovich’s endless cash injections. Lazio crumbled when Cragnotti ran into trouble soon after its Scudetto, forcing him to leave the club. Where City will fall on that spectrum depends on the attention span of the Abu Dhabi ownership, its real goals (Winning? Marketing? Advertising?) and when they will be achieved, and how robust its finances remain over the coming years – although the latter factor appears safe.
There is precedent for how to build a dynasty, however. City has to look no further than across town, to that trophy-hogging club it has finally dethroned, for now. In an interview in Boston last summer, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson told me what had formed the unshakable foundation of the dozen league titles and two Champions League trophies he has snapped up in just the last two decades: continuity and stability.
That should be the paradigm for City. As it tries to parlay its lone championship into something bigger and more enduring – a run as Europe’s best club now that the spot has been vacated by Barcelona perhaps – it will have to pursue these ideals with the gusto it chased the title with.
City’s league title-lifting may have been deserved and just, having proven itself the best, most consistent and most entertaining team of the season, but to call it a circus would be to flatter the mayhem that ruled Roberto Mancini’s locker room.
Between Carlos Tevez’s mutiny, Mario Balotelli’s folly and every other incident, accident, mishap and calamity, it’s a miracle that City’s rudderless ship got anywhere at all, let alone stayed afloat.
Counterintuitively, after years of hurtling forward, City will stagnate if it does so for any longer. The time has come to try to stand in place, to adopt and exude the calm that allows the truly big clubs to thrive. To allow its squad to build superior chemistry, to grow into a colossus, like United has so many times. The gap is bridged, the battle won. Now City must stand its ground.