There are five matches yet to contest before this campaign officially ends but Manchester City have already claimed the Premier League title and can legitimately regard themselves as favourites for next season’s trophy already.
Pep Guardiola’s outfit boast quality across the field, tactical coherence in the dugout and a great deal more stability than any of the other contending clubs.
Guardiola has channelled last season’s frustrations, from errant goalkeeping to wayward finishing, into a blueprint for success. His principles remain unaltered but there is a distinct aggression in how City have been playing this season. It has paid off.
His players have finally got up to speed with his methods; indeed a source close to Pep said last year it would be March 2018 before we saw the ‘real’ Manchester City. It came in ahead of schedule. Guardiola’s team broke all manner of records down throughout the season and once they went top they never looked like relinquishing it. Last week's derby defeat to Manchester United merely delayed the inevitable.
The manager has total mastery of his squad and has got total adherence from his players to his philosophies. Guardiola has convinced his men that his way is best and he has done it through delivering two trophies for them this season. There is a unity of purpose at the club – all pulling in the same direction under the boss.
And Guardiola’s own position is unassailable. Two years into a three-year deal, he is widely expected to put pen-to-paper on a contract extension that will see him stay at City perhaps longer than he has been at any other club.
Accordingly, City can plan for the long-term. He brought the average squad age right down last summer in hiring players like Ederson and Benjamin Mendy while releasing veterans like Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta. That trend will only continue. These younger players – whether in their peak years or merely approaching them – want to work for Guardiola and are prepared to pledge their futures to him.
Anyone else that fancies it – and if Pep fancies them – can be summoned easily such is the dominance of the transfer market City enjoy. In short, there are none of the serious issues at City that are apparent at other teams.
For example, Jose Mourinho believes Manchester United need major constructive surgery – again – in the transfer window to keep step with City. The win against City followed by defeat to basement-dwellers West Brom confirmed the alarming lack of consistency in his squad. But how easily will those required players come and are there any guarantees of success? The plight of Paul Pogba suggests not.
Moreover, Mourinho is entering his crucial third season at Old Trafford, a milestone which at other clubs has brought chaos and decay. Are there any guarantees that Jose is there for the long term? And if not, how long will it be until United are back among the elites if they have to again rebuild under a new regime?
Defending champions Chelsea, meanwhile, appear destined for another major overhaul, FA Cup success or not. Their damaging defeat to Tottenham on Easter Sunday all but put them out of contention for a Champions League place and left significant question marks over the future of Antonio Conte. A new coach and new players now seem destined to arrive in summer.
Whether they can hang on to key performers like Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois is another question that needs answering. And whichever coach comes in will have to get used to working with the kind of constraints in the transfer market that wore down Conte.
Meanwhile, Spurs might well be establishing themselves among the elite but their wage structure could stand in the way of any further progress. Top performers like Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen know they could earn lots more money elsewhere but for now remain committed to Mauricio Pochettino’s project.
Spurs’s parsimony makes it difficult to attract players like Pogba and Alexis Sanchez – right at the top bracket – while a lack of genuine on-field success could lead to an exodus of key players. Defeats to City, twice, United, Arsenal and Chelsea show that when it comes to going toe-to-toe with teams in the top six, Spurs still have a way to go.
Liverpool, for all their might, appear to be in a position where they can only sign one superstar player by selling another. Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk have been added at considerable expense but Philippe Coutinho had to walk out the door for those deals to happen.
Jurgen Klopp is doing a fine job under the circumstances and that should be acknowledged. The elimination of City from the Champions League is testament to his hard work. But Liverpool are not prepared to sustain a title challenge due to shallow squad depth. Unless owners FSG come up with more cash to back their manager, then the Reds can forget about challenging City on the home front.
And what of Arsenal? They, more than any other team, look set for changes. The likes of Huss Fahmy, Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi have been added to the backroom in preparation for Arsene Wenger’s eventual departure but the club are still a long way away from being among the top teams in the country.
They are not yet guaranteed Champions League football next season with Atletico Madrid lying in wait in the Europa League and have already lost Alexis through their own failures. They are simply not equipped to stand with City in the short term.
So, in this context, City already have a head start. They are better on the field and off and ready to go again.
You could argue that this iteration of the club was designed specifically with Guardiola in mind once his fellow Catalans - chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain - were installed in 2012. City had to play the waiting game as Pep saw out three seasons at Bayern Munich but they eventually got their man.
It’s been a long time coming but we could be about to see the Pep era loom into view.