Why is this the first Manchester City and Chelsea title race?

James Dutton looks at why it has taken so long for Manchester City and Chelsea to dominate the Premier League, before drawing some links to the Dark Knight Trilogy…

I was asked a question on a recent uMAXit podcast episode by Raj Bains which momentarily threw me a little bit. Written down the question reads:

“Can you see other teams growing to become a larger part of the conversation next season? Or is our title now just a competition between Sheikh and oligarch?”

This threw me in the sense that the answer was, pretty obviously, an unequivocal yes to the latter part. Which led me to wonder why, in 2015, has this only just become the case, where it’s very difficult to argue a case for the next Premier League champions to not be owned by a sheikh or an oligarch?

Why has it taken the best part of seven years for it to be the case that the two richest clubs in the league are unequivocally significantly better-equipped and now destined to carve up the next five league titles between themselves? It says as much about the sheer force of will of Sir Alex Ferguson to sustain Manchester United up until his retirement, and the freak of nature that was Liverpool’s 2013-14 season, as it does the failure of the two super-clubs to stamp down their muscle.

The relationship between money and success in football has become a no-brainer in modern times, and Paul Tomkins leads the research in arguing that there is a direct correlation. A quick look at two graphs produced for an article from November last year titled “Why Liverpool Never Win the League” show that distinct relationship between average cost of first elevens and squads to league positions.



It demonstrates how far ahead of the curve Chelsea and Man City have reached, to the extent that Financial Fair Play merely maintains the status quo rather than sparking a bottom-up revolution. It shows too why Man United’s recent dip would have to become a prolonged malaise for them to disappear from the title conversation in the next few years.

For Liverpool and Arsenal, it illustrates how much thinking outside of the box they have to do to compete. If you play them at their own game, you will lose. On The Anfield Wrap podcast Neil Atkinson bangs on every week about buying goals, about improving your performance in both boxes being the only way to compete with the two behemoths at the top. It’s a fundamentalist view point but not without merit.

That is how Liverpool got so close last season, by design or by accident, by playing by their own rules and their own way. Sacrificing solidity for goals. It very nearly worked, while Brendan Rodgers’ attempt to normalise Liverpool earlier in the season by sacrificing goals for solidity failed spectacularly. Over in Spain, Atletico Madrid continue to defy the odds and the suffocating effects of Real Madrid and Barcelona on the rest of the league. That is a remarkable story that shows no signs of slowing down, if the two-legged Copa del Rey victory over Real is any indicator.

But closer to home, the Premier League has thus far resisted the threat of becoming a duopoly in the sense that, traditionally, the Scottish Premier League and La Liga have been. Now, though, is Year Zero. But back to that question – why has it taken this long?

The inevitability of Manchester City’s first Premier League title was an accepted truth come the morning of Tuesday 2 September, 2008, with the pockets of Abu Dhabi United Group £30million lighter but the club a Robinho greater. Those first few transitional seasons were textbook in learning courses; prizing the best talent from league rivals in the hope of usurping them, before the continental plunge.

It was Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. Though instead of traveling the world to learn new skills and abilities to confront injustice, the club have travelled the world to find new ways of beating loopholes in Financial Fair Play and third party ownership. Those years of learning what it takes to be a big club in English football have resulted not just in a Premier League title but the plans for a £200million state-of-the-art academy – their very own Batcave.

You don’t arrive organically at the finished article overnight – Bruce Wayne didn’t become Batman upon leaving Gotham, or from finishing his training with Ra’s al Ghul, but after that. Just like City’s metamorphosis into the club they are today took planning and stages. In 2008 the Champions League cartel of Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal was at its strongest – City could not expect to break that up without years of hard work – and despite Liverpool’s fall it was not they who initially profited.

The short-term prospects may be scratchy, with an ageing squad with a questionable mentality and a faltering title bid, but if they can crack Europe this season in the same way Batman cracked the mafia mob, then the long-term prospects will surely improve.


For Chelsea the path since 2008, and during City’s nascent years of wealth, has been a story of success, regression and a rise again back from the dead. The rise of Manchester City was one of their own creation, like the Joker was a creation of Batman’s, whilst the heavy spending of Roman Abramovich’s early years led to a natural winding back between 2009 and 2012.

Burned by the effects of their own success they were like Bruce Wayne at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises – the wilderness years – withdrawn from public life and frivolous spending. Chelsea were directionless in the transfer market and rudderless behind the scenes, lurching from one managerial project to the next but retaining the mentality and reputation that had been moulded during the Jose Mourinho years, like Wayne holed up in his Manor.

Stung into action by the consequences that could have befallen them when they finished sixth in 2012 – like Bruce Wayne when Bane bankrupt Wayne Enterprises – player recruitment has been hugely successful since, and a sense of long-term direction behind the scenes restored. Whether the effects of their return to the top of the pyramid in English football will lead one of John Terry, Abramovich or Mourinho to fake their own death and live in self-exile remains to be seen.

While the tenuous links to Christopher Nolan’s character development of Bruce Wayne during the Dark Knight Trilogy may end there, and while Chelsea and Manchester City’s respective rises to the top have encountered more resistance than they expected, few can deny they both sit on the cusp of dominating English football.

Behind the scenes both clubs have long-term security and a system in place to bear the fruits of wise investment. People scoffed at Manchester City’s “holistic” approach to managerial recruitment in 2013, but their new academy is the embodiment of that blueprint. Like Batman they may prove susceptible in the short-term to the clever tactics of clubs immediately beneath them, but they will ultimately have the last laugh.

@jrgdutton; @The_False_Nine

3 thoughts on “Why is this the first Manchester City and Chelsea title race?

  1. great read, nice batcave analogy! ffp is a thing of interpretation and will be probably remoulded again if we really do end up with a stultifying duopoly that needs ‘breaking up’ in some way (non-Big Four Fans werent too keen on the champions league cartel that persisted before 2008 either)

    relating to the emerging duopoly – old factors such as the strengths and will of the manager will still apply. hence, no serious chelsea title bid until mourinho is back. and there are certain players that can’t be replaced like-for-like. city will find that as likes of toure enter their twilight/look for a last payday

    united will be able to spend what they like and will always be able to attract players that will help them challenge for titles

    liverpool were very much an outlier in terms of approach last season but here, too, you would expect more sustainable challenges

    arsenal will aways have a say given their scaled up Emirates operation but are arguably where utd are at end of ferguson era; anxious over the next manager. wenger too has a big say in club and that could affect the next appointment in a good or bad way

    both city and chelsea have business models that are not viable if they dont make the top four at a minimum, and the top 2 (with a proper euro campaign thrown in) as a preference. both owners’ investments are bound up in non-football, ‘soft power’ factors but if either of their fortunes declined would they want to be associated with a waning force? so in a way, the stakes are higher for their clubs’ suits than at the others.

    lastly, i always question the ‘questionable mentality’ doubts about city’s players. isolated moments where poor application can be discerned occur as they do at all other clubs, but these players have hauled themselves over the last line twice out of the last three seasons – ability/quality matters of course but their squad is not really that far ahead of the others (as the arsenal match readily proved yesterday!); many of them have been here five years and more, and they keep applying themselves/renewing team spirit again and again.

  2. Cheers for the comment muz and you make some excellent points. Regards the ‘questionable mentality’ I completely agree with you and it’s a lazy way of describing City. I didn’t want to expand on it as it would’ve taken away from the piece as a whole, but essentially my point is that they are very good at clawing things back from unlikely positions as we have seen over and over again, they just seem to have a problem at handling momentum. The way they started this season was very similar to 12-13 under Mancini after their first title, and though they’ve improved as this season’s gone on – up to a few weeks ago – it seems to point to a mentality issue which is hard to pin down.

  3. indeed, city players’ momentum certainly can drop off at various periods but i suppose im glad their mentality can get better as a season reaches its climax

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