Champions League: Manchester City Bends the Story to Its Will

The writers of “Ted Lasso,” the acclaimed, sugar-sweet Apple TV comedy, never particularly worried about being hidebound by reality. The world they created was, after all, based on an inherently fantastical premise: an American coach with no knowledge of soccer succeeding in the tumult of the Premier League.

There would have been little point, then, in dismissing as too far-fetched the idea of a makeweight sort of a team signing a proxy for Zlatan Ibrahimovic just because its owner insulted him in the bathroom, for example, or a dog being killed by a wayward penalty kick, or West Ham being invited to take part in a global super league.

It was notable, then, that there was one line the writers felt they could not cross. At the end of “Ted Lasso” — in all other aspects a determinedly romantic and uplifting show, an unabashed underdog story of empowerment and personal growth and the overwhelming power of nice — Manchester City still wins the Premier League. Even in fiction, City cannot be dislodged.

City is not the villain, not really, in the Lasso Cinematic Universe. That role goes, instead, to a combination of conventional thinking and West Ham. Pep Guardiola even makes a cameo appearance in the show’s penultimate episode, offering a brief, distinctly Lassoist homily about winning being significantly less important than his players being good people.

Rather than the bad guy, City serves as what the show’s eponymous hero refers to as his “white whale.” It functions as the series’ final level boss, a portrait of immutable sporting perfection, the one opponent that cannot be overcome by Lasso’s mustachioed, good-humored positivity.

Even when his team eventually defeats Guardiola, the victory proves futile. The following week, City goes and wins the league anyway. Lasso, like so many others, finds that second place is the best outcome available to everyone else. “Such a shame,” one character tells Lasso in the show’s final scenes. “City are just too good.”

As a piece of analysis, it is hard to top. This year, as for five of the last six, City has been far too good for anyone else in England. Even when it sat eight points behind Arsenal in the Premier League table, the season drifting to its conclusion and the distance to the finish line winnowing, it felt like City’s title to lose.

From the middle of February — when a wasteful draw at Nottingham Forest prompted a full and frank exchange of views among the City players that Guardiola himself has described as the season’s pivotal moment — until the moment the title was won, City played 12 games in the Premier League and won them all. In that three-month spell, as The Independent pointed out, it found itself behind in a match only once. The unusual state of affairs was rectified after 10 minutes.

Even as it reeled in Arsenal, Guardiola’s team had an even grander prize in its sights. It was sailing smoothly through both the F.A. Cup and the Champions League, the prospect of a treble — victories in the league, the cup and in Europe — starting to loom on the horizon.

The treble is, in truth, a distinctly English obsession. Manchester United’s 1999 squad is the only English team to have won all three major trophies in the same season. Though the feat has become significantly more common in recent years — Barcelona and Bayern Munich have both done it twice in the last decade and a half — it still functions as a trump card, the ultimate claim to greatness.

Its rarity is precious, to United more than anyone else. That last week’s F.A. Cup final should have pitted the two Manchester clubs against each other felt fitting: Here was United’s chance to preserve the club’s honor, to protect its proudest accomplishment. It duly held out for roughly 12 seconds. The last vestige of English soccer’s resistance melted away. City, it turned out, was just too good.

Nowhere, though, has that been made more plain than in the Champions League. That it is glory in Europe that Manchester City’s power brokers and paymasters — as well as its coach — crave more than anything else has long since drifted into cliché.

Winning the Champions League has become, if it has not always been, Manchester City’s animating force: its final rite of passage, its final challenge, its white whale. To some extent, it is the purpose of the whole project.

Everything — the fortunes spent on players, the state-of-the-art academy, the appointment of Guardiola, the global network of clubs, the accusations of breaches of financial regulations in both the Premier League and the Champions League, the legal battles, the risk that everything it achieves may yet be tainted, the distortion of the sport’s entire landscape — will be vindicated, at least in the club’s own estimation, only if and when City can call itself champion of Europe.

City has, then, attacked the Champions League with a singular determination this season. Bayern Munich was obliterated in the first leg of the quarterfinals. Real Madrid held out for a little longer in the semifinal, but was routed at the Etihad in the second leg, the reigning champion dismantled both surgically and brutally.

Guardiola made an exception for that victory against Real Madrid — it was, he conceded, among the very finest of his tenure — but as a rule he tends toward the coy when presented with all of the superlatives his team attracts. Habitually, he will always insist that his Barcelona team remains the finest he has ever coached, simply because it was spearheaded by Lionel Messi. His presence alone, Guardiola believes, automatically elevates any team.

Perhaps that is true: Messi did lend Barcelona a wonder, a sense of the breath being taken away, that no other player — not even Erling Haaland or Kevin De Bruyne — can hope to match. And yet, by the same token, perhaps that makes the team Guardiola has crafted at City even more impressive. From a coaching perspective, it may be that this is his true masterpiece.

City has, of course, provided Guardiola with the most conducive working environment in the sport. He benefits not only from a budget that, effectively, allows him to obtain whichever players he wants, but from the sort of complete, uniform institutional support that can only ever be an aspiration at most clubs.

That he has used it to produce a team that does not have a single apparent flaw, though, is testament to nobody but him. Manchester City, the 2023 edition, barely concedes chances, let alone goals. It scores from set pieces and counterattacks and long spells of possession. It can hurt opponents on the ground and in the air.

It does not, as previous versions might have done, have an ever so slight tendency toward profligacy, thanks to the seamless integration of Haaland into Guardiola’s side, something that — perhaps more in hope than expectation — many expected to be at least a little bit of a challenge when the Norwegian arrived last summer.

But that is not the switch that defines this vision of Manchester City; Guardiola’s most significant contribution, this season, lies elsewhere.

Last summer, he was concerned, just a little, about his resources at fullback, a key position in his system. Oleksandr Zinchenko had left. His replacement, Sergio Gómez, had initially been pointed out to the club as an investment for the future. João Cancelo’s form was patchy and his attitude, at times, questionable.

And so Guardiola invented a solution. Rather than asking one of his fullbacks to step into midfield, as he had for the last year or two, he gave the task to a central defender, John Stones, and drafted in Nathan Aké and Manuel Akanji, two of the less prominent members of his squad, to balance things out.

He explained the idea relatively briefly to his players; they had a few training sessions to try to iron out any kinks. And then, a couple of weeks later, they were trying it in a game. There were one or two who felt it was a risk, but it proved worth it: Stones, as much as Haaland, has emerged as City’s key player.

More than anything else, it is that change that has made City untouchable in England, and in Europe, since the turn of the year. It has already delivered two trophies; only Inter Milan, now, stand in the way of a complete set.

It is curious, then, that it should also — effectively — be one of the major plotlines in the final season of “Ted Lasso”: the coach has an epiphany, and everything clicks into place. That, of course, was a mere piece of fiction. Guardiola’s success is concrete, factual, real. Both have the same ultimate conclusion, though. In the end, Manchester City wins.