As the old cliché goes, football is a results business.
Whether we like it or not, the thing that ultimately matters most in football is winning. That’s why we have league tables, why three points are awarded for wins and why when it comes to prize money, 3rd place wins more than 13th.
This is nothing new; football has always been like this. However, at some point in the past 20 years or so, the ability to win trophies has become the only valid barometer of a team’s success. At first that seems a perfectly logical way to separate the elite from the best of the rest — a trophy in the cabinet means you are the best, right?
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But over the years as the money in the game has rocketed and the level of performance in the Premier League has increased, it’s become more common for superb football teams to miss out on titles, to go without that official seal of excellence that ensures they are remembered in years to come.
It feels like this year that has been the case more than ever before. After dropping out of the Carabao Cup back in October, falling in the FA Cup semi-final and suffering a devastating last-gasp elimination in the last four of the Champions League, Manchester City were perilously close to ending the season without a trophy to show for their efforts.
While Pep Guardiola’s side never actually relinquished the lead they established at the top of the Premier League back in early December, they came mighty close by letting their advantage shrink from 14 points to one.
Had City lost to Aston Villa on the final day instead of staging a remarkable comeback, Liverpool would have pipped them to the post by two points. That would have left the Blues trophyless, by modern standards, a catastrophic failure.
But would it have been? Guardiola’s side played some exceptional football throughout 2021/22, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo doing things some never thought they’d see on a Premier League pitch.
City practiced a dominant, controlling style to near-perfection (see the derby at Old Trafford), were involved in some thrilling encounters (both league games against Liverpool and the Champions League semi-final first leg against Real Madrid) and scored some stunning individual and team goals (Bernardo Silva at Aston Villa and Kevin de Bruyne versus Chelsea, to name just a few).
Would we have had to wipe all that from our collective memory had City not scored three goals in five minutes against Villa last weekend? Regardless of how the final day panned out, this season was one of City’s best ever.
If we’re being honest, the same can be said of Liverpool. While it is tempting to poke fun at a team — one that many neutrals labeled the best in the land — failing to win either of the two titles they really wanted, it does not render their season a failure.
Yes, Liverpool came up short to City in the Premier League and Real Madrid in the Champions League, and only won the two domestic cups on penalties after two goalless draws. But, like City, Jurgen Klopp’s side have been sensational this year.
Since January 2nd Liverpool lost just two of 35 games in all competitions — 1-0 to Inter Milan in the Champions League last-16 second leg and 1-0 to Real Madrid in the final — while in the league they won 16 and drew three of their final 19 games. Like City, a number of their players have had stand-out campaigns, most notably Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho.
Of course trophies and titles are important, and it would be disappointing to go a season without winning any (or even the big two). But to reduce a team’s success to a lump of metal overlooks the simple pleasures of the game; the improvement of individual players, the perfecting of a style of play, or simply the moments of joy experienced by an entire fanbase.
This season both City and Liverpool have found out that one-off games, or even one-off moments, can prove the difference between glory and despair. Those moments don’t make them failures though; sometimes two very good teams go head-to-head for a title and one of them has to lose.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.