There was, as there was always going to be, just a little mirth at the end of Manchester City’s goal-less draw with Southampton last week. Only a few days earlier, Pep Guardiola had been busy scolding the club’s fans for not coming in sufficient numbers to City’s Champions League game with RB Leipzig; this was not, as the scoffing went, the best way to persuade them to heed his call.
There is not a vast amount to be gained from lingering on the details of that curious little spat — Guardiola seemed to complain that the stadium wasn’t full; a representative of City’s fans suggested that maybe not everyone can afford to pay eye-watering ticket prices to watch soccer once a week; Guardiola said he had not complained, so did not have to apologize — but there is a lesson at the heart of it that soccer as a whole will, soon, need to address.
It is easy to understand why Guardiola is frustrated that the team he has built — the best in City’s history, one of the finest England has ever seen, a side that not only essentially guarantees victory every week, but does so with a style that it is impossible not to admire — might not sell out for a game against a (recently-established) European power.
And yet that is not quite the whole story. Guardiola was at pains to tell the club’s fans that his team “needs” them, but that does not quite have the ring of truth. City, more than anyone else, does not really need an external, emotional impetus. It is a smooth, slick, unrelenting machine, regardless of its surroundings. That is no criticism; it is testament to both the club’s investment and his coaching. It is what makes City so successful.
But a guarantee of victory, and of victory obtained through dominance, is not necessarily the sort of thing that attracts fans. It reduces the urgency of attending: Why go and see this win, when another win is around the corner? Why spend that money on a low-stakes game — a Champions League group-stage opener — against a team that is not especially familiar when you could save it for one that means much more?
It is not certainty that attracts fans, that generates atmosphere. It is, instead, the thing that Guardiola has done his very best to extract from every facet of City’s existence: jeopardy. It seems an obvious point to make, but it holds: a 3-2 win is far more memorable than a 5-0 win, particularly if you have had a series of 5-0 wins in the last few weeks and months and years.
Deep down, fans thrive on nothing quite so much as drama and risk and doubt. It is that which makes victories taste all the sweeter. The idea of an endless series of processions is appealing, but only to a certain point; after a while, it loses its edge. Fans like to feel needed, as if they are making some difference to the end result, whether that is true or not.