Can Man City’s ‘two beasts’ carry them to a historic treble?
After a statement performance from Manchester City came a statement of the obvious from Bernardo Silva. “Of course the treble is still on because we’re still in three competitions,” said the Portugal midfielder, winger and, at times in City’s increasingly dominant 2023, left-back. “We’re in the semi-finals of the Champions League, the final of the FA Cup and now we’re in a very good position to go and fight for the Premier League.”
The pertinent part is that the usual treble sceptic tends to be perhaps Silva’s biggest admirer and City’s manager, Pep Guardiola. The Catalan often draws on history to point out that it is virtually impossible. The hat-trick of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League has only been done by one team, Manchester United in 1999. In public, Guardiola tends to rebuff suggestions City will follow suit. In private, his players can discuss it. “No, he hasn’t banned anything,” Silva said. “We’re big men and we talk about whatever we want.”
The pragmatist in Silva cited the fixture list, seeing an obstacle course where others may expect a procession. “It’s never done until it’s done in the Premier League,” he said. “We’ve got to play against Fulham away. Then we have West Ham and Leeds [at home] then we have tough games like Everton away, Brighton away, Brentford away, Chelsea at home.” Having beaten the league leaders 4-1, however, having won their last seven league games, they finish off with seven fixtures against teams outside the current top seven. Arsenal are still at the summit but City have two games in hand; for the first time, Guardiola has admitted he would rather be in his position than Mikel Arteta’s.
The Premier League may be the simplest to seal. “If we don’t win the Premier League we arrive in the final of the FA Cup and in the semi-finals of the Champions League not in a good momentum,” Silva countered. “We can win the three competitions, yes, but we can also lose the three competitions.” There are other trebles, of course, and City could yet be the English equivalent of the ‘Neverkusen’ Bayer Leverkusen side of 2002 who were runners-up in the Champions League, the Bundesliga and the German Cup.
It feels unlikely but, as Kevin De Bruyne knows from bitter experience, City tend to face disappointment in Europe in April or May. “We’ve come close in other years,” the Belgian said. “We won all the cups in England one year  but we lost against Tottenham in the last minute in the quarters of the Champions League; things happen.”
On many an occasion, however, De Bruyne makes things happen. The rout of Arsenal could be traced to several factors, from the greater strength in depth, resources and talent to the sense one side is peaking while another has lost its steam, from injuries to the naivety of the Gunners in going man-to-man against often superior men, but two individuals stood out. Silva had referred to “big men”; the biggest on the Etihad Stadium pitch – literally in one case, figuratively in another – were the giant Erling Haaland and the outstanding De Bruyne.
“Two beasts running,” said Silva, reflecting on the role reversal as Haaland had two assists for De Bruyne. “Their movements, Kevin with the passes, Erling with the scoring, today was the opposite [of normal]. This team [Arsenal] was perfect for Kevin because they did man-to-man. They gave space to Kevin and to Erling to run. When you give them this kind of space, they are so difficult to defend.”
Haaland has added another dimension. He could bring up a half-century of goals in a season at Craven Cottage on Sunday. The suggestions the Norwegian made City worse rarely stood up to much scrutiny. The issue instead, Silva argued, was making the tweaks to adjust to him. “We changed the way we play because we never had this kind of player up from with Erling,” Silva said. “The manager also changed the build-up a little bit from in the past years so maybe it took us a bit of time to get used to it.”
Now, with 12 wins in their last 13 games in all competitions, with 35 goals in the last nine, City are gelling. “Maybe it was just the momentum,” Silva said. “I remember [in 2018-19] we were 10 points behind Liverpool as well and we beat them to win the title. We’ve always had these moments of unbeaten runs, of 15 or 20 games and it came at an important part of the season happily.” Carry on at this rate and it may be a very happy end to the season for him.