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Manchester City built the Premier League’s best team by nailing its transfers

Pep Guardiola’s coaching is clearly a factor in City’s dominance, but a bigger one has been signing the right players.

Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

So Manchester City are very good. In advance, the visit of Tottenham looked like it could be a tricky test, but four goals saw that theory off. City have looked like champions-elect for some time; now the question is just how far ahead of everyone they will finish and where that will put them in history.

Well, there are other questions. For instance: Have they bought the title? In one sense, of course they have. Without their vast recent spending, they wouldn't be where they are. In another sense, it doesn't really matter, since all their notional title rivals are also trying to buy their way to a better football team. It may well be the case that City, as the business platform and soft power project of a nation state, are able to try more than most.

But spending, while necessary, is rarely sufficient. If some expensive players were all it took to win a title, there would have been no point hiring Pep Guardiola, and Moonchester would be picking the team. And in any case, buying the title is a fairly difficult thing to do. It's not enough to have the money — it has to go to the right places. Football clubs are brilliant at spending money. They're not always brilliant at spending it well.

Mostly this is down to the risk inherent in any transfer: The dislocation of a footballer from one team to another, often including a change of country, language, and many other variables, can sometimes just fail to work out. There's also the fact that sometimes transfers are made unwisely, in haste, or without the necessary diligence. Not to mention the fact that sometimes rich people do silly things with their money.

Not City, though. At least not recently. City are wonderful on the pitch, and off it they appear to be equally good at the important business of shopping. Leaving aside the players bought for the future, 15 first-team players have come into City since summer 2015. Nolito was moved on after just a season, Danilo might be on his way soon, and though Claudio Bravo remains, he is very much a second choice. The rest have all been at least decent and useful, and some have been utterly brilliant.

In part this speaks well of another expensive acquisition, Guardiola, and his staff. Coaches can have all the disruptive ideas in the world, but if they can't get them over on the training ground, then they're useless. City’s signings haven’t all been fully developed, mature footballers; indeed, they’ve tended to the young and the raw. The key seems to be finding the right kind of footballers — footballers who Guardiola can work with.

More generally, it speaks well of the club's systems. Even where clubs have the money to buy essentially anybody they want, they still have to identify the right player, then persuade them to move to Manchester. (Guardiola helps there too, presumably, along with the scads of cash.) It is relevant here that while Guardiola only arrived in 2016, his arrival was long-anticipated, and former Barcelona executive Txiki Begiristain has been director of football at the Etihad since Oct. 2012. Guardiola's squad was being built before he turned up: In the summer of 2015, City picked up Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph and Nicolas Otamendi, all of whom have flourished this season.

The contrast with the teams in (distant) pursuit is a stark one. Various of Manchester United's recent signings have failed to live up to their price tags, and as tempting as it is to put that all on Jose Mourinho's chip-laden shoulders, the club's recruitment has been weird and patchy since at least Alex Ferguson's later seasons. A rotating cast of managers hasn't helped. Michael Emenalo has just left Chelsea after a number of mixed seasons, Arsenal's reinforcements have been idiosyncratic, and last summer Liverpool not only failed to exchange £60m for a central defender, they had to apologize for their attempt.

But then, that's just the transfer market being the transfer market. Some moves work out, some don't; some happen, some don't. The ominous thing about City is that, for the moment, they're evading the chaos, and their hit rate off the pitch matches their goal scoring on it. They're not just buying the title by any stretch, but to the extent that they are buying it, they're doing so wonderfully well.