The construction of Manchester City into a football superpower has taken a little short of a decade. The Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 endowed the club with the funds to sign some of the game’s most attractive talent.
But it wasn’t until the arrival of Pep Guardiola that City turned into a team that could entertain the masses, teach a new style of playing, and still get results. Roberto Mancini’s side was deemed too negative, and predecessor Manuel Pellegrini underachieved.
With Guardiola, City’s become the envy of Europe.
“They are a really, really great side, one of the best sides I’ve come across,” said Swansea manager Paul Clement, who’s taken in the Premier League, La Liga, and Bundesliga as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant. “Great style of football, wonderful players all over the pitch, tactically intelligent.
“They do the basics and the ugly side of the game really well, make it out hard to get out of throw-ins and in positions for second balls. They make it hard for you to press them, because if you get tight, they just pop it around you. If you sit off, it looks like they’re totally dominating. They can do what they want. They get you in that difficult predicament of, ‘What should we do here?'”
And who can stop them? Manchester United and Chelsea already lost by a goal, Arsenal by two, Burnley by three, and Liverpool by five. Poor Watford, which has been no slouch under Marco Silva, lost 6-0, and Stoke City, the epitome of defensive football, crumbled to a 7-2 defeat.
With the best attack and defence in the Premier League, City could realistically win out. As one of only four unbeaten teams in the top five European leagues, City’s handled nearly everything the Premier League has thrown at it. It’s found different ways to score, both early and late in matches, off set-pieces and ridiculous passes. It’s well on pace to break the 100-goal barrier – which has only been done three times before in the Premier League era – and has plenty of depth on the bench. An injury to Leroy Sane? No problem. Bernard Silva is there for cover.
Tottenham is the only of the top six sides yet to face City this season, with the two set to clash on Saturday. That and the reverse fixture at Wembley may be the most difficult of the lot.
Spurs seem to have come out of a negative period, winning its past three matches by a combined 10-1 score. Having enjoyed most of its success on the counter-attack, Tottenham could find a way to spoil City’s possession. Manager Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t yet lost to Guardiola in the Premier League, winning once and drawing 2-2 the other time. If Spurs can ratchet up the tempo and frustrate City, it could create chances against the error-prone centre-back pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala on the weekend.
There isn’t another match of significance until Jan. 14, when City travels to Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side will have a nice nine-day stretch to prepare for that marquee contest, so the German won’t feel obligated to rotate his players as much as he has in recent weeks.
Liverpool’s shaky defence, however, is ripe for the picking. City won’t follow the same approach Chelsea and United took at Anfield, where the Blues and Red Devils decided to sit back and take the counter-attack away from Liverpool. City will go for the jugular and target Liverpool’s weaknesses in defence. Like the 5-0 win in September, it could get ugly.
Next on the list is February’s trip to Leicester. Claude Puel seems to have re-energised the Foxes, particularly Riyad Mahrez, who’s drifted in and out of relevance since winning the PFA Player of the Year award in 2016. Mahrez has scored four times since Puel’s appointment, and he’s looked at his most dangerous running at defenders. Leicester’s pace has the potential to undo City’s high-pressing, but it still lacks the quality to match City man for man.
Matches against Arsenal and Chelsea follow, and the reverse fixture against United arrives April 7. All three may ultimately prove to be mere specks in City’s rearview window as it hurtles to the title. The Gunners’ inconsistencies, coupled with the potential January sale of Alexis Sanchez, should render them beatable, and Chelsea’s issues in midfield and defence could leave it exposed. If United cannot count on Paul Pogba for the derby, then that one is certainly in City’s favour as well.
With 11 of its final 21 Premier League matches at home, City may be difficult to scrape a simple point off of. It will take a monumental task from the rest of the league’s elite to not only break its run, but keep the title race respectable.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)