How Manchester City have transformed from also-rans to commanding leaders of the Premier League
Pep Guardiola's side have won 14 consecutive games in all competitions to turn around their season
The last manager to deny Manchester City a victory was sacked the following day. It has sounded stranger by the week and by the win, and if West Bromwich Albion’s dismissal of Slaven Bilic felt unfair then, subsequent events have rendered it all the more incongruous.
City have reeled off 14 consecutive victories in all competitions. The club believe a sequence of 20 triumphs, including on penalties, in 2017 represents their record. For outsiders, though, 14 is a best: not merely in City’s history, but among English top flight clubs, equalled only by Preston in 1892 and Arsenal in 1987.
It is a measure of their transformation that City have constructed something seismic from what threatened to be the rubble of Pep Guardiola’s worst season.
When they lost at Tottenham, two days after he signed a contract extension, City were 13th. When they drew with Albion, they were ninth. Now they are five points clear, with a game in hand on each of their five nearest rivals and a superior goal difference.
A 4-1 win at Anfield, so often their theatre of nightmares, felt the most significant result of the season so far. “This season has been a bit funny with teams dropping points so we cannot get complacent now,” cautioned Phil Foden. But exit Liverpool, surely, from the title race.
A statement result can reshape perceptions. City’s surge had been propelled by victories over teams who, with the exceptions of Chelsea and Aston Villa, are now found in the lower half of the table.
Yet two theories have felt true in this season’s title race. City are proving one and disproving another.
In a campaign notable for freak results and inconsistency, it seemed the team who sustained the best run would prevail. When Manchester United accumulated 33 points from 13 games, it favoured them. But now City have a maximum 30 from 30; a side who racked up 18 and 14 consecutive victories in previous title-winning efforts are staging something of a sequel.
That their next five opponents are Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United suggests it will be difficult to turn 10 wins into 15. But their final 11 fixtures, the majority against bottom-half sides, offers a chance for a further display of ruthlessness and relentlessness.
But the other notion was that the team to suffer least from injuries and Covid cases would succeed.
Patently, that is not Liverpool, who have felt luckless. But nor has it been City. Their recent run has been a triumph of resourcefulness, an exercise in adaptability, a success of the supporting cast. It has been quintessential Guardiola, yet it also out of character.
City’s autumn caution, their reaction to the 5-2 thrashing by Leicester, felt unusually unadventurous. But they have built from the back, constructing the most redoubtable rearguard in England around Ruben Dias and a rejuvenated John Stones. They scored as many goals in 11 minutes at Anfield as they have conceded with Stones on the pitch all season.
And their two flagship wins have come with a tactic Guardiola pioneered: the false nine. It was Kevin de Bruyne at Chelsea, Foden at Liverpool, each scoring and leading their opponents a merry dance.
The conversion of Ilkay Gundogan from a passer into a box-to-box midfielder who gets into the six-yard area to score has helped compensate for the absence of specialist strikers.
The roles of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo have added to the sense that everyone is a midfielder, which is the way Guardiola likes it.
It has brought a familiar look elsewhere: Guardiola’s teams tend to be natural frontrunners in title races. They were off the pace, but now they are opening up a sizeable lead.
Published: February 8, 2021 07:10 PM