IT’S a strange and often confusing football world we live in, one in which Manchester United, the dominant force in English football from 1992 through to 2013, are now considered comparative underdogs. United have surprised everyone with their recovery after some early-season dramas, such as their home defeats against Palace and Spurs.
The calls for OGS’s head, which characterised the first month of the campaign, have subsided, but their 2-1 home defeat by struggling Sheffield United will see the doubters resurface. It would seem unlikely the gallows will be reassembled, but there will be a reaction to the advantage swinging away from Old Trafford to Manchester City, who are top of the league once more. United’s early winter flourish may not be at an end, but it is stuttering and it will take a major effort to regain the initiative from City.
For such supposedly noisy neighbours, City have been strangely subdued these past few months, aside from their celebrated coach complaining about fixtures, a lack of substitutes and pressure on their players. Many felt the age of City was making way for the time of Klopp’s Liverpool.
Nobody offers sympathy for the complaints of the wealthy and privileged, which City certainly are these days, but the intensity of the fixture list is there for all too see. City had, rather foolishly, been written off by those that like to dismiss them as a middle-eastern plaything with too much cash. For all the wishful thinking, which has included chin-stroking debates about Pep Guardiola’s commitment, attention span, versatility and contract, City still have more quality than any of their peer group. Furthermore, they also have the cash to make their squad even stronger.
And now, after a period sitting in the wings watching the game of management bingo unfold – Arteta out, OGS out, Lampard out (bingo) – Pep can offer a wry smile and point to the league table as evidence that his City have not sailed beyond the peak. They’re back in first place and they could very well stay there and grab a fifth Abu Dhabi-era title. In the first half of the season, consistency has been elusive to many teams, but over the coming few months, the team that holds its nerve will be champions. City are looking stronger just as teams like Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham start to reveal their shortcomings.
People forget that City’s 2019-20 campaign ended later than their Premier rivals and the disappointment of losing to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League may have hung over into the start of 2020-21 – not just for the club, but also the coach, who has endured a series of disappointments in the competition after winning the trophy twice with Barcelona. It is now 10 years since his last success in 2011, a surprising statistic given the clubs he has managed. Public perception is that Guardiola is in contention every year, which has not been the case. City need European success to complement their position at home and mark them a great side.
They have had to soldier on without their talismanic striker, Sergio Agüero, who is now 32 and rarely fully fit. He’s played just five Premier League games this season and has yet to score. There’s no doubt his time at the top is approaching the final run-in, so City will need to enter the market for his replacement. Gabriel Jesus still has the potential, but he’s no Agüero. Now they’re also without Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the most complete player in the Premier, possibly Europe.
But where City of 2020-21 differ is that they seem to have found the key to their defence, the one weak link they had in the past. Even then, it was an occasional problem as their goal difference proved. Even in 2019-20, when City lost nine league games (versus 12 in the previous three years combined), they netted 102 goals and conceded 35. The loss of Aymeric Laporte early on in the season was a key factor.
This season, City started quite slowly and were surprisingly exposed by Leicester City in their second game, losing 5-2 at the Etihad. But they have lost just twice in 31 league and cup games, three less than Liverpool, six less than Manchester United and five less than Chelsea and Leicester. Tottenham have lost four times in 32. City are currently on a seven-match winning streak in the Premier and have kept four clean sheets in a row. Is it really a surprise to see them back at the top?
They also seem to have bought well, paying just € 20 million for Ferran Torres of Valencia, € 62 million for the impressive Benfica’s Rúben Dias and bolstered their squad with a rather extravagant £ 40 million outlay on Nathan Aké. Two of their past big acquisitions, John Stones and João Cancelo, are starting to form a steady partnership in defence. City have a wealth of talent in midfield that is compensating for a lack of front-line options by scoring around half of their goals this season. Phil Foden, one of the great hopes of the future of English football, is now demonstrating his potential and is getting the chance to shine.
This is really the early stages of a new, evolving Manchester City that can take the baton from the all-star team that Pep Guardiola took over, improved and led to five trophies between 2017-18 and 2018-19. Kompany, David Silva and Sané have gone, Agüero and Fernandinho may soon be on their way and the purse strings will surely be loosened to take a striker or two to the Etihad. The problem is finding the players of sufficient quality to take over from world-class talents like Agüero. Guardiola may also look for a new personal challenge in the near future, but it is not difficult to envisage a new side emerging that will maintain the glorious momentum of the past decade – starting with the Premier title or the Champions League in 2020-21, perhaps?