Manchester City go into the New Year’s Day away tie to Arsenal eight points ahead of second-placed Chelsea and nine ahead of Liverpool who are third and have a game in hand. Stranger things have happened— around this time in 2018-19 Liverpool were seven points clear at the top but didn’t win the title—but at the halfway stage of the season this seems like City’s league to lose. Again.
City have been in imperious form through December, winning all seven games in the league and beating RB Leipzig in the Champions League. They swamped Leeds United, cruised past Newcastle, steamrolled Leicester City on Boxing Day and eked out a 1-0 win at Brentford on Wednesday. It was their 10th successive win in the league. Coinciding with Liverpool losing to Leicester City and Chelsea dropping points at home because of a late Danny Welbeck header, it buttressed City’s claims of retaining the league.
“The reason they [Chelsea and Liverpool] drop points is that we won 10 games in a row,” said City manager Pep Guardiola.
So, at a time when markers get set, when pacesetters and outliers are shown their place—Leicester City of 2015-16 vintage is the exception that proves the rule — and title contenders identified, there is no cluster of teams jostling for pole position. Instead, it is City on the march for a fourth title in five seasons.
With Ben Chilwell ruled out for the season, Recce James’ hamstring playing up against Brighton as did Thiago Silva’s at Aston Villa, Andreas Christensen’s back being dodgy, N’Golo Kante’s knee injury flaring up after a long layoff and Covid-19 cutting through the roster, Chelsea’s march for a first title in five season looks somewhat derailed.
“How should we compete in a title race? It would be stupid. I simply don’t know what I can expect from my players. Nobody knows it,” said manager Thomas Tuchel after the 1-1 draw, highlighting again the need to look after players in the time of a pandemic.
Also short of personnel were Leicester City but Ademola Lookman scored and they then produced a combination of crowding in front of goal and relying on the heroics of Wilfred Ndidi and Daniel Amartey and Kasper Schmeichel in goal to shock Liverpool. That no team since Real Madrid in April could do keep Liverpool from scoring is proof of Leicester’s ability to surprise. But that after two losses midway through the season, Liverpool’s title hopes look over is also proof of how good City have been. The top three teams this term have all lost twice but if the gap is this wide, it is because City have won more.
Till they win the Champions League, City can’t be called an era-defining team but the relentlessness with which they have dominated the Premier League can make it go the way of Bundesliga (another title for Bayern, yawn), Ligue 1 (okay, Lille won it last term but PSG were champions in seven of the eight seasons prior) and Serie A where Juventus fire coaches if they can’t keep the title.
The financial heft of the Premier League means many of the clubs are loaded — Manchester United, in seventh place, spent 133.7 million pounds last summer; Arsenal topped the list with 156.8 million pounds and Chelsea were third at 97.5 million — even when they are not backed by a state.
And Guardiola is the first to accept the importance of money. “We have a lot of money to buy incredible players,” he said last season not long after City spent 65 million pounds on Ruben Dias and some time before they paid 100 million pounds for Jack Grealish.
But few have City’s strength in depth. “Who can win the title? Four,” said Jose Mourinho as a Sky Sports pundit in 2019. “Man City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Man City B team.”
Liverpool’s struggles with injuries to central defenders and how it affected their game last season is well documented and now Chelsea are scrambling to fill a Chilwell-sized hole in a team that relies a lot on wingbacks.
Contrast that to City selling Feran Torres 15 months after buying him for nearly 22 million pounds and giving up on Harry Kane. Against Brentford, City started with Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Guendogan, Raheem Sterling and Oleksandr Zinchenko on the bench. Par for the course for a team that regularly leaves around 260 million pounds of talent on the reserves’ list.
This is the era of deep inequality in football and of super-rich clubs, many of them in a super-rich league. But that alone doesn’t let teams play season after season with surgical precision. What works at City is the cocktail of a top coach, top players gelling very well, cutting edge training facilities, a youth set-up that produces Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho and deep pockets.
“Look, we (Arsenal) have no petrol but ideas. They (City) have petrol and ideas. That makes it even more efficient you know…At the moment, everything goes for them inside the games as well but maybe as well they have the quality to turn it in their favour,” Arsene Wenger had said about City in 2017. It’s an observation that remains equally trenchant now.