Man City concoct the perfect storm
Lies, damned lies and statistics. You’ll find the first two are hard to spot on the English Premier League table so far this season. A cursory glance at the log almost tells us the full story of two months of action — with no pauses for effect.
The cold numbers: Manchester City are top with a five-point lead.
They have found the back of the net 32 times — at least double the total of all but four other teams. Meanwhile, the other end remains sturdy, with the team tying for best defence in the league with a stingy four goals conceded.
Pep Guardiola’s successful plunder during the off-season has been key to the early surge, allowing him to implement his brand of football more effectively. The fullbacks, in particular, are the dream of fluid tika-taka manifest on the pitch. Ridiculed for throwing Scrooge McDuck-esque bags of gold at defenders, the Manchurians needed players capable of fulfilling a very specific role within a dynamic 4-3-3 or 4-1-3-2.
Kyle Walker, especially, has been a menace in the opportunities he has unlocked for his coach. Guardiola’s possession game relies on fullbacks being able to stretch the play by roaring down the wing and cutting infield to retain the ball and redistribute it when the midfield is under pressure. Kevin de Bruyne, quickly developing into the best deep-lying playmaker in the league, regularly dovetails brilliantly with the Englishman to unlock space behind the opposition defence.
The Belgian generally sits on the right-hand side of the midfield bank of three — his holding role assignment so far bearing delicious fruit. Cutting inside allows him the option to either feed the rampaging Walker down the right, recycle the ball with Fernandinho, link up with David Silva or, ideally, play through Sergio Aguero or Jesus on goal.
Silva, too, has been instrumental upfront, creating the second most chances in the team, behind De Bruyne, and paving the way for Leroy Sané to blaze to five league goals. It’s this bevy of attacking options that has made Man City so relentless and unpredictable in the final third.
But the defence hasn’t suffered, despite the escapades of its fullbacks. Guardiola’s implementation of his preferred “five-and-five” split has worked a charm and brought an unwavering balance to the side, which was blatantly missing last term.
The philosophy is simple: always have half the team in attack and the rest ready to cover defensively. This can take various forms: when Walker drives forward, De Bruyne is able to fill the gap left on the right and join Fernandinho and the other three defenders in protecting their own goal.
Alternatively, when both fullbacks invert, they link up with the Brazilian holding midfielder to more easily maintain possession in the middle of the park while the attacking players wreak havoc up front. Goalkeeper Ederson, along with John Stones, also plays a vital role here, ensuring that dispatches from the back are distributed smartly and without sloppiness.
In the opposite equation, De Bruyne and Silva can sit deep and distribute the ball from their spot in the back five while Walker and — as against Burnley — Fabian Delph maraud down the flanks.
It’s the perfect storm that has hit the league and so far no one has quite managed to ride its waves. Man City are undoubtedly deserving of their favourites tag at the moment. If Guardiola can sustain this level of creative discipline, his side will hold top-flight honours aloft come the end of the season.
This brand of free-flowing but steely football is reminiscent of Chelsea’s ascent to power last season. Like Guardiola, manager Antonio Conte implemented his own idiosyncratic system and no one was ever quite able to figure it out. Once the 3-4-3 variant was implemented after the now famous watershed loss to Arsenal, the Blues cruised to the title, never really looking in doubt. Certainly, then, we have a case for hiring foreign managers with playing styles previously unseen on British shores.
But Chelsea have failed to catapult forward from that success. They look comparatively languid and uninventive, and their frailty at the back will have John Terry rolling in his Aston Villa retirement village. After a morale-boosting victory against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley in game week two, they have looked distinctly average when squared up against Arsenal and Man City.
Many of their troubles have stemmed from the weakness of not having an adequate replacement for Eden Hazard — arguably only now returning to full fitness for the time being. Although Willian offers infinite graft and Pedro is a potent threat in and around the box, neither has the lockpicking skills of the Belgian. Alvaro Morata is arguably an upgrade on Diego Costa but, when starved of service, he lacks the same bullying hustle, the ability to make something out of nothing, that his fellow Spain international possesses in abundance.
Already plagued by injuries, with a long season still ahead, it will be an uphill battle for the Blues to rediscover the rhythm so potently used in the title win. Nine points behind the leaders after only nine games, the club’s objectives are quickly shifting to a top-four finish instead of entertaining ambitions of defending the league title.
Two teams that will be realistically dreaming of challenging Guardiola’s dominance, meanwhile, go head to head on Saturday in what will be an interesting audition for superiority.
Manchester United joined their blue neighbours as early season favourites but have quickly had any aura of impenetrability brushed off. A dour goalless draw against Liverpool, an unremarkable victory against Benfica and last weekend’s apathetic loss to Huddersfield have quickly tempered the aspirations of the Red Devils faithful.
They take on a Spurs side that has now picked up where they left off when they almost ran Chelsea to the death for the league title. It was a scary sight to behold last Sunday, watching them go to work on a defenceless Liverpool side. Dejan Lovren decided it was a good day for a Wembley picnic and spent his 30 minutes on the pitch watching the pretty ball fly over his head.
When Harry Kane shifts into gear, there can be no lapses in concentration. He will punish any slip, any mistake with less remorse than a sociopath.
Plenty, then, for new United signing Victor Lindelöf to look forward to — should he get the nod once again. Like Lovren, he had a weekend shocker, at fault for both goals conceded. Mess around with Kane like that and the sight will not be pretty.
From a neutral perspective, we’re hopefully in for a cracker — but don’t be surprised if José “The Bus” Mourinho sets up for an afternoon of morose counterattacking football.
From a tactical angle, it will be fascinating to see how the two teams cope with one another. Whoever emerges with heads held high might just give us an indication of how the season will play out. Although it’s too early to make too many bold proclamations, Saturday could go a long way towards telling us who the pretenders are to City’s would-be throne.