Manchester City: Can Pep Guardiola’s side eclipse Premier League greats?
Manchester City: Can Pep Guardiola’s side eclipse Premier League greats?
Manchester City’s 4-2 win over Tottenham at a frozen Maine Road on 9 December 1967 has gone down in folklore as the so-called “Ballet On Ice”.
Just over 50 years on, Pep Guardiola’s modern-day side produced a masterclass in the mist against those same opponents as Spurs – regarded as one of the Premier League’s superpowers – were outclassed 4-1 at Etihad Stadium.
City’s win on Saturday put them 14 points clear at the top of the table, increased their winning league sequence to 16 games and threatens to turn the title race into a procession before the turn of the year.
History in the making
Manchester City’s remarkable start to the season has not simply been a sustained attack on every opponent to cross their path – only Everton have taken points off them – but now has the potential to turn into an assault on the record books.
City’s 16th successive league victory, achieved with such style and emphasis against opponents ranked as possible Premier League challengers at the start of the season, extended the record they set in midweek for the highest number of consecutive wins.
Of the many milestones achieved already, this latest victory means City are the first team since Wolves in 1953-54 to beat Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham in the league before Christmas.
The winning run is unlikely to end here, with the opportunities presented by upcoming games at home to Bournemouth and away to Newcastle United and Crystal Palace unlikely to be wasted.
They are on course to break Chelsea’s record of 30 wins in a Premier League campaign, a feat Antonio Conte’s side achieved last season. City already have 17 and need only 14 from their remaining 20 fixtures to achieve that feat.
Chelsea also hold the record for total points won in a season – 95 in 2004-05 under manager Jose Mourinho.
City are well on course, having already amassed 52 in their first 18 games, a tally which means they have equalled the record for the highest points total before Christmas (a record they share with Manchester United, though Sir Alex Ferguson’s side took 21 games to reach that mark in 1993).
If this is all not evidence enough of a side with designs on greatness, what about these?
Guardiola’s side have a goal difference of +44, the same as that of nearest rivals Manchester United and Chelsea combined.
The biggest goal difference in Premier League history is the +71 of Carlo Ancelotti’s double-winning side of 2009-10. They also had the highest goals tally in the league with 103, with City currently on 56 with less than half of the campaign gone.
Guardiola’s eyes will be on the prize of the Premier League title rather than records – but there is no doubt Manchester City’s remarkable run and magnificent football have placed them in a position to radically re-write the record books and make a case, come the end of the season, to be regarded as the greatest side of the Premier League.
Who must Man City eclipse to be genuine greats?
Manchester City are already being hailed by many observers as the finest side to grace the Premier League – but to confirm that status they must lift the crown and more besides.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United can all lay claim to Premier League domination at various stages and all have special achievements that Manchester City must emulate to sit comfortably alongside teams assembled by Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte at Chelsea, and of course Ferguson at Manchester United.
Wenger’s double-winning Arsenal side of 1998 was a classic of its kind.
He moulded the English strength of goalkeeper David Seaman and defenders Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn on to the midfield power of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the Dutch masters Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp and the attacking strength of Ian Wright and Nicolas Anelka.
He repeated the feat in 2001-2002 after adding two more brilliant France stars in Robert Pires and Thierry Henry before the famous “Invincibles”, who went unbeaten in 38 Premier League games in 2003-04 – a record many believe Manchester City can match.
Ferguson’s greatness at United was spread over two decades and a roll call of greats such as goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, the so-called “Class of 92” with David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary and Philip Neville and Nicky Butt, augmented by others such as Roy Keane and Eric Cantona and many more.
He won the league and FA Cup double three times – but it was United’s 1999 season that was the template for the success Guardiola may need to achieve before those at Old Trafford even enter into a debate about the greatest side of the Premier League era.
Manchester United won the perfect treble of league, FA Cup and Champions League – a three-pronged achievement even the greatest sides, and those from the pre-Premier League era such as Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s, were unable to complete.
Chelsea can make cases of their own through titles won under Mourinho and Conte, with the achievements of Ancelotti’s side in 2009-10 – when the Italian won the double – arguably under-rated.
So the debate around whether Manchester City are the greatest side of the Premier League era has started – but it has a long way to go before it is concluded.
How can anyone stop Man City?
The Premier League’s finest managerial minds have tried different methods in a bid to halt Manchester City’s runaway lead in the Premier League – with equally unsuccessful results.
Manchester United manager Mourinho adopted a conservative approach as opposed to taking City on eye-to-eye at Old Trafford last Sunday but saw his side comprehensively outplayed despite the slender 2-1 scoreline.
Mauricio Pochettino went for the more attacking approach with Spurs and while he could point to City keeper Ederson’s brilliant save from Harry Kane with the score 1-0, the brutal truth is the visitors were shredded on numerous occasions and the final result could have been even more convincing than 4-1.
Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United went for a strategy of manning the defensive barricades and a siege mentality of attempting to crowd Manchester City out with numbers.
It was a policy that almost worked – but not quite.
All three were defeated by late goals as City showed they could play the patience game of passing and pressing before taking the decisive opportunity.
Any attempt to smother City in midfield sees Guardiola utilise the burning pace of Leroy Sane and the new goal-rich Raheem Sterling as width, while the array of attacking options offered by the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero mean they simply carry too much variety and firepower.
And in Manchester City’s creative hub they have David Silva, a Premier League great and one of the finest players to represent the club, and Kevin de Bruyne, who is now world class.
Silva was the orchestrator at Old Trafford and in his absence against Spurs De Bruyne was simply sensational. Silva’s replacement, the hugely gifted Ilkay Gundogan finally free from injury, took the chance to make his mark by scoring the opening goal with a stooping header.
De Bruyne survived a shocking tackle from the disappointing Dele Alli – England manager Gareth Southgate will hope it is a closer battle when he confronts the Belgian at next summer’s World Cup – to channel his anger into brilliance.
He scored City’s second, won a penalty after he was fouled by compatriot Jan Vertonghen and helped set up the third for Sterling.
It would be a remarkable feat to go 38 games unbeaten – so many factors all need to come together over an entire season – but at present Manchester City’s opponents may feel they can cut off one threat only to be brought down by another.
The Premier League records are there to be broken. The debate about Manchester City’s claim to be the greatest side of this Premier League era will rage.
One thing is certain – we are witnessing something very special.