The race for this season’s Premier League title has more contenders than most years and, with the leader changing with much regularity, it is going to take a brave person to predict the potential winner come May. Arguably five clubs have a genuine shout of finishing top of the pile and that’s without factoring the likes of Everton and Chelsea into the conversation, the complexion of this season is changing with every week that passes.
Manchester United sit at the summit for now but there remains a feeling that they will struggle to maintain their impressive streak of results and, eventually, one of the usual suspects will be ready to pounce. With defending champions Liverpool stuttering at present, it is the light blue machine of Man City which is now starting to rev through the gears and hit top form.
A controversial win over Aston Villa on Wednesday night took the Etihad outfit to the top of the league ladder for an hour or so and, although they would be usurped by their crosstown rivals later that evening, City have finally announced themselves as a championship contender.
Their form at the start of the season was sluggish by their own standards and, after suffering a 2-0 away defeat to Tottenham in November, Man City found themselves lying in the bottom half of the table.
However, if there is a time to go through a bad run of results, it’s always best to get it out of the way in the first couple of months of proceedings and since Pep Guardiola was outwitted by Jose Mourinho two months ago, the 2019 domestic treble winners have gone unbeaten.
A run of 10 league games without defeat has seen them thrust back into the title winning conversation and, when you consider a large amount of this streak has been crafted without Sergio Aguero, it makes matters even more impressive. Despite lingering talk of whether City are short in attack, they aren’t being punished in their results unlike in previous seasons, and the case for them winning the title becomes stronger with every game that passes.
Although Man City are not rolling over the opposition with the same levels of swagger that they have in the past, they don’t necessarily need to either and that is due to the for of the emerging defensive partnership of John Stones and Ruben Dias.
One of the simplest adages in football, is that if you don’t concede goals, you won’t lose matches which, by and large, sums City up at present. They have shipped just three goals across their current unbeaten run.
There has almost been a change of mindset in terms of how Guardiola and his players are operating. They are not rolling over teams with four and five’s, because they frankly do not need to. That’s not to say that they have reverted to a brand of anti-football, it’s just that there is a lot more assurance and insurance that comes with the arrival of Dias from Benfica and the resurrection of his teammate Stones.
England international Stones could have been considered fifth-choice centre back at the start of the season and looked set for the exit door. However, his return to his best form in a Man City shirt has been a timely boost for Pep Guardiola and has unthinkably pushed Aymeric Laporte onto the bench.
The issue of replacing the increasingly injury-prone Sergio Aguero in the long-term, is not something that will be achieved before the end of this month and despite Gabriel Jesus being handed plenty of interviews, it doesn’t look like he will be given the job full time.
Which means that if City are to stutter in attack, they will need to be watertight at the back and this is exactly what we are witnessing now, to the point where this recalibration may even help them in their quest for European honours. The capture of the Champions League is something that has eluded, not only the current managerial incumbent but anyone before him and for all their free-flowing football going forward, they have been guilty of naivety in defence.
If the balance in form has changed from attacking verve to solidity, Man City may finally end their run as European also rans and end their quest for European honours.