After 12 games of the 2017/18 Premier League season, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were already eight points clear at the top, and pundits were widely in agreement that the title was all but heading to the Etihad, despite there being 26 games still to play.
That ultimately proved correct. City broke record after record, the eight-point cushion eventually stretching to 19 over second place Manchester United by the conclusion of the Premier League in May.
2018/19 was expected to be a much closer race and so it has proven thus far. 12 games in, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs are all within the eight points that City had put between themselves and the rest by this point 12 months earlier.
It was thought that there was no way that City could be as good as they were last term, while huge investments from Chelsea and Liverpool suggested that they could challenge.
Arguably the only player to be performing worse than last season is Leroy Sane. In every other position of the team, Pep has improved the player once again.
Somehow, City are stronger than they were last season, and here are five reasons why.
Kevin De Bruyne has barely played so far
Most sides suffer when their best player is injured. Not City.
The Etihad Player of the season 2017/18 has featured just three times in the Premier League so far in 2018/19 because of injury, but when you have David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho (among others) ready to fill the midfield at any opportunity, you are hardly in a midfield crisis.
Belgian De Bruyne was exceptional last term, contributing eight goals and sixteen assists, as well as dominating nearly every opposition he faced.
When he returns, it will not be immediately noticeable. He does not change the style of the team, nor does he directly displace any individual player.
He does all the jobs asked of him by Pep Guardiola. He keeps the ball, he passes the ball, he wins the ball. What he brings that no one else does is the ability to thread the ball through the eye of a needle in the most high-pressure situations.
As David Silva continues the wrong side of 30, his ability and influence will inevitably wane. De Bruyne is one of the best passers in the world right now, and Man City haven’t yet had the chance to utilise him this season.
City are used to teams sitting back and inviting them to attack. With De Bruyne in the team, City have a player who can play passes very few of us mortals can even see. Their level has not dropped and can only rise further once KDB finally returns to fitness.
Pep has found the solution to his defence
Pep Guardiola has finally found his best defence – Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy. Though they have not all played every game, this is Guardiola’s first choice back four, and it is easy to see why.
After 12 games City have conceded just five league goals. That is made more impressive however when you consider that two of those were penalties (both given away by Ederson) and the other three were scored by defenders.
Though it was rarely settled, the most successful back four last season was Kyle Walker, John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph. Otamendi and Stones looked solid at points but were prone to mistakes, while Fabian Delph was never going to be an elite level left back, though he deputised admirably.
With Laporte alongside him in 2018/19, John Stones looks a complete defender. As confident in possession as always, he rarely makes mistakes any more. Frenchman Laporte has justified his price tag, adapting to the Premier League seamlessly since his January move from Bilbao.
Benjamin Mendy is the weakest link currently but is rapidly improving, and it must be remembered that he is yet to play 20 Premier League games having missed much of last season through injury.
At this point last season City had conceded only two goals more, but by the end of this season they will surely beat the 27 goals they shipped in 2017/18, pending fitness.
Of course, City fans will expect no less than excellence from a defence that cost a combined £200million, but with £42million Eliaquim Mangala rusting in the reserves it must be remembered that all of Pep’s own signings have come good.
Most frighteningly, Stones, Laporte and Mendy are only 24.
Pep has figured out Liverpool
It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that Liverpool have been figured out as such, but the meeting between the two at Anfield in October was in stark contrast to the previous three meetings between the two sides.
In January, Liverpool’s front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah tore City to shreds 4-3, with the scoreline greatly flattering for the Blues. In April, Liverpool dumped City out of the Champions League Quarter-Finals 5-1 on aggregate.
But in this season’s clash, as dire as the game was, the difference in City’s setup was obvious. The usually marauding Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy were rigid, almost appearing unwilling to attack.
Though City failed to win after Riyad Mahrez’s late penalty miss, they were never in danger of losing. Though it may be a stretch to say Pep has figured Liverpool out, he does certainly seem to know how to nullify them now.
They have played three of the other “Top Six” away already
Pretty self-explanatory this one.
Generally speaking, matches away to the expected top six sides of the Premier League are considered the most difficult games in the Premier League calendar for any team.
City have already visited Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs, winning seven points and conceding no goals in the process. They visit Chelsea on the December 7th and have beaten Manchester United convincingly at home.
They have not just avoided defeat in all of these games so far, but they have brought home all three points from every opponent except Liverpool. This sort of form is exceptional, and ominous for Chelsea.
It must be noted that Liverpool’s record is not too much worse however. They have already travelled to Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal, picking up five points, but must still travel to the Etihad in what is promising to be a titanic battle on January 3rd.
Home advantage is not what it once was; all seater stadiums tempered many of the matchday atmospheres around the country, but City will surely feel more comfortable facing the big boys in 2019 in front of their own fans.
If City can beat Chelsea and Liverpool in the next meetings between the sides, not only will the title be all but wrapped up, but there will surely be talk of going the full season unbeaten.
“Signings” all contributing
Having run away with the title, it would’ve been easy for Pep Guardiola to rest on his laurels and continue with the same side. When the window shut in August, City’s only first team signings were Riyad Mahrez and young defender Philippe Sandler.
At 21, Sandler is still very much a prospect. Though Riyad Mahrez initially struggled to adapt to Pep’s philosophy, the Algerian has been on fire recently and scooped the club’s player of the month award for October.
But is that really a poor recruitment for City? They certainly weren’t lacking the financial backing to bolster their squad. Why didn’t Pep strengthen further?
He gets a huge amount of credit as a tactician, but it has completely gone under the radar how he continues to improve this team without splashing the cash.
Sometimes, a player can come from nowhere and seem like a completely new signing. Lucas Moura at Spurs is a prime example of this, rejuvenated this term after moving to London quietly in January. This is why I wrote “signings”.
With Benjamin Mendy injured for almost the entirety of last season, he may as well have been a new signing this summer. Bernardo Silva; as good as he was in his debut season, has taken a step up this term now he has fully adapted to the demands of his manager and English football.
Pep could’ve splashed the cash to buy better players. Instead, he made his players even better.
The learning curves that several players take when moving to England often take a season or two. With Bernardo Silva and Mendy now there and a level above last season, we can draw parallels with young players Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz.
Bit by bit, the two are being exposed to the rigors of the Premier League, and within two years they will likely be starting regularly. England fans are watching Foden particularly closely and will be hoping that he will fill the gap that will be left when David Silva eventually departs the Etihad.