The Season So Far
There has never been such a dominant Premier League season as this from Pep Guardiola’s supreme Manchester City. They need five wins from their last ten games to wrap up the title and confirm their official status as champions, but in truth it’s been a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ since around September, when the awesomeness of their football became clear and the ease with which they swatted aside their supposed rivals set the standard.
It’s hard to pick out one highlight in a season which has arguably just been one long, neverending highlight, but City’s late winners, seemingly all scored by Raheem Sterling, have been powerful reminders that this isn’t just a team of high-end technical artistes, but one with the requisite amount of steel and resilience to make the jump from extraordinary to epochal. A sense is growing that it doesn’t matter the challenge faced or the circumstances which are against them – this Manchester City side will find the way to win.
Likewise, a standout performer is hard to identify among a squad of players all having the season of their lives. David Silva, for years the Premier League’s best player and still the holder of that title, is maintaining his mastery of the midfield in his central role; Kevin De Bruyne has made a huge leap up to reach Silva’s level of domination and productivity; Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané have each become truly decisive from the wings; Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus never know which one of them will play, but whoever does always scores; defenders John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi, much maligned before the season’s start, have both been excellent and contributed vital goals to boot; goalkeeper Ederson, playing one of the most unique and demanding roles in football as Pep Guardiola’s sweeper-keeper, has barely put a foot wrong. It’s been truly special.
The Season Ahead
The possibilities are mouthwatering: the League Cup is in the bag, the Premier League title race is as close to over as it possibly can be and a very favourable Champions League draw has seen City installed as favourites to lift the European Cup. The traditional powers – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus – are all in decline and face tough climbs back to the summit regardless of their enduring quality, while Paris Saint-Germain’s draw, along with their own identity crisis and in-fighting, mean they stand little chance of overturning their deficit in the Bernabéu.
Pep Guardiola was brought to the Etihad precisely because he’s so evidently capable of producing this kind of continental domination. Naysayers will point to the petrodollars and to the players he found in place at the club, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that question marks hung over basically everyone in this squad when Guardiola arrived, and many of his additions have been derided as overpriced or simply not up to scratch on their arrivals. Simply put: he’s a genius, the best manager in the world and possibly the best ever.
Everyone knows Guardiola’s game now: it’s a fluid, interchanging 4-3-3 with mesmerising positional interchange and immaculate technical use of the ball.
Chelsea have forged an identity based on withstanding the kind of barrage that Guardiola’s Barcelona sides threw at teams but that identity seems to have been lost as the old guard departed. This current side seems a far cry from the classic Blues teams which stood up to this challenge and overcame it.
The problem for Chelsea, apart from their own individual and tactical issues, is that if Guardiola realises Plan A isn’t working or is exposing City to danger, he can switch to a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D or even a Plan E which is arguably as good as his original idea. No other team can do that at the moment.
Theirs is complete and utter domination: Manchester City have averaged the most possession of any Premier League side so far this season; they have the highest pass accuracy; the second most dribbles; the most shots; the most shots on target; the second most goals from set-pieces; the second most penalties given.
Although they almost never give the ball away, they’re nearly as good without the ball as they are with it: their pressing game is close to reaching the levels that Pep’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides managed and the results are there for all to see: they have allowed, by a distance, the fewest shots on their goal of any Premier League side so far this season.
If nothing else works, they’ve got almost all of the best players in the Premier League, and one of them will score a late goal to win the game at the last.
All of their success is down to
Qatari Emirati wealth and the misery of millions of people, which puts a significant damper on things.
Apart from that, though… nothing.
Chelsea will surely revert to their 3-5-1-1 bus-parking formation and hope to stay alive for as soon as possible. An unlikely hero here would be Tiemoue Bakayoko, whose discipline and work-rate would make him far preferable to Cesc ‘What gigantic space behind me?’ Fàbregas.
As for Manchester City, we should expect all of the big guns.
Man City 2-0 Chelsea. At least. Gulp.