Purist Pep Guardiola sets up Manchester City dominance while rewriting playbook
The Premier League leaders have attained superiority in every department and destroyed every major opponent by playing the game his way
History is made in different ways. In Manchester City’s case, they range from the ideological to the physical and the technical.
They have set records because of ability and attitude. It is a combination that their Premier League rivals have found unstoppable.
Pep Guardiola has reflected the different attributes they have displayed. After beating Manchester United at Old Trafford, he said with understandable satisfaction: “People said in England you cannot play that way.”
He did not compromise his purist principles. Rather he doubled down on his beliefs.
When City defeated Swansea City and became the first English team to reel off 15 straight top-flight wins, the Catalan called his players “animals".
It reflected their hunger to chase and win the ball when they do not have it. Passing metronomes have also proved competitive creatures capable of getting late winners, as Bournemouth, Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United can testify.
Others have been beaten more comprehensively and clinically, as scorelines of 4-0, 4-1, 5-0, 5-0, 6-0 and 7-2 suggest. City have won home and away, against teams intent on defence and those who have attacked them, against the best and the lesser lights.
They have 15 points from 15 against the big six this season: they took 10 from a possible 30 last year.
There are other ways of measuring their improvement. City averaged 64 per cent possession in Guardiola’s debut season in charge. That is now up to 70 per cent.
They have completed 11,382 of 12,868 passes, an accuracy ratio almost five per cent better than anyone else’s. Four of the five players with the most passes in the division are Guardiola’s.
It is hard to beat City if you cannot get the ball off them. They are getting better at keeping it. John Stones’s pass completion rate has gone up from 91.7 per cent to a league-best of 96.6, Nicolas Otamendi’s from 88.2 to 91.5 and Fernandinho from 86.6 to 90.2.
There were teething troubles for many, Stones in particular, at first as they sought to adapt to Guardiola’s style of play. “Last season we conceded a lot of goals from stupid mistakes,” Ilkay Gundogan said.
Now they have been almost eradicated, and not just because City win more defensive duels: 52.1 per cent last season, 57.5 per cent this.
It helps that Ederson has been an upgrade on Claudio Bravo, a reliable shot-stopper with a better short- and long-passing game. No other goalkeeper remotely rivals his 83.4 per cent pass completion rate. Many defenders and midfielders do not.
City attack from the back better than before. They defend from the front. Guardiola believes forward Gabriel Jesus’s high pressing is the best in the world. Theirs is organic progression, forged with the aid of influential arrivals.
“We play mostly with only two new players from last season: Ederson and Kyle [Walker],” Guardiola argued.
Walker, sprinter and distance runner alike, has been pivotal in giving them another dimension. “We don't have full-backs to go up and down, up and down, because all of them are 33, 34 years old,” Guardiola rued in April.
Not now. Walker’s running power creates space for others.
If City are scoring more goals, it is in part because of the goalkeeper, back four and holding midfielder. Others highlight how individual improvement has come within a collective.
David Silva has added incision. He has both scored and created more goals in the league this season than last.
Raheem Sterling reached a career-best total of goals in November. Leroy Sane’s swift development has surprised some powerbrokers at the Etihad Stadium.
Both are among the three players with most Premier League assists. The other is Kevin de Bruyne.
The Belgian spent last season hitting the woodwork. Now his shot conversion rate has gone up from 10 to 19 per cent. City’s has improved from 17.2 to 21 per cent. Their greater precision is not just reflected in their passing.
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Their greater power is shown in their results against the more energetic sides. City were beaten by high-tempo teams last season, with Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool’s pressing evangelists troubling them.
Now, and while Sadio Mane’s first-half red card was a reason, they have beaten them by an aggregate score of 9-1.
They are two of 16 successive league wins. They mean that at their current rate of progress, City are on course to score 118 goals and win 110 points. If each is unrealistic, the Premier League records for wins (30), points (95) and goals (103), each held by Chelsea, all look under threat.
All this from a side who, 12 months ago, were coming off a run of only four wins in 14 games in all competitions. Now Guardiola is being asked if City can win all four competitions.
What a difference a year has made.
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Updated: December 20, 2017 09:50 PM