Wednesday 22 November 2017 / 02:36 AM

SPARKLING CITY PEERLESS IN TITLE PURSUIT

The Citizens have entered with expectations this high, but never have they impressed so thoroughly.

It appeared to be the same story yet again.

Consensus title favourites, a squad that was scarily deep, dangerously talented and led by mastermind head coach Pep Guardiola who had a fire lit beneath him following the failure to live up to these same lofty heights just a year prior. The preseason was solid, albeit underwhelming in the context of their expectations.

City’s opening three games did little to inspire confidence — a grinding win against newly-promoted Brighton, a draw with struggling Everton and requiring an additional-time goal to get past Bournemouth. Man City hadn’t been bad, but more in line with the up-and-down form that had restricted them last year.

The tides turned with their first heavyweight match-up of the year, walking away with an authoritative 5-0 victory over Liverpool. From there they exploded — peeling off six straight commanding wins with a combined goal difference of 27-3, averaging a whopping 4.5 goals a game over the stretch.

The numbers are outstanding, but the way they’ve arrived at the results is most enthusing and suggests they might just be getting started. City have managed to navigate the tactical shortcomings that plagued the system last season, developed a plethora of young players and unlocked their stars all whilst playing some of the most beautiful, flowing football you’ll ever see.

Pep Guardiola would never be accused of underthinking — this is the coach that first schemes against his own system before feeling comfortable implementing it. However, there was a tougher adjustment to the PL style that caught him off-guard. With another full off-season under his belt, his highly-regarded system needed tweaking from the flaws that repeatedly showed up throughout the year: the susceptibility to simple long-ball attacks, the turnovers leaving defenders out to dry and the failure to implement a sophisticated game-plan.

And with just a few minor tweaks, Pep may have delivered his greatest work yet.

Guardiola loves possession. That’s no breakthrough thought, but in evolving his game-plan he’s found a better way to leverage the control and ensure it leads to constructive chances. Often misguided by the need to keep the ball, City’s offence was directionless, setting up camp in their opponent’s half with aimless short passing and futile attempts to open up space. The surrounding issues with the defence stemmed directly from here. This is the biggest improvement of them all, managing to keep a stranglehold on the game whilst converting it into real chances.

Now, they’re breaking down defences like no one else: 11.4 of their shots are coming inside the penalty area and 8.2 on target a game (both league-highs). Sit that alongside 65.5% possession, 89.2% pass completion and 18.9 shots and you begin to paint the picture of their commanding style.

If we use the general rule of 10 shots for every goal, with City’s league average of 3.5 goals per game off only 18.9 shots, they’re needing only 5.4 shots for every goal, a historic efficiency that has undoubtedly been bumped up due to some of their bigger outings already this season. The scary thing? It doesn’t feel unsustainable, maybe due to the world-class duo leading the line.

Sergio Aguero’s brilliance is expected at this point, but the emergence of Gabriel Jesus as not just his sidekick but partner-in-crime, especially following the wide skepticism of how the partnership might work, has been delightful and awfully entertaining.

The important note for City is that whilst his ability was always unquestioned, Jesus’ development has continued as a direct result of his successful integration into the first side. Jesus has been the league’s biggest over-performer of expected goals, netting six times with a xG of only 3.5.

It was always common thought that City needed to upgrade elsewhere whilst Sergio carried the attack, but pairing him with the emerging Gabriel, who can make a legitimate case as a top-five striker in the league already, has freed both stars up to take their game, and City’s offence, to unimaginable heights.

And the success of their new striking duo has rubbed off on the rest of the attacking unit.

The restructured attack has depended on refreshed Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho finding career-best form. Playing far deeper, the linchpin of a flexible formation that often finds him sliding between the two centre backs to provide cover (an area where City struggled mightily in the last few years) and help launch their kaleidoscopic attack. The ample space he helps create is beneficial for him (averaging just under one shot a game from outside the box, which led to one of the best goals of the season) and has assisted in fully utilising the creative talents of both David Silva and Kevin De Bruyn whilst reducing their defensive burdens.

Both have been quite successful in the past, but Pep is always striving to uncover another layer of effectiveness. He’s reiterated that there was something under the surface level of their usually sound playmaking, and it has been unlocked by reducing their dribbling, increasing their time in space and encouraging them to combine whenever possible. Rather than alternating, they’re supplementing one another, and now the Citizens have two elite playmakers functioning at maximum capacity steering them around the park.

Silva and De Bruyne are the barometers for the effectiveness of City’s attack: when they repeatedly find themselves in ample space with options around and time to scan, the game-plan is being executed. They are tied first for assists with six apiece, and rank second and fourth in key passes. With storied careers of tearing apart defences, no teams have proven equipped to handle both of them.

The improvements are coming across the pitch: with the pressure off and quality ball coming their way, we’ve seen the once-inconsistent duo of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, who both struggled to adjust to City’s style, blossom into legitimate threats on either flank. The unit is continuing to grow together and perfect a style of football almost impossible to defend when a team possesses this much talent.

Whilst there is no doubting how valuable the strides in attack have been to their blistering form, they have operated at a near-elite level for some time. It was the defence that required the most attention, and the overhaul of talent has completely changed the make-up of this team.

So overwhelmingly dominant with the ball, City often struggled to find a balance with a defensive presence. This season, things have changed. Here are some strange numbers: their 12.7 tackles per game is the least in the league but they win 62.5% of aerial battles, not just the highest mark in the EPL, but in world football. Essentially, they’ve overcome their hollow formative problems that allowed teams to drive counterattacks straight towards the goal, made use of the size of their backline to win anything that comes their way and recapture possession with having to make tackles on speedy attackers. Again, the tireless work of Fernandinho deserves as much credit as the likes of Stones and Otamendi, as does the addition of star wing-back Kyle Walker, who has already chipped in with three assists. Improvement is expected, but a jump this significant is unprecedented.

Ederson can’t be left out of this conversation. The Brazilian keeper has been a valuable addition and a substantial upgrade over Claudio Bravo, even with the low workload. City were second-last in the league last season in saves compared to expected saves, Bravo’s brain-snaps costing them on many an occasion. This season, they hold the best defensive record, only conceding four goals thus far.

The transformation isn’t over, and quite obviously the Premier League is a marathon not a sprint – even if City have broken records shooting out to the lead. Their Champions League commitments will test their depth, especially if they continue to show the same improvements mentioned here in their European match-ups.

Even with that considered, their upcoming run of games including West Brom, Arsenal, Leicester and Huddersfield suggest they could continue to solidify their position and extend their lead at the top. Regardless, the first quarter of the season undoubtedly belongs to City, and they sit alone as the hottest of favourites to take home the title.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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