Ahead of Sunday’s derby, trailblazing Manchester City needed to win only eight out of their remaining Premier League fixtures to be crowned English top flight champions for the third time in four years. Given that they are currently on an unprecedented 21-match winning run, not even a football hurricane can stop the tsunami that is Pep Guardiola’s march to his ninth League title in twelve seasons. In years to come, soccer historians are certain to marvel at the durability of Catalonia’s most innovative football alchemist.
In response to a barrage of questions about City’s marvelous winning streak late last month, Pep emphasised the club’s spending power as the fuel that drives Manchester City’s success. He was just self deprecating. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss knows better than anyone that money alone cannot guarantee footballing success. Otherwise neighbours United, who have outspent Guardiola’s City over the last four years wouldn’t be streets off the EPL title pace.
City have overcome adversity in the form of a non-existent preseason, crowded fixture list and numerous injuries – including to strikers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus – to roll into an almost unassailable lead with a dozen matches to spare. Rather than fold up in the face of the nadir that was his team’s 2-5 reverse to Leicester City, the two-time Champions League winner has come up with a string of innovations to, first catch up, then stay ahead of the chasing pack.
Lethal False Nine Gundogan
Foremost among them was use of a False Nine. In the light of Aguero’s incessant injuries, lesser mortals would have gone into the January market for a recognised striker. Not Guardiola. The alchemist has realised phenomenal success by deploying a variety of players to run into the space usually occupied by an orthodox number nine. Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and especially Ilkay Gundogan have all taken turns playing as the team’s False Nine to devastating effect. Gundogan is currently City’s top scorer with 12 goals – all scored arriving into the opposition box from midfield.
The result has been a staggering run of defensive solidity which has seen City concede just 4 goals in 17 fixtures in which the coach has deployed the Stones-Dias central defensive axis. Freeing up Fernandinho to partner Rodri in central midfield has added solidity which has been augmented by Joao Cancelo’s aptitude for shoring up in spaces in front of the back four.
Dias-Stones defensive Axis
In surrendering the title to Liverpool last season, Pep Guardiola repeatedly made the mistake of fielding midfielders in central defense. Fernandinho went from club super-hero to villain because, as midfielder, he lacked the pace and physical stature to outlast potent strikers. This season, Pep has gone back to the basics by deploying natural central defenders John Stones and Ruben Dias in their proper positions.
If City do not suffer a defensive injury crisis, it is easy to see them setting all sorts of records. Given that they are both superior passers than the Ricardo Carvalho-John Terry pairing, Sol Campbell-Kolo Toure human wall or the immovable objects that were the Nemanja Vidic-Rio Ferdinand axis, the Stones-Dias partnership could raise the bar of erudite Premier League defending.
Liverpool’s implosion has made it easier for City to recapture the title. The barnstorming Liverpool of the last two seasons would have stood toe to toe with Pep’s twinkle toed moneybags. However, given the precarious state Guardiola’s side found themselves in when they fell 0-2 to Spurs last November, their title charge is just short of miraculous. Pep Guardiola is the enduring miracle man.