Citizens clearest strength is their midfielders while Liverpool have superior full backs


If, as expected, his team win a second league title on Sunday, Pep Guardiola may just have outshone his record-shattering performance as Manchester City manager a year ago. Why? He hasn’t even got the best team now.

Liverpool probably shade it, head to head. Liverpool have superior full backs, the season’s outstanding central defender in Virgil van Dijk and two forwards with 42 goals between them. City’s clearest strength is their midfielders, as befits a manager who once said he would pick 11 of them if he could.

Yet, even there, for the way Jurgen Klopp wishes to play, his midfield is tailor-made. Put the teams’ side by side and it could be argued that Guardiola has more retooling to do this summer than Klopp.

Guardiola has Fernandinho, David Silva and Vincent Kompany approaching their mid-30s, he has complications at full back where his options appear increasingly inferior to Liverpool’s. Klopp has his team where he wants them right now.

Yes, every squad, however coherently planned, can always bear improvement but the two legs against Barcelona revealed a group at Liverpool that absolutely understands, believe in and can carry out their manager’s strategy. It is no surprise that it is City who are about to make a very early entry into the summer transfer market with a move for Rodri of Atletico Madrid.

Yet this is not to decry a team who are hopeful of accruing 198 points across two seasons but to praise them for doing just that and more.

Guardiola was right to compare his players to game-changing sportsmen such as Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt. He might have thrown in Serena Williams or the Australia cricket team of the Michael Slater era for good measure.

Like Woods, like Bolt, like Williams, like Slater, City have altered the landscape and what is considered possible. They have changed the numbers, reconfigured success in their field. Results that were once considered solid or even impressive in a Premier League campaign are now potential failings.

Watching City settle for nothing less than three points at Old Trafford is like seeing Slater send the first gentle ball of the day in a Test match to the boundary.

Once he did that, and did it regularly, the numbers in Test cricket were never the same again. The rest of the world had to score like Australia or fall behind.

We credit Twenty20 and the short-form game for the attacking Test play we see now but Australia began the trend a decade before that version of cricket was even conceived. Until last year, a goalless draw away at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or Anfield was considered a job well done. No longer.

Had Liverpool won at Manchester United in February, as City subsequently did, they would be leading the league by a point now. There is never one game in which a title is decided. If Liverpool fall short this season there are eight matches which were drawn or lost, any one of which could have made the difference. Obviously, the defeat by City in January and the draw at Anfield are the biggest. Yet equally, turning either the home point with Leicester or the away draw with West Ham into wins would have seen Liverpool clear.

That’s what City have done: their own campaign is so relentlessly consistent that one misstep in any game, however minor, can prove crucial. The fateful stumble can come at any time, at any place.

Who could have imagined Liverpool letting the lead slip with eight minutes to go at Arsenal in November could be so important? A point at the Emirates was still a decent result until this City team came along. Fast forward to now, and Alexandre Lacazette’s equaliser is what has Liverpool pinned in second place.

Guardiola has changed the very concept of winning in the English game. He has changed how we view results and he has done it without some of his best players, this season in particular: players it was really felt would be important.

Benjamin Mendy has barely played this season, Kevin De Bruyne has been fit to start just 11 Premier League games and the loss of Fernandinho for more than a month at the end of February and then for the title run-in should have been more significant.

Yes, City have strength in depth. Yet they have no midfield creator in De Bruyne’s class; nobody who can quite replicate Fernandinho’s role. When everybody is fit these will be two of the first names on Guardiola’s team sheet. Yet he has done without them, so far, at the most pressured stage in the season and maintained what is now a 13-game winning run under the strain of knowing one slip as good as hands Liverpool the title.

There are plenty of clubs over time who have had an edge on their rivals in terms of resources, squad depth, investment — Manchester United for a decade or more until Roman Abramovich came along — but they haven’t racked up numbers like City. There were 11 records broken when City won the league last season and more have already tumbled, whatever Sunday’s matches hold.

City are already the first team since Preston in 1888-89 and 1889-90 to beat all of their league opponents in consecutive seasons. Yet for Preston that meant defeating 11 clubs twice – for City, 19 – and Preston didn’t have to put up with some of the trifles that might frustrate City on occasions, such as crossbars.

Nothing is won yet, of course. If what we have seen this week is any indication, anything could happen at Brighton and probably will. Yet even if the season contains one final twist and City are denied the title, their influence on our game remains unquestionable.

The only reason a second club is chasing a points total in the high nineties is because City have demanded that is the standard required to win the league.

It won’t always be this way— it can’t be – but if the levels at the top of the Premier League are better than ever— and results in Europe suggest that is the case—Guardiola drove that change and he hasn’t even got the best team this season.



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