James Carson, Sports Editor.
It never ceases to amaze the difference twelve months can make in football. This time last season, the great Pep Guardiola finally appeared to be a mere mortal, on course to suffer his first season without silverware in his seven years of management. Sluggish draws to Middlesbrough, Southampton and Everton followed a 2-0 demolition by Tottenham at White Hart Lane which raised questions as to whether Guardiola truly was the super-coach who delivered instant success to Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Fast forward a year and the team which had looked so defensively fragile has been transformed. The addition of Ederson Morales from Benfica has proven to be an exceptional purchase as he has displayed the courage and composure which Claudio Bravo failed to exhibit last season. When coupled with the addition of Kyle Walker for £50 million from rivals Spurs and the morphing of Fabian Delph into an effective left back to replace the talented Benjamin Mendy, it is clear that Guardiola has the tools to configure a defence which allows the clinical City attack to flourish.
Though much praise has centred around the exceptional play of Kevin De Bruyne, the entire City attacking unit has been breath-taking to watch going forward. The precision passing of David Silva and De Bruyne, the blistering pace of Leroy Sane and the much-improved Raheem Sterling has been a joy to watch. With clinical goal scorers in the ruthlessly consistent Sergio Aguero and his young Brazilian apprentice Gabriel Jesus, Guardiola can call upon one of the most finely tuned attacks in the league.
The beauty of the football being played by City cannot be disputed, leading to goals being scored in both spectacular and effective form. Be it from the deft inter-passing which destroyed Burnley, the exceptional off-ball movement to steal victory at home to Feyenoord, a ruthless counter-attack to grind victory against Leicester, or reliance on the sheer brilliance of De Bruyne to deservedly beat Chelsea, City have shown their football to be a class above competitors thus far.
With such scintilating football, it comes as no surprise that questions have been raised as to how exceptional this City team truly are. Are they better than Mourinho’s 2004/05 Chelsea? Can they match the achievement of Ferguson’s 1998/1999 treble winners at Manchester United? Or can they answer the question currently perplexing pundits: can this Manchester City side achieve what only one team in the 24-year history of the Premier League has done and go a whole season undefeated?
The Arsenal team which successfully navigated the 38-game season without losing a single fixture can be respected for having one of the greatest starting XIs in Premier League history. A rock-solid defence in Sol Campbell, Patrick Viera and Ashley Cole was built in front of the excellent shot stopper in Jens Lehman. With an attacking trio of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pirès supported by a midfield well marshalled by Gilberto Silva and Freddie Ljungberg, Wenger had fused an efficient attack with a credible defence which Gunners fans miss fondly.
The trouble with assuming Guardiola can replicate Wenger’s feat fourteen years later is the sheer development in the quality of the Premier League since then. 2003/04 saw Chelsea beginning to feel the advantages of the investment of Roman Abramovich, a Manchester United team moving forward without David Beckham and a Premier League which saw Newcastle United place fifth, eleven places higher than Manchester City.
The league which City face in the 2017/18 season is one which is packed from top to bottom with competitive teams. The comparison instantly dismisses a chasing pack consisting of the resilient Manchester United led by the cunning José Mourinho which has greatly improved with the presence of Romelu Lukaku; the reigning champions Chelsea with an effective change to the 3-5-2 system allowing Álvaro Morata and Eden Hazard to flourish; a Tottenham team with an exceptional tactician in Mauricio Pochettino and the outstanding form of Harry Kane; and Liverpool and Arsenal lurking in the wings who are more than capable of brilliance but craving consistency week-to-week. With the entire Premier League resembling a maze of hidden traps and colossal obstacles, and with only 12 points separating the top six teams, getting to the trophy unscathed has never been a greater challenge even for a manager with the reputation of Pep Guardiola.
However, for all the exceptional football they have played, it is hard to ignore that City have had more than their fair share of good fortune. A controversial red card ruined the showdown with Liverpool, a dubious offside decision stole victory against Arsenal and the clash with Leicester not becoming an interesting contest with the failure to show Vincent Kompany a straight red card for his early foul on Jamie Vardy. This doesn’t even begin to factor in the challenging games which lie in the space of six days with the Manchester derby, a trip to relegation-threatened Swansea and a showdown with Tottenham presenting a clear challenge to City’s unbeaten record.
Make no mistake, Manchester City have all the tools which make it possible for them to replicate Arsenal’s invincible season, but the trouble in comparing them at this early stage lies in the context of an improved Premier League and a season that has a long way to go. The path to invincibility still has many traps and pitfalls for Pep’s high-flying blues, but if they can navigate them over this long season their invincible status will be a well-deserved crown.