By every metric this is the best start to any Premier League season undertaken by a team so it’s no surprise to learn that some bookmakers have slashed the odds on Manchester City being crowned in May to just 2/11 on. For those same odds you can lump on the sun rising tomorrow or Donald Trump tweeting something stupid today. Those odds equate to the inevitable.
Yet regardless of how incredible Pep Guardiola’s side have been for the most part since the 2017/18 campaign got underway back in August we are still just ten games in. We are a quarter through the season with three quarters still to play, a percentage that includes a chaotic festive schedule and a springtime backlog of fixtures. Surely this means that the widespread perception of this fabulous City side as being champions elect in early November is still a touch premature?
Certainly recent history would suggest so. Since the Premier League was formed in 1992 there have been eight teams who have flown out of the blocks, remaining unbeaten in their opening ten-plus games. From the top let’s omit Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/04 from proceedings because that was a statistical one-off; an anomalous achievement that is unlikely to ever be repeated again. This leaves us with seven.
From that group one was appropriately Manchester City back in 2011/12. Until they were surpassed last week by their successors at the Etihad that team, featuring Nasri, Lescott, and Tevez, boasted the most impressive ever first quarter to a Premier League campaign accumulating the same number of points as their present incarnations from their opening ten games but falling just one goal shy with a goal difference of +28. Roberto Mancini’s men then went on to amass another 10 points from 12 until their unbeaten start was finally halted by Chelsea in mid-December.
It is revealing then that this fearsome, seemingly unstoppable machine ultimately required a highly dramatic 93rd minute winner by Sergio Aguero to wrestle the title from the clutches of their local rivals United. With City a goal down and into injury time against QPR it would not have been recommended to remind their supporters of how they had supposedly wrapped up the league prior to Christmas.
In a similar vein Arsenal also emerged for the 1997/98 season looking like the finished product. Until Derby County unexpectedly felled them twelve games in, the outstanding team furnished with Wright, Overmars and Bergkamp appeared to be cruising from the moment the starting pistol fired. It is noteworthy, then, that they eventually only triumphed over Manchester United by a solitary point.
And here is where it gets really interesting. From the remaining five examples of perfect starts only two went on to eventually win the league. In 1993/94 Newcastle United under Kevin Keegan trail-blazed to nine opening wins and two draws yet still finished sixth come May, a staggering 17 points behind Blackburn Rovers. Liverpool’s twelve game unbeaten stretch at the start of 2002/03 only brought them fourth that season with 19 points separating them from champions Manchester United. The most recent ‘implosion’ occurred in 2007/08 when Arsene Wenger’s side utterly dominated the first few months remaining unbeaten until December 9th. They finished third when the medals were handed out. An intriguing side-note incidentally is that all seven eventually lost their unbeaten records away from home with three taking place in the north-east and two at Old Trafford.
If these figures act as encouragement for United, Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal fans, they really should, and not only as illustration of how the early leaders can sometimes fade. It naturally follows that their place is taken by others and in the 25 years of the Premier League there have been numerous examples of teams overcoming slovenly starts to eventually emerge victorious from the pack. Leicester’s miraculous title success in 2015/16 was all the more amazing given that they made up a 20-point swing on the October leaders Manchester City while Chelsea romped it in 2004/05 having overcome an autumnal defeat and a brace of early stale-mates.
Lastly, should there be a mistaken belief that this season somehow feels different to what has gone on before – that City’s stupendous displays are on a level never before reached – while that is a compliment to what is undoubtedly a brilliant squad of players it is also proof of the Premier League’s magical ability to begin anew each year. Every year we are amazed at what we’re witnessing and fundamentally believe that it is better than what it has replaced. It’s not. It’s just the same but slightly different.
If you have read all of the above and still think, ‘Well this City side is not like the rest. They’re incredible’ may I request you watch some YouTube clips of Newcastle in the early nineties; or the magnificent Gunners of ten years ago. They were immense, indomitable and all-conquering. Or at least they were early doors.