It was last February when Manchester City finally started to turn a corner.
They looked untouchable for the opening six games of last season, winning all their games, scoring 18 goals and just generally looking like a threatening force under Pep Guardiola, who was beginning to make English football sit up and take notice.
Only, they were taking notice: and Spurs were the first team to find a formula to beat the league leaders, who had won all their games up until that point.
That point was October 2nd, and between then and the end of January, City would lose five times in a rocky period. But it was this period that Guardiola seemed to finally learn about English football.
Last season, City’s performances can probably quite neatly be categorised as before the Everton game at Goodison Park, where Guardiola’s side lost humiliatingly, and after it. The very next game was at home to Tottenham.
Looking back, you might think the turning point started sometime just after the darkest moment, the 4-0 loss in Liverpool. In reality, it was the Spurs game.
The context going into the game was one of intense pressure on the team and the new manager. By this point, it was clear that City’s squad was in need of a severe overhaul, and one that came in the summer. But Guardiola wasn’t getting off lightly himself. The tide had started to turn somewhat, and many were wondering if the Catalan’s attacking ethos, filled with short, sharp passes and small, jinky players could really compete in England, with its physicality and demanding winter schedule.
But that’s when the best dig in.
That afternoon, the midfield three of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne selected by Guardiola seemed almost suicidal on the back of a 4-0 defeat away at Everton and up against the form team in the league. But it proved to be a master stroke, as City blitzed their visitors and took a two goal lead.
They let Spurs back into the game, of course. Or rather, Mauricio Pochettino’s side dug deep and found enough within themselves to nick two goals back. But with the score at 2-1, and with Raheem Sterling clean through on goal, Kyle Walker pushed his soon-to-be teammate and should have conceded a penalty and seen red. That would have changed the game and City surely would have won from that position. But no matter the result, the performance changed things for Guardiola’s City.
If it weren’t for that performance, if it weren’t for the proof that the manager’s attacking principles weren’t obsolete in the Premier League, we might not be enjoying the privilege of witnessing a record-breaking team this season. But whereas City lost five league games between October and mid-January last season, they’ve lost only one game since then.
But although City did indeed dig in and go even deeper into the Guardiola philosophy, it would be wrong to suggest that the manager hasn’t adapted his style this season, and to stunning effect. The Blues may well have had the lion’s share of possession in all of their games, but there’s still something more direct about their approach with so much pace on the counter-attack. And they can score scrappy goals, too, just like we saw in the Manchester derby last weekend.
The addition of Ederson has also been of vital importance, not just because of his ability on the ball, positioning himself towards the centre circle and cutting off the opposition’s ability to play balls over the top of City’s pushed-up defence, but also because of his kicking ability. Ederson’s incredible accuracy on long kicks, both out of his hands and from the ground, has given City the option of going long when under pressure even without a target man to hit.
Last season, City tried to play out from the back even when they were marked man for man from goal kicks. This season, if the opposition do that, they’ll leave space further up the pitch, and Ederson can find it.
So City have adapted this season and seem to have found the magic formula at present. But it all started with the last time Tottenham came to the Etihad.
This time, it’ll be a different game, between a team two teams who are on form. It’s just that City are on the best form of any team English football has ever produced. But if Spurs were the start of City’s decline a year ago, and the start of their revival at the start of this calendar year, would it really be all that surprising if they were the start of their descent back to mortality again?
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