How Man City Broke Open the Premier League Title Race

The Premier League was headed for its most unpredictable and chaotic title race in years—until it wasn't. In a season of attrition for all, Man City has pulled away and is eyeing history.
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It sounded a bit like Pep Guardiola was joking, but perhaps he wasn't.

When asked what the most important reason for Manchester City being able to extend its winning streak in all competitions to 19 games following a 2–0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Champions League, the manager cut right to the core.

"We have a lot of money to buy a lot of incredible players. This is the reason," he said, straight-faced

Nobody will accuse Man City and its parent company City Football Group of being cheap, that's for sure. But all the money in the world couldn't buy Man City a fast start to the season. Eight games in, City had a negative goal differential, sat eight points behind league-leading Tottenham and was situated in 13th place. 

Just a couple of months ago City was languishing in fifth place, not anywhere close to being in peril of falling out of contention for Champions League places, but also not anywhere close to being a candidate to run away with a third league title in four seasons. Yet in a season of attrition, one in which every club has had to confront a more congested schedule than usual, COVID-19 complications and the mental and physical strain that comes along with all of it, City has separated from the pack—and quickly.

After Tuesday's 4-1 win over Wolves, City has now won 15 straight in the league and hasn't lost since that eighth game in vs. Tottenham. It's unbeaten in 28 straight and has won 21 straight in all competitions, with the win Tuesday bringing City within two of Bayern Munich's all-time record (among top five European leagues) of 23 straight wins. It also sends City provisionally 15 points clear atop a table that for months had no clear and distinguished leader. Its run is in some ways analogous to the script of City's 4–1 win over still-reigning champion Liverpool on Feb. 7 at Anfield: a feeling-out process, followed by a slight setback—and then an overwhelming and overpowering onslaught to finish the job with emphasis. 

So yes, it helps to have a lot of money, but it goes beyond that, and you also need some unexpected elements to go your way. Ilkay Gundogan, of all players, is the club's leading scorer, with 11 league goals. That's the same 30-year-old Ilkay Gundogan whose previous single-season high for goals at any of his clubs was six and who has never been considered an attacking juggernaut.

Manchester City celebrates Ilkay Gundogan's goal vs. Liverpool

The club's Portuguese contingent has performed admirably as well, especially in defense, where left back João Cancelo has been a playmaking revelation and summer signing Rúben Dias has at last provided the stability at center back that has been lacking since Vincent Kompany's departure. John Stones having a season of rejuvenation has been an unexpected surprise, too, given that he was out in the cold before being given a lifeline in late November. He hasn't looked back since, nor has City.

The results are easily quantifiable. The club's 17 goals allowed are the fewest in the Premier League by far (Chelsea is next closest at 25 through 26 games; Man City has played 27), and its 0.63 goals per game allowed is tied for the best among Europe's top five leagues (Lille and PSG in Ligue 1 have the same mark). Perhaps more impressively, City hasn't trailed in any of its last 19 Premier League matches.

Factoring in right back Kyle Walker and third-choice center back Aymeric Laporte, that's over $400 million spent in transfer fees alone to build that back line. Perhaps Guardiola was onto something with his direct remarks about financing after all.

But it's not like City has been immune to attrition, either. Between injuries and COVID-19, club stalwarts Sergio Agüero and Kevin De Bruyne have missed a handful of games, with Aguero limited to just six Premier League appearances and De Bruyne, the league's assist leader, missing nearly a month before recently returning to action a couple of weeks ago. Around Christmastime and New Year's, Walker, Cancelo, attacking stars Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus and starting goalkeeper Ederson all missed time after a COVID-19 breakout.

It's no wonder why Guardiola referred to this winning streak as "the greatest achievement we have done," following Saturday's win over West Ham that pushed the streak to 20.

Manchester City's Phil Foden and Pep Guardiola

“It doesn’t mean we have won the title, of course, but in winter time in England, every three days a game, COVID-19 situation, injuries ... winning, winning, winning shows strength, mentally,” he said.

Liverpool had been England's chief "mentality monsters" after winning Champions League and Premier League titles in consecutive seasons, but there's no level of mentality that can equip a squad to contend with all of the key injuries quite like Jürgen Klopp's side has confronted this season. With Liverpool down, Leicester also significantly hobbled, Chelsea unable to turn a summer spending spree into immediate results, Tottenham enduring struggles since briefly entertaining title thoughts and Manchester United improved but lacking the ruthlessness required to turn more of its eight draws into wins, Man City has seized its opportunity to rise to the top. 

The job is not done yet, and City will know that better than anyone. It trailed Liverpool by a significant margin in the hunt for the 2018–19 title before charging hard to lift the trophy. Guardiola may be mindful of the club's finances and the advantages that come along with it, but he also has his hand on the pulse of his players.

"When I feel that everyone is thinking the job is done, or how good it is, this guy is not going to play," Guardiola said in Monday's press conference. "I'm so intuitive to know exactly the guys who are not ready to continue what we have to do.

"The champion is Liverpool, we are not," he continued. "To do it we still have to win eight, nine or 10 games, and it's a lot of games. There are incredible teams who struggle for four or five games to win games. It can happen to us, too.

"Last season it happened. At the beginning of the season it happened. We were unable to win three games in a row in the first two months. That's why."