Manchester City looked a fading force last season after two years of supremacy took an inevitable toll.
A drop-off in intensity then self-belief left them too often resembling a sleek sports car with an undiagnosed mechanical problem. Injuries and departures at the back rendered them exposed and ordinary.
Wastefulness in front of goal was also a factor and all told a team that had recently pulverized English football lost just shy of a quarter of their league matches.
Excuses can be made for a 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester at the start of this campaign but three subsequent draws in five games suggested little had changed. Then came a loss at Spurs that dropped them to 13th in the league on minus goal difference. City looked adrift in more ways than one. Was this who they were now?
The transformation that took place thereafter was as sudden as it was unexpected, as it was comprehensive. Pep Guardiola’s recalibrated creation are unbeaten in 28 games and go into this weekend’s 185th Manchester derby intent on making it 22 wins on the bounce. Such is their brilliance and consistency that records are tumbling each and every week.
How did this come about, this startling restoration? What makes this all-conquering side so different from the fading force of a year ago?
Below I highlight three key areas that have either been strengthened or revised, with each facet instrumental in City rediscovering their magic.
All of them bode very badly for Manchester United on Sunday.
City are 8/15 to extend their winning ways and who would back against them?
Back for good
Even during City’s title-winning seasons their defence was viewed with suspicion: a potential liability if examined properly.
Those doubts have been eradicated now.
City boast the meanest rear-guard in the top-flight and then some, keeping 15 clean sheets to date and conceding a goal every 143 minutes. Last season they were being breached every 89 minutes by this stage.
It’s an impressive ratio 27 games in that betters even their two recent title-winning campaigns that earned them nicknames like the Fourmidables and the Centurions.
A fundamental reason for this has been the signing of Ruben Dias, the leader they’ve been missing since Vincent Kompany. Few could have anticipated, meanwhile, a career-best season from John Stones, free from injury.
Guardiola no longer chops and changes his centre-back pairings as he was liable to do last term, favouring Dias and Stones 56% of the time, despite altering his line-ups more than any other manager. This continuity has been vital.
Regarding the forthcoming derby, three things should concern the visitors greatly. City have only let in four goals at home since September while prior to beating Wolves on Tuesday, the Blues’s goals against column was exactly half that of United’s.
Then there’s a new set-up, that means a vastly improved defence is rarely isolated against counter-attacks. Perhaps this should be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s biggest concern of all.
The Blues are a tempting 9/5 to win to nil
It’s a set-up epitomized by – and maybe even reliant on – Joao Cancelo, a peripheral figure last season who is now unquestionably one of the first names on the team-sheet.
Only a very select number of players end up with a role named after them – Claude Makelele springs to mind – but don’t rule out this honour one day befalling the Portuguese everyman, so pivotal and innovative has his widespread venturing been for City this term.
The problem is that nobody is really sure what that role actually is.
Principally he is a full-back, who regularly inverts into midfield to offer Rodri valuable support and extra protection against breaks.
But then a couple of passes later up he pops out wide, providing width to stretch the opponents, and then mere moments pass before he’s on the edge of the box, helping to create an over-load in the attacking third.
Cancelo’s heat map is typically just a pitch coloured in.
Crucially, for all his exploring it is almost unheard of for the defender to be caught out of position and this in short makes him the perfect chess piece for the Grandmaster Guardiola.
Ilkay Gundogan is another who has massively stepped up of late. Freed from his double-pivot duties in midfield the German compensated for the month-long loss of Kevin De Bruyne with six goals during that period.
There are many reasons why the artful midfielder was Guardiola’s first signing back in 2016. We are now seeing all of them.
The recently prolific Gundogan is 5/1 to increase on his 11 league goals and score last in the derby.
A false nine is hardly a new phenomenon but it is for City who usually rely on their arch-poacher Sergio Aguero to take up striking positions and do striker things.
With the Argentine largely missing from action this season, however, Guardiola has turned to a strategy he previously perfected at Barcelona using Lionel Messi. But here why settle for just one attacking player to drop deep and lure defenders out of their comfort zone when you can have three, all dove-tailing in beautiful synchronicity?
At times trying to follow the movement of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and co can give the viewer a headache so just imagine how difficult it is at ultra-close quarters. It’s worth noting too that this organized chaos has already worked a treat twice against United, in League Cup wins across two seasons, both at Old Trafford.
Playing without an orthodox forward has meant City have shared around the goals this year which lends itself to an intriguing proposition: that the leading goal-scorer of this season’s champions will have the lowest tally for 15 years.
Of far more relevance to this derby is the Blues habit of scoring early, capitalizing on the confusion. More than a quarter of their league goals have come inside the opening 20 minutes.
City are evens to be leading at the break.
Count out the counter
So where does this leave United? Do they have any hope of ending a remorseless City run that stretches back three-and-a-half months?
Well of course they do. It’s just slight, that’s all.
First off, Solskjaer’s side are not second in the league due to mere grace or favour and 20 games unbeaten on the road is an obvious cause for confidence. Marcus Rashford will be emboldened too after scoring four times in this fixture and the striker tends to reserve his better games for it.
Even so, with Solskjaer’s not-so-secret weapon of soaking up pressure and hitting City’s exposed defence hard and fast no longer a viable option – as evidenced by a 0-0 at Old Trafford in December that limited the hosts to just two shots – what threats do United realistically pose beyond individual craft?
On a more general point, while this may be a top two affair, City are anything but first among equals. They are presently a great many miles ahead of their neighbours.
Should the hosts dominate proceedings throughout don’t discount a large win. City are 22/1 to triumph 4-0.