It’s looking ominous already in this year’s edition of the Premier League as the weekend closed and the swathes of British-based talent flew out to join their international squads, it were those rabid attackers from Eastland’s whose chests will be most aloft.
It’s barely November and Pep Guardiola’s pack of players have stretched out to an eight point lead over their closest and fiercest rivals across Manchester, and with the squabbling and jostling going below them, it must seem like the faint rumblings of a grievance way back in economy whilst they’re quaffing bubbles up in first.
The non-plussed way in which they dispatched Arsenal must have been a dagger to Jose Mourinho prior to his match back at Stamford Bridge, City weren’t even firing on all cylinders and they still swatted away Arsene Wenger, who it must be said looks like he has an almighty task battling for fourth place. Then for Jose to come up against a very sturdy and revved up Chelsea, and offered such a meek attacking threat… the hope for a closely fought title race looks to be one in plight.
So what can the neutrals amongst us hope for in order to keep it interesting? Certainly City look good, awesome in fact, but there’s chinks in every armour.
1. Stopping Cyclone Kevin De Bruyne
The Belgian has pushed into another category this season, his range of passing and vision has seen him not only open up defences for 9 assists in 16 games in the League and Champions League, but City are getting him the ball more. He is now the metronome of the team, with him making over 70 passes per game on average, as opposed to last season’s 50, and David Silva the player flitting in and out more.
An injury to him would be a loss, the talk of him being the Premier League’s most elite player is a fun argument, if a touch premature given he’s yet to prove himself over the course of an entire season, but it’s not like City are bereft of replacements. David Silva could easily fulfil that role, as he has for season after season, and with Ilkay Gundogan, Yaya Toure and Bernardo Silva chomping at the bit on the bench too.
Risk rating: 4/10
2. Case for the defence
This was the big pre-season pondering when considering Man City’s chances for the 2017/18 edition – how will their walkabout defence find themselves?
It turns out, pretty well so far, on the attacking sense Kyle Walker and first Benjamin Mendy, now Fabian Delph due to the former’s knee injury, have all been plundering forward from deep positions stifling the opposition in their own third and creating chances galore. Walker alone has chipped in with 5 assists in all competitions.
Defensively, they’ve definitely improved, partly due to new ‘keeper signing Ederson being less error-prone than his predecessor Claudio Bravo, and the John Stones – Nicolas Otamendi axis being on more familiar terms. It is in this area that teams can see a weakness, only a slight one at this stage considering they’ve only shipped 7 goals, joint second best in the division behind Man Utd and on par with Spurs. It’s more their attack-first mentality, often leaking easy goals such as vs Arsenal at the weekend, and two against West Brom and Stoke. The trouble for everyone else is in these 3 games they let in 5, but scored 13 of their own in reply.
When Jose Mourinho sets up his side to play Guardiola’s at Old Trafford on 10th December, they’ll need to twist rather than stick, given the league position. You’d hope he’ll bring out early season Man Utd, rather than the dour version of the last few weeks and all last season. They’ll have to really test those potential defensive frailties early on, and continue to suffocate the City attack by forcing them on the back foot throughout.
Risk rating: 6/10
3. The chasing pack improves
This seems to be the best and most obvious option. Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal don’t look to have improved on last season so far. Manchester United showed great signs early on, keeping pace with City, but have sat back in recent weeks and dropped points at places like Stoke and Huddersfield.
Each of them seem teeming with irritations and obvious weaknesses. Liverpool have a shoddy defence, Arsenal lack the winning mentality and it’s visibly waning each week, Chelsea look like they want a fight with themselves, Spurs don’t look quite at home at Wembley still and Man Utd aren’t pushing the boat out and letting their talent loose.
The fact that these problems are obvious doesn’t mean their respective solutions are, however there is certainly a case for Spurs, Chelsea and United to threaten to a greater extent. Chelsea’s win against Man Utd was huge, and the manner of it told you a lot about how much the players believe in Antonio Conte, this will be a signal to the board and mean the Italian’s volatility with the hierarchy, a cause for many of the stories coming from Stamford Bridge, should be tolerated.
The red side of Manchester have Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rojo, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick to return from injury, the like of which caused Mourinho to shrink into a more defensive mode when they became unavailable. Pogba’s especially, his drive and creativity from deep was especially effective in creating more space for Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mhkitaryan. These additions will give an injection heading into the busy Christmas schedule.
Spurs have sold key players and are still competing, which shows you that in Mauricio Pochettino, they have one of the most valuable managers in the league. Season by season he’s shrugging off the Spursy vibe of past incarnations. In Harry Kane they have one the world’s best number 9s and this Wembley hoodoo is seemingly fading, the win against Real Madrid will certainly help forget the misadventure in Europe last season.
Whether this will culminate in reeling back in Guardiola’s side, is another question, but the potential for improvement is certainly there.
Risk rating: 8/10
4. Mourinho mind games
Should Mourinho haul his side closer to the front-runners you can bet your left and right legs he’ll be dangling his finest barbs out there to tempt a Pep bite. Their time in La Liga as adversaries hasn’t really been brought to the boil in the EPL, the greater variety of competition in the league helps with that, but should it be a Manchester 1-2 come February you can expect the matador acts to be present again.
You do sense it will take Mourinho to start it, he is more familiar and friendly with the dark arts and tempting Guardiola down to his level will be how it would have to pan out. The issue is that the teams need to be in touching distance for this to happen, if City are 8 or 10 points clear, Guardiola will just giggle at Jose’s attempts, something that could cause Mourinho to blow up also.
For the neutral it would make exceptional viewing, but given the mental fatigue it took on both managers when last embroiled in such tactics, the likelihood of it coming to a significant head this season seems less likely.
Risk rating: 3/10