By Suresh Nair
SANTA Claus, pray tell me as Christmas approaches this weekend, how do you stop Manchester City’s extraordinary match-winning form in the English Premier League (EPL)?
I had silent hopes that when the Sky Blues (City’s nickname) leaders played my favourite title-contending club, Tottenham Hotspur, over the weekend, there’d be some change in fortunes. Even City manager Pep Guardiola cautiously thought so.
But Spurs, boasting some of the finest and youngest British talent, were literally murdered 4-1 at The Ethihad “fortress”, simply because of reckless man-marking, to extend City’s record for successive top-flight victories to an amazing 16.
Mind you, the only points dropped by Guardiola’s side this season were in a 1-1 draw against Everton, way back on August 21. They have scored 52 goals and conceded only 11 in 17 Premier League matches this season.
You cannot just say “out of the Blues” because their snowballing form is unlikely to show any sign of letting up and going on sheer rip-roaring mood, I dare say they are set to rewrite the history books and from other pages on the footballing atlas.
BBC Match of the Day commentator Jonathan Pearce lays the cards straight: “There have been great teams in the modern era but, in terms of fluent football and as an irresistible force, Manchester City is the best the Premier League has ever seen. I’ve never seen a team in all my years play like this.”
The Premier League’s all-time record goal-scorer Alan Shearer adds: “I don’t think there is any doubt about that, and top players in that team, with hunger and desire to put in a performance week in, week out. It has to be acknowledged and admired.”
Yes, big adjectives were used to describe the EPL best in the past.
From Arsenal’s 2003-04 Invincibles? Chelsea’s turbo-charged title tilt last season? Or even Bill Nicholson’s Rolls-Royce Spurs side of the 1960s?
Whichever era of football you choose, whichever of the four top tiers you pick, believe me, no English team can match the pace set by City this term.
If you boil it down to just the top flight of English football, local rivals Manchester United – circa 2000 – and the Liverpool side of 1990 can also be spotted in the rear-view mirror.
Even award-winning former Singapore coach Jita Singh notes that Manchester City’s 49-points’ start to this season is three points better than anyone else has ever managed in the top division of English football. Based on English top-flight starts after 17 matches (based on three points for a win), the best were Tottenham (1960-61) and Chelsea (2005-06) at 46 points and Preston North End (1888-89) at 45 points.
He adds: “Now forget the British comparisons. Let’s get to Europe’s finest. And 17-match City is closing in on the continent’s best ever, including two managed by Guardiola. Just two matches from Bayern Munich’s March 2014 mark of 19 matches or Inter-Milan’s February 2007 record in 17 matches.”
SPURS GOT A SLAMMING
Spurs, with the club’s rip-roaring motto, ‘To Dare Is To Do’, went with a fiery pre-match strategy to try to out-possess and outplay them on Saturday. There was a further fillip for Spurs beforehand when David Silva, City’s outstanding player of recent weeks, was absent from the home side’s squad for personal reasons.
Yes, the door was ajar. And then it was slammed shut. Beaten 4-1. Bested like the 16 teams before them.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side did at least do it their own way. Spurs were rightly identified by Guardiola as one of the few teams who “want to play football” against them in the Premier League. Spurs were usually aggressive out of possession and tried to keep hold of the ball when they had it.
It did not work. Simply because City were too good and Spurs’ man-marking was so sloppy.
The difference was not just down to quality but organisation. The sort of organisation that undermined Spurs from the set-piece for Gundogan’s opening goal – a silly early goal Pochettino described as an early Christmas present! The sort of organisation that meant Harry Kane could not get into the game. Only one team could play through the press.
Now a 14-point lead. And it’s obvious that it will stop soon. Bournemouth is the next visitors to the Etihad Stadium and then it is a trip to Newcastle to take on a team that’s lost eight of their last nine. After that, it’s Crystal Palace and out-of-form Watford.
By that point, there is the prospect of City being able to lose five of the remaining 16 games and still breaking the Premier League points record set by Jose Mourinho’s 2004/05 Chelsea team. The talk of repeating the feat of Arsenal’s Invincibles will become more than a murmur, too.
All of which shows that it is increasingly obvious that the only teams that City are in any kind of contest with now are the ones from history. None of the current crop can stop them. None of the current crop can compete. Think you can go there and match them? Think again.
BITTER JOSE MOURINHO
Jose Mourinho thought the acid test, some called it the December 10 “Mother of all Matches” for the Red Devils with the best chance to stop City’s runaway form at Old Trafford. Now he’s still bitter over the 2-1 loss in the Manchester derby. But he makes it plain, that he’s not giving up.
He adamantly says: “The City game was a big one, and a defeat does not help in your recovery – victories help, defeats don’t.” Asked about the 14-point lead City now commands, he warns: “(The title race) is only over in May. If it is over now, I go on holiday to Brazil or Los Angeles!”
Records simply fall like nine pins. City broke the 14-game winning streak set by Arsenal in 2002 with a comprehensive 4-0 victory away to struggling Swansea. David Silva continued his recent fine scoring streak with a double, with Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero also on target.
“The record means a lot – to get 15 victories in a row is amazing,” City manager Guardiola said. “Records are there to be broken but at this level today it is so competitive – the managers, the players, the analysts – and that means we are strong in the head.
WHAT TOP JOURNALIISTS SAY
Even Fleet Street’s finest and most critical football journalists are singing praises of this close-to-invincible Sky Blues.
Henry Winter of The Times says: “City deserve to be celebrated as one of the finest sides in English history, simply needing the silverware now to reflect the luminosity of their football.”
Jason Burt of The Telegraph adds: “No team has ever, in top-flight English football, started a season like this and it is increasingly difficult to see any side stopping City who have the imposing air of champions-elect. The gulf between these two teams was such that it emphatically felt like top against bottom.”
The Daily Mail’s Riath Al-Samarrai says: “It is premature to add this vintage to the discussion of the Premier League’s all-time finest because the job is not yet done. But it will be soon enough at this rate and when it is, they will have to be prominent in the reckoning. An invincible season? Quite possibly, from the body of evidence garnered this side of Christmas. ”
My personal view: The statistics, as bald as Guardiola’s bonce, are pretty easy to follow. City is officially the greatest winning machine in Premier League history, eclipsing even the Arsenal team of 2001/02, who went on a run of 13 straight wins, then followed it up with one more victory in the following season, before the stint was ended at West Ham.
You also have to add into the mix that City have to compete in the Champions League, where they have been given a kind last-16 draw against Switzerland’s FC Basel, plus the FA Cup and League Cup.
They’ve clearly the strength in depth. Their squad is big enough – and expensive enough – to handle it, but Guardiola will have to tinker with his star men to make sure they are fresh going into the business end of the season.
Whatever the obstacles for City, the signs are positive, particularly when it comes to discipline and defending, which, as mentioned was not always their strong point last season.
Best salute comes from former Manchester United skipper Rio Ferdinand: “Well for me, Manchester City are going to win the Premier League, I put them as favourites to win the Champions League with the form they’re in.
“Regardless of if they’re got the best player in the world – they haven’t in Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or the Neymars of this world – but tactically, they’re on another planet to any team around.”
In my personal view, it may be Christmas mood this week the world over but I know Guardiola is not in the mood to join in with the festive spirit. Perhaps just to remind the rest of the Premier League they can expect no charity from the runaway leaders.
Mind you, unbeaten at the top of the table, 14 points clear of second-placed Manchester United and having just set a record of consecutive top-flight wins with their 16th on the bounce against my heart-throbbing Spurs, City could actually laugh at Santa Claus and merry-make and still further enjoy a comfortable lead when they return to action.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based sports journalist who shakes his head in disbelief that City’s 16th successive win has taken them to 52 points, only one game short of the halfway point of the season.