Monday, January 24, 2022

Man City’s lead makes Premier League title race look like extended victory lap

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In three of the last four seasons, title winners have had a margin of 12 points or more and City are on course to do so again

“You’re English, have you ever seen a team win the title in January? No. It’s completely unrealistic,” was Pep Guardiola’s reply. His irritation was divided between the question being asked and a competitor’s attempt to apply some pressure. Deep down he knew it. On Jan. 2, City held a 15-point lead at the top that they never came close to relinquishing.

Jurgen Klopp only reflected the mood. In October 2017, the Liverpool manager, with his wonderfully exaggerated fatigue, as if he’d been asked the same question six times in a row, suggested Manchester City could clinch the title by January.

Four seasons later, Klopp’s assessment is hardly controversial. In three of the last four seasons, the title-winning teams have achieved a lead of 12 points or more; Title races have become extended victory laps. But at the time, the notion that a title race could be over in January was absurd. In the past decade, only twice in early January has a team had a lead of more than three points; Four times the top two were separated on goal difference. We have entered a new age where marathons are run at a sprinter’s pace.

Over the past fortnight, Guardiola has once again attempted to dispel any notion that Manchester City are the champions-elect while almost everyone else is making peace with the reality that they are. This is partly a step to iron out any complacency. Against Leicester City last month, when Guardiola’s side went from 4-0 to 4-3 in 11 minutes, a theory surfaced that Manchester City were a well-worn blockbuster monster. Do your best Don LaFontaine impression: “They can’t be destroyed unless they destroy themselves”.

But this competitive fabrication is also an attempt by Guardiola to gain full recognition for his work. Watch Manchester City choke teams with the surefire control on and off the ball and you fall into the trap of thinking this is all so a) easy and b) inevitable. Pass, move, pass, pass, move, dribble, pass, shoot. Oh look, another beautiful little attacker found three meters of space in the penalty area and scored. I wonder who will be next?

The same applies to an unassailable lead at the top. We often remember – and therefore honor them most – those title winners who are chased to the finish line because those triumphs produce extraordinary, season-changing moments (for City, think Agüero 2012 and Kompany 2019) and have a proven record of taking courage and guts Offal. Assume a dominant position in the final three months of the season and you’ll either deliver at the gallop or be noticed as a potential choker. The same credit is rarely given to early season form.

But City really is a master regent. They have a ten-point lead at the top (although Liverpool can make that eight with their game in hand). They’ve already played away against each of their Big Six peers and, just as instructively, they’ve also played the three games they lost to non-Big Six opponents last season, all with a total of 14- 3 won. Even if City dropped as many points in the next 17 games as they have in the last 20, Liverpool would need to win every game to overtake them.

This is an unrelenting Manchester City season, like the plague of Camus, “an endless trampling that flattens everything in its path”. In their last two title wins, City have won 17 of 18 as of January (2018/19) and have won 13 straight league games earlier in the year (2020/21).

And they started early this season. City’s current streak of 11 straight league wins has included close victories – West Ham, Aston Villa, Wolves – leading to overwhelming victories – 7-0, 4-0, 6-3. Within that run, City have transformed from a team that creates a lot of chances and takes few to a team that takes almost all of them.

What it all means for the Premier League is a bit complicated, not only because it provides further hard evidence that state ownership combined with sensible delegation really does pay off. Aside from the moral dilemma, it doesn’t help broadcasters, sponsors or armchair fans that another title race in January is over.

But you’re just seeing if Manchester City care, and why should they? If Chelsea become just City’s latest opponent to indulge in his hypnotic fluidity and find managing his attack as difficult as juggling five bars of wet soap, the title race could truly be over. Whatever Guardiola may claim to the contrary.

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