By Richard Buxton, Special to Sportsnet
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – In all but name, Manchester City have become football’s great untouchables.
Taking on the Premier League’s most brilliant, bullish and even boring as the season approaches its midway point, they still cannot be caught nor stopped. Every attempt to contain or kick them out of step has failed, with Saturday’s 4-1 win over Tottenham extending the chasm between Pep Guardiola’s side and their contemporaries to 14 points.
The only person that can beat the Catalan is, quite literally, himself. Bayern Munich’s run in his debut season now stands alone in faring better than his current side in Europe’s top five leagues. Where Guardiola was in the midst of a forged dynasty at Barcelona, a 16-game winning streak which he has now equalled, and inherited one with the Bundesliga giants, he has not enjoyed the trappings which helped propel him to previous records.
“Of course I am proud and I don’t want to be humble right now. I’m proud of my staff,” Guardiola said.
“We work a lot and the players know that. We’re going to review tomorrow morning the game and speak with the players individually and altogether to see how many good things we did and [also] mistakes we have done, and work.
“That’s happened because I was with three amazing clubs: Barcelona, Bayern Munich and this one. All three clubs, they supported me and all the decision we believed and they provided me outstanding players.
“Without that, without good players and clubs who support your ideas, it’s impossible to achieve these kind of things.”
City had already made clear inroads on Arsenal’s “Invincibles” tag in midweek with a rout over Swansea that saw them overtake their Premier League record of 14 consecutive victories. Arsene Wenger still remains in denial, insisting comparisons cannot be drawn because his domineering Gunners “had no petrol,” a thinly-veiled reference to how the Etihad Stadium’s renaissance is fuelled by its Abu Dhabi-based backers.
Whether he likes it or not, City’s will ultimately be held in the same esteem as Wenger’s class of 2004 and potentially vaunted to another level again. There is far more to the current, seismic shift in the English top flight’s landscape than suggestions that they had bought their first title to the tune of £1billion.
In a space-age stadium, Guardiola is offering a vision of the past. Manchester United’s decades of dominance are being played out in all its glory across town, except the chances of breaking City’s current stranglehold, even for one season, appear improbable and even inconceivable. Given how he wrapped up a first title at Bayern by late March, with a 19-match winning run, Guardiola is also on course to romp to the title with a greater number of games to spare than the Old Trafford club’s record of five in 2000-01.
Even more gallingly for Jose Mourinho, his arch nemesis is set to comfortably eclipse to the 95 points accrued by his inaugural Chelsea side in 2004-05, with City projected to record a points tally of 109 at their current rate of growth. Arguably it may be why the Portuguese reduced himself to instigating fracas after last weekend’s Manchester derby defeat.
Spurs were the only opponents that appeared capable of laying a glove on City. Instead, the side which previously finished third in a two-horse race reverted to type and exposed a style of play which belied the principles that had seen Mauricio Pochettino widely revered. This was their fifth league defeat to date – already more than the entirety of the previous season
Guardiola’s put-down that the Londoners were simply ‘that Harry Kane team’ ultimately rang true as the England international proved the visitors’ sole outlet before Christian Eriksen’s well-taken but largely meaningless goal after the hosts had raced four goals ahead.
“When you watch the game and you assess the game, I think the way we conceded the first goal was a massive gift for Manchester City,” Pochettino said post-match.
“They are in a very good form, very good momentum. They are showing why they are the best so far in the Premier League. But different things happened during the game, of course.
“I think the chance that Harry Kane had maybe was key because if we had scored there, it may have changed because we dominated Manchester City in the first 20 minutes of the second half.
“But at 2-0, it looks difficult again because when you provide a lot of space, a player like Sterling, Sane, Aguero, Gabriel Jesus or De Bruyne, they have unbelievable quality in all the transition [play].”
In 12 games against his opposite number, Pochettino has only got the measure of Guardiola twice; once at Espanyol, during their time in La Liga, and the other with Spurs. The latter was the first defeat of City’s new revolution just two months into the previous campaign.
They never appeared close to even replicating that against a team which had failed to beat them since May 2015. Both Dele Alli and Kane were guilty of overzealous tackling on more than one occasion, with the former’s challenge on Kevin de Bruyne appearing to serve as the winger’s motivation for a galvanized showing in the final stages.
City remained at their imperious best in attack, with De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and a Raheem Sterling brace placing them out of Spurs’ reach. But the longer their current run continues, the more vulnerable they will become, as the visitors attempted to prove when they tested the theory with a high press that occasionally exposed Fabian Delph’s defensive deficiencies.
What they lack in established left-back options, however, Guardiola’s team boast in a plethora of creative options. David Silva’s surprise absence for the first time since the end of last season saw Gundogan step up to the plate and head home unmarked from a Leroy Sane corner for City’s third set-piece goal in their previous two games.
They are already well-prepared for virtually all other eventualities, like Atletico Madrid returning for Sergio Aguero to help fill the void of Antoine Griezmann’s imminent departure. Gabriel Jesus promises to be his heir apparent, almost scoring with his first touch after replacing the talismanic striker, who slammed down his gloves in anger.
A missed penalty by the Brazilian forward prevented the margins being larger but also proved that, as per Guardiola’s own admission, this team is far from a finished product. There is a sense that City will never receive the credit they truly deserve until they sweep every attainable trophy before them, as their manager did with Barcelona in 2009.
“Typical City” – a term which plagued the blue half of Manchester in past decades – now has a very different meaning.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Manchester’s Etihad Stadium.