How City became title favourites just over two months after being 13th

Man City shattered the record for most wins in a single month EVER – with NINE in January – and have a defensive unit that hasn’t conceded in 18 HOURS together… Their rapid rise from 13th to top of the pile and title favourites

  • Manchester City are three points clear at the top of the Premier League
  • Pep Guardiola’s side also have a game in hand and are strong title favourites
  • They have won 13 in a row in all competitions and could win the Quadruple
  • Defeat at Tottenham on November 21 which left them 13th was a watershed

‘When we were 12th we were thinking “forget about the Premier League, [see] if we can achieve being in Europa League next season”,’ Pep Guardiola insisted after his table-topping Manchester City side won their 13th match in a row at Burnley on Wednesday night.

While you suspect Guardiola believed all along his side could surge back up the table, their turnaround has been quite remarkable since losing 2-0 to Tottenham on November 21. City were in fact 13th at the end of that round of Premier League fixtures, eight points behind Spurs, who were top, and below the likes of Crystal Palace, Wolves and Southampton.

Now, they find themselves three points clear at the top with a game in hand on their rivals, while Spurs are 14 points back. They set a Football League record for wins in a calendar month in January – with nine victories out of nine – and are showing no signs of slowing down ahead of Sunday’s clash with champions Liverpool at Anfield.

Manchester City were last beaten by Tottenham in the Premier League on November 21

So what has changed? As record-breaking title-winners in 2017-18 and 2018-19 we are used to seeing City go on runs like the one they are on at the moment, but just over two months ago it looked as if the Guardiola era would be ending with a whimper. 

Let’s start with the defence. Up to and including the Spurs defeat, City conceded 13 goals in 13 matches in all competitions, including five at home to Leicester in September in a result that summed up their early-season malaise. Since that match, they have let in just four in 18. Two of those goals came with weakened line-ups in cup competitions, and the two league goals conceded in that time – against West Brom and Chelsea – came when one of goalkeeper Ederson and centre-backs John Stones and Ruben Dias were not playing.

That means that, almost unbelievably, City have not yet conceded a goal in 12 matches with that trio on the pitch. That equates to 1,080 minutes of football – or 18 hours if you like – not including added time. 

Aymeric Laporte, whose injury absence was a major factor in City not retaining the title last season, was dropped after the Spurs defeat for Stones and City have not looked back, as the Englishman has enjoyed a renaissance alongside summer signing Dias – who already looks like one of the best defenders in the world at 23. Laporte played on the left of a back three at Burnley and still surely has a big role to play, but Pep will not be breaking up the Stones-Dias partnership any time soon.

John Stones (left) and Ruben Dias (No 3) have yet to concede a goal when playing together

The pair celebrate Stones’ goal against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-final


The 12 matches goalkeeper Ederson and centre backs John Stones and Ruben Dias have started together:

Olympiacos, Nov 25, W 1-0

Burnley, Nov 28, W 5-0

Fulham, Dec 5, W 2-0

Manchester United, Dec 12, D 0-0

Southampton, Dec 19, W 1-0

Newcastle, Dec 26, W 2-0

Manchester United, Jan 6, W 2-0

Brighton, Jan 13, W 1-0

Crystal Palace, Jan 17, W 4-0

Aston Villa, Jan 20, W 2-0

West Brom, Jan 26, W 5-0 

Burnley, Feb 3, W 2-0

It is one thing not conceding goals, but you still have to score them to win matches – something City were struggling to do in the early part of the season. Again, the Spurs match can be used as the watershed in City’s season. Up until then, just 10 goals in eight Premier League matches. Since then, 29 in 13. 

City have had to learn to cope without two club legends this season, who formed the focal point of their attack for so long – Sergio Aguero through injury, and David Silva following his summer departure. In the early part of the season, City looked like a side mourning their absent friends are were far too reliant on Kevin De Bruyne. Their resurgence, however, has come about through other players stepping up to the plate and Guardiola tweaking his tactics.   

Ilkay Gundogan has been phenomenal in midfield, filling the void left by Silva when many thought Phil Foden would. Joao Cancelo has broken through after a tough first season, Bernardo Silva looks back to his best and Foden has flourished in the frontline. With no focal point up front and so many more players contributing, Pep has adapted to a more fluid system, with Cancelo stepping into midfield to turn a 4-3-3 into a 3-1-3-3 in attack, while the forward players rotate more without Aguero as a focal point. Knitting it all together at the base of midfield is an improving Rodri, battle-hardened now in his second Premier League season. 

Ilkay Gundogan (right), Bernardo Silva (left) and Phil Foden have all improved this season

Being forced to cope without Aguero and Silva for so long means that this new, more flexible City attack have managed just fine without star man De Bruyne, out with a hamstring injury until March. City have won the three Premier League matches he has missed so far with an aggregate scoreline of 8-0.

Aguero, City’s talisman for so long, should be back around the same time as De Bruyne, coinciding with the return of the Champions League at the end of the month. The Argentine has endured a personal nightmare this season, missing most of it with a knee injury, before his return was scuppered by Covid. If City are this good without De Bruyne and Aguero, imagine how good they will be when they return? 

They are second-favourites for the Champions League behind Bayern Munich but would fancy their chances against the German holders, who are not as good as they were last year. Talk of a Quadruple may be premature, certainly until City make further progress in Europe and the FA Cup, but it is quietly lurking in the background while they keep up this relentless march. 

Back to the original question of why and how City have turned their season around since sitting 13th in late November. There are two other factors to consider: one, City had a shorter turnaround than most after last season; two, Guardiola’s new contract.

Pep Guardiola signed a new contract in November to end speculation over his future

City were beaten by Lyon in the Champions League quarter-final on August 15. The last Premier League season finished on July 26, with the new one starting on September 12. Those who reached the latter stages in Europe were given an extra week’s break by the Premier League, but their season had lasted nearly three weeks longer, meaning the rest of the league had a two-week headstart on City in terms of fitness and preparation. The undoubted effect this had can be seen in how slowly Manchester United started the season too.

After the best part of a year of speculation, Guardiola penned a new two-year contract with City on November 19. They then went and lost to Tottenham two days later, but clearing up uncertainty over the future is no doubt having a long-term positive effect on the club. As Liverpool cantered to the title last season, City looked to be nearing a crossroads with many expecting Guardiola to leave and a two-year European ban hanging over them. The ban was overturned in July and with Pep committing his future months later, there was a feelgood feeling back at City before the results turned – and it is no surprise they did.

So, the forging of a formidable defensive partnership, adapting to a more fluid attack without Aguero and David Silva, having two weeks’ shorter break than most of the league and Pep clearing up his future in November have all contributed to the shape of City’s season so far – a slow start developing into a formidable return to form. 

The scary thing for Liverpool, their opponents on Sunday, and the rest of the Premier League and Europe, is it looks like Guardiola is just getting started as he builds his second great Manchester City team.

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