Man City are not invincible - Liverpool could still catch Premier League leaders

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The reigning champions have pulled 10 points clear at the top of the table but their performances have not been as impressive as their results
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The prevailing wisdom says the title race is over, not just because Manchester City are 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, but because they are a relentless winning machine.

Eleven on the bounce evokes memories of their sudden surge to the title around this time last year and even has some pundits suggesting this is Pep Guardiola’s greatest Man City team.

It never ceases to amaze how short our memories are and how absolute our conclusions, no matter how often history teaches us that the narrative can suddenly change.
We are remarkably short-termist and fatalistic, forever assuming the current state – whether crisis or brilliance – is a permanent state.

Man City’s lead is probably too large to be overcome by Liverpool or Chelsea, but to assume there is no hope is to let recent results dictate the story when performances actually point to a different reality.

Four of their 11 consecutive wins can be considered lucky. One-goal wins against Arsenal, Aston Villa, Brentford, and Wolves had moments of fortune or marginal refereeing calls; all involved a sluggish performance that could have seen points dropped.

According to understat.com’s calculations of xG, Man City’s xPoints this season stands at 50.63, two fewer than their real total, while Liverpool’s stands at 45.29, three more than Jurgen Klopp’s side actually hold.

In other words, with a bit more luck – with the slightest of swings – Liverpool would only be five points behind City with a game in hand.

Winning ugly can be a sign of true champions, of course, and if luck has played a part, that does not mean City do not deserve their current lead.


Good fortune, and the ability to seize an opportunity when the opponent squanders theirs, is a commendable trait.

Nevertheless, it does tell us that City are not guaranteed to continue their winning streak, and could in fact be susceptible to a dip in form that allows their rivals back in. There remains the slim possibility of the gap closing.

Across those four narrow wins in question, Man City have shown vulnerability in two distinct ways.

The Arsenal game set an interesting template for others to follow. Mike Arteta’s side were dominant for large periods of the first half, engaging in a brilliantly choreographed press that exposed the (occasional) danger of Guardiola fielding just one holding midfielder behind Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

With Thomas Partey sweeping up and Martin Odegaard running the show between the lines, Arsenal were able to swarm Rodri, outnumbering Man City in central midfield.

From this position of strength, Arteta targeted City’s vulnerability on the right – an area Joao Cancelo leaves in pursuit of attack, and where Riyad Mahrez never tracks back into – with long passes to set Gabriel Martinelli clear.

Ultimately, Arsenal shot themselves in the foot and threw the game away, but Arteta’s brave tactical system certainly troubled the league leaders.

Here was evidence that opponents need not be terrified of City, need not turn up with the hope of simply keeping the score down – a psychological issue that has played a big part in City’s historic winning streaks.


Aston Villa’s second-half performance in a 2-1 defeat was similarly confrontational, and had Carney Chukwuemeka scored his one-on-one, critics would have rightly pointed to an alarming collapse under pressure. This City team is not invincible. They can be spooked.

Chelsea’s visit to the Etihad on January 15, Tottenham’s on February 19, and Manchester United’s on March 5 all stand out as potential concerns for Guardiola after Arsenal’s example. Dropping points in all three games would likely see their lead slashed significantly.

The narrow wins against Wolves and Brentford pointed to a different way in which opponents can still hurt Man City.

In both of these games, a lower block was deployed and an aggressive press enacted in the central third; it was not backs-to-the-wall defending, but rather ensuring the middle column of the pitch was compact so that City could only build down the flanks.

Wolves and Brentford both deployed a two-man forward line when off the ball in order to block the passing lanes into Rodri, having a significant effect.

In both games, a sleepiness crept into City’s game as the rhythms slowed, evoking those defeats to Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur and the draw with Southampton earlier in the season.

Had it not been for a dodgy penalty call against Bruno Lage’s side that match would have ended level, while Brentford looked worthy of a point and reduced City to tepid football for long periods.

The issue, as was the case for previous dropped points in 2021-22, was the lack of a striker; when teams are able to drag City into stale possession in front of 11 bodies, the champions need a forward capable of making clever runs in the box and finishing difficult chances.

Rodri Manchester City Newcastle Premier League 2021-22 GFX
It is only a minor flaw, but enough to offer a glimmer of hope to Liverpool and Chelsea. It certainly suggests City’s upcoming games against Southampton (a), Brentford (h), Everton (a), and Crystal Palace (a) are not foregone conclusions.

However, even if Man City start dropping points, we need Liverpool or Chelsea to improve to rekindle the title race. That looks impossible for Chelsea, not with the Romelu Lukaku situation rumbling on, but Liverpool have an outside chance.

Their biggest concern is failing to hold onto leads: Liverpool have dropped 10 points from winning positions (City have dropped none) thanks to an inability to prevent end-to-end games unfolding.

They badly miss Georginio Wijnaldum’s control in midfield, which kept opponents pinned, and while Thiago Alcantara has taken up the mantle, injuries have limited his game-time.

Article continues below
'Apologetic Lukaku wants to clean up mess' - Tuchel
If they can keep the Spaniard fit, then a winning streak like the one seen in 2019-20, when one-goal wins were commonplace for Klopp, is on the cards.

From City stuttering to Liverpool surging, that’s an awful lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, especially with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah missing two or three games this month. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Look past the results and Man City haven’t been as good as they are being painted right now. There remains a slim, but genuine, chance of a dramatic twist in the months ahead.
 

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