The year in sports has been crazy as it already has been thus far. COVID, bubbles, hubs, quarantines, self-isolation, postponements have all driven the sports world mad, leading to some shocking and unexpected results. Football has certainly not been spared, with the situation across Europe forcing teams to play multiple times per week, causing fatigue to seep its way into every squad, eating up its depth and truly testing each team’s title credentials. Yet, as in any chaotic season, one team in England quietly went about its business, and now looks in pole position to win what was almost an unlikely title for them.
For much of the season’s early title race, all of the hype was around Manchester United and Liverpool. The age-old rivalry was reignited between the teams, as Liverpool’s mounting injuries took their toll and United’s resurgent form dragged them up the table. But, unbeknownst to the casual observer, Manchester City won game after game, itching its way up the table and cementing itself in first. This all culminated in the recent 4-1 drubbing of Liverpool at Anfield. Considering all of the hype around its two great rivals, and the poor start to the season, just how did City manage to sneak its way into a comfortable first, with no signs of looking back?
A stalwart defensive partnership
Liverpool will rue the injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. Their central defensive crisis has forced Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to play at the back, out of position, and away from the heart of the midfield, killing their balance. However, no team knows this better than Manchester City. They went into the last season having lost Vincent Kompany, who returned to Belgium, and began it with Aymeric Laporte tearing his ACL. Add onto this John Stones’ recurrent injury and form woes, it spelt disaster. Fernandinho was forced to cover in central defence, and though he did an admirable job, it took away from his strengths in anchoring the midfield, and City’s defensive issues hampered them for all of the 2019/2020 season.
This season, it’s been a different story. City splashed the cash on young Portuguese defender Ruben Dias and Bournemouth’s best defender in Nathan Aké. The latter proved to be an adequate depth player for the side, but its Dias who has been a revelation. Since his embedment into the side, City have barely conceded a goal, with Dias playing a big hand in their league-best defensive record this season. Paired up with Dias has been John Stones, rejuvenated and on a new lease of life. Suddenly, he once again looks like the player that they bought for £50m.
Couple onto their solidity with having João Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko on either side of them, whom each have torn up the defensive and attacking flanks, and City suddenly have the best defence in England once again.
De Bruyne who? Aguero who?
It’s no doubt that Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in the league, but he was drastically out of form to begin the season – at least by his lofty standards. As for Sergio Aguero – we all know how much of a legend he is, but his body is slowly breaking down, and he hasn’t quite been up to scratch this season, due to his time off of the pitch. Once De Bruyne joined him on the sidelines, City’s title chances looked bleak as they would be without their two greatest players for an extended period of time.
Up stepped İlkay Gündoğan.
A talented player, but who is also hampered by injuries, seemingly out of nowhere he has emerged to become City’s driving force from midfield, scoring and assisting every week at exponential rates. At the time of writing, he has a combined goal and assist tally of 10, and this doesn’t look like it will be slowing down. De Bruyne being injured has also allowed the German to flourish further, picking up the mantle from his Belgian counterpart and driving City onwards to another title.
But what about Aguero’s replacement? Well…
Unleash Phil Foden
Pep Guardiola must’ve seen something when he called Phil Foden the most talented youngster he’d ever worked alongside, and the young Englishman had been biding his time waiting for regular minutes with the first team. Given the breadth of talent ahead of him, that was always going to be difficult.
However, bucking the stereotype of Manchester City, youth has finally been trusted, as Foden has been a revelation this season, and a shoo-in for the PFA’s Young Player of the Year award. Currently with 8 goal contributions, including a piledriver against Liverpool, Foden has shone in an attacking role, either as a False no.9 in Aguero’s absence, or in the midfield/on the wing should Guardiola elect to play the more natural replacement for Aguero, Gabriel Jesus.
Foden’s emergence hasn’t gone unnoticed, with many now seeing the extraordinary talent of the 20-year-old. Truth be told, he will only get better not only as the season goes on, but as his career goes on. His ability to dribble past anyone cannot be taught, as he already is improving his execution and ruthlessness in front of goal. Foden will be a big part of City’s title push, uncharacteristic for a side that were lambasted for their initial reluctance to blood youngsters.