When Man City lost 2-0 away to Tottenham last November, few people would have backed them to add to their collection of Premier League titles this season.
Goals from Son Heung-min and Giovani Lo Celso on that day saw Jose Mourinho’s men ascend to the summit, while City were in the bottom half of the table. That was something of a false position given City started their season later than most of their rivals, but 12 points from eight games had been an underwhelming return for a side that have hit such amazing heights.
A 5-2 loss to Leicester City in the opening weeks demonstrated clear weaknesses in Pep Guardiola’s side – they bizarrely conceded three penalties in that defeat to the Foxes – yet they now sit a comfortable five points clear of the chasing pack with a game in hand.
So how have Man City put themselves in pole position to add to their mounting collections of Premier League titles? Here is how a run of 14 straight wins in all competitions turned City’s 2020-21 season around.
A solid defence – at last
The most important thing for City in the last few months is that they finally have a reliable defensive unit again, for the first time since the departure of club legend Vincent Kompany.
Ruben Dias signed in the aftermath of that Leicester loss and, until a momentary lapse saw him concede a penalty against Liverpool, the £62 million centre-back had not put a foot wrong. Indeed, some believe Dias has had just as big an impact on City as the signing of Virgil van Dijk did on Liverpool when he was brought in from Southampton.
Alongside Dias, John Stones is resurgent, having been linked with a move away from City. Stones was an outcast not too long ago, but now seems sure to win back his England spot ahead of the Euros.
Dias is not just an excellent defender. He is also a leader and that is something City have been missing since Kompany left. Man City have only conceded twice in their current series of 10 straight league wins and that resilience at the back seems set to carry them to another Premier League title.
City are clear at the top despite playing without a central striker in a lot of games this season. Guardiola has found another winning formula with his latest tactical tweaks a huge success. The shackles have been taken off and, even without chief playmaker Kevin De Bruyne in the last few weeks, City simply cannot stop scoring.
Rodri is now mostly trusted to patrol the area in front of that dominant defence on his own, with Guardiola’s trust in Dias and Stones at the back allowing others to wreak havoc up the pitch. Their form in the absence of De Bruyne and Aguero, generally regarded as City’s best two players, shows the importance of the defenders in this new system. If they can stay fit once the mercurial pair return, it seems inevitable that another Premier League title, or indeed titles, could be heading in the direction of Man City.
The primary beneficiary of that release of the handbrake has been Germany international Gundogan, who is City’s top scorer this season with nine league goals to date. Gundogan netted twice in the 4-1 win at Liverpool – he also missed a penalty in the first half at Anfield – and his clever late runs into the box are proving extremely hard for teams to stop. Indeed, the German is now an early contender for the PFA Player of the Year award.
The tactical intelligence of Gundogan has never been in doubt but this has been the first time in his career that the 30-year-old has been truly prolific in front of goal. Gundogan previously featured almost alongside Rodri in a double-pivot, but he is now being allowed to play much further up the pitch. City are so much better for that shift in his role.
Emergence of Foden
Most teams would see a massive impact if they lost a player of the quality of De Bruyne for a few weeks. But not City – they have Phil Foden. City fans have been clamouring for Foden to be given more opportunities to impress for a few years despite his youth but it is only now that he has become a regular starter for Guardiola.
Foden’s performance at Anfield was arguably the outstanding individual display in the Premier League this season, with the England youngster thriving in a range of different positions. The flexibility provided by Foden, who can play on either wing, up front or in midfield, gives Guardiola heaps of unpredictable options when it comes to naming his team.
Foden has contributed five goals and three assists in the Premier League this season but those numbers only tell half the story. His Iceland indiscretion forgiven, Foden is becoming a star.
Cancelo adds fresh dimension
Joao Cancelo took time to settle into life at City. In fact, it is not long ago since there was speculation that City could look to cut their losses on the Portugal full-back.
Guardiola will be thrilled City retained their £60 million signing as he is increasingly one of their most influential players, whichever side of the field he lines up in. During Guardiola’s managerial career, he has often used full-backs in midfield and Cancelo is the latest trusted with this role.
Cancelo often drifts into central areas and becomes very hard for opposition teams to pick up, with the 26-year-old scoring a spectacular goal in the recent rout of West Brom, part of a 21-game unbeaten run that seems set to carry Man City to the Premier League title.