Two and a half months ago or so, I wrote this. I certainly wasn’t the only one, and perhaps I let my red-colored view of the world get the better of me just a touch as well. While Pep Guardiola was coming under more fire than he ever had while in charge of Manchester City, possibly at any of his stops, the underlying and eternal truth is that he still remains one of the best managers in the world. And perhaps Guardiola felt that with the congested, downright maniacal schedule of this year’s season, sacrificing a game or two or three early to remake his team was worth it. And remaking it to cover up last year’s biggest hiccup, their defense, would pay off in the long run.
Boy has it.
City have one hand on the Premier League trophy already, with 16 games to go for them, after an emphatic 4-1 win at defending champions Liverpool. The scoreline makes it look a little worse than it was, but that isn’t meant to imply City weren’t worthy winners. The game was just about even with 70 minutes gone, Liverpool having equalized from the penalty spot thanks to Mo Salah in the 63rd minute. City had most of the control, but Liverpool had created some openings as well, and the game lived up to the billing that these contests always have, with both the attacking and defending at highest level. It didn’t look too different from their January 2019 classic, another that vaulted City towards a title.
And then Liverpool keeper Alisson turned into something out of Yellow Submarine. First there was this:
And then three minutes later there was this:
And like that the game was over, and probably the title race as well. Even one of those would be a heartbreaking and inexplicable gaffe. Doubling on them is somewhere in the area of black magic/cosmic force material. Then again, Liverpool are somewhat used to keeper meltdowns.
The win leaves City five points clear of their neighbours in Manchester with a game in hand, seven clear of Leicester with a game in hand, and 10 clear of Liverpool, say it with me now, a game in hand. Considering they’ve won their last 14 matches, it’s hard to see where they could drop enough points to let anyone back in, short of half the team having a stroke.
It’s not just the 14 straight wins, but the fact that in those 14 they’ve given up four goals. Usually, the name “Guardiola” conjures visions of expansive, creative, and lethal attacking soccer. And City are still quite capable of all that, as evidenced by Phil Foden’s capstone today. But Guardiola has restructured City from the back on out this season, and in Ruben Dias, John Stones, and Rodri ahead of them, formed simply an impenetrable fortress. City have the best expected goals-against of any of the teams in the top five European leagues, and only Atletico Madrid are anywhere near them. If you’re in Atletico’s neighborhood when it comes to defense, you’re as miserly as it gets.
It’s the mobility that was on its purest display of late and especially today. In past years with Fernadinho as the defensive midfielder or central defense, or the quickly fading Kyle Walker, teams could catch City on the break. City have always looked like they have 15 guys on the field when they have the ball, but today they looked like they had 15 on the field when they lost the ball. The usually lightning counter from Liverpool was stymied almost at every turn. Spots where you’re used to seeing Liverpool take a turnover and then gleefully pour into space didn’t appear, as whenever they won the ball in what looked like those advantageous spots they were instantly blanketed by blue shirts. And then they would have to turn back, which presented all the same problems Liverpool have been having the past month. There was barely any daylight, and even Liverpool’s one goal was from a penalty that came off an error from Dias, rather than some worked opening.
It’s downright hilarious now to think that there were even whispers earlier in the season that Guardiola could find himself out of a job either midseason or after. He’s revitalized Stones, who was headed out the door at the club not all that long ago. That secure of a platform has allowed City to barely notice that Kevin de Bruyne, their best player, wasn’t around today. Nor Sergio Aguero, thanks to the form Foden and Raheem Sterling were in (Trent Alexander-Arnold is going to have to spend the week ironing out the tire tracks on his chest). City no longer have to worry about any failed attack leading to a counter that will result in a goal against. And when this City team feels it has freedom and security, there’s no living with them.