“They are the top. It’s football. They’ve been setting the standards in the Premier League high. It was up to us to close the gap at the beginning of the season. We need to raise our level.” Chelsea captain César Azpilicueta was speaking for nearly everyone when he spoke about Manchester City making the difficult look extremely easy.
On Sunday, 2 January, Azpilicueta was understandably downbeat after a thrilling 2-2 draw with Liverpool. It was a game that had served up immense footballing entertainment, and yet, at full time, it was City that had the last laugh. Liverpool and Chelsea, genuine title contenders till the beginning of December, have begun to fall away, leaving City, yet again, on the march to lift the Premier League title for the fourth time in five seasons. Chelsea and Liverpool are fantastic teams, two of the best in the world, but they’re still a cut below imperious City.
Mind you, there was nothing imperious in City’s last-gasp 2-1 win over Arsenal on 1 January. The latter had bossed the game against a bedraggled City side, and the defending champions had to depend on an unspectacular injury time goal from midfielder Rodri to salvage all three points. However ugly the win, it was still City’s 11th victory on the trot, and now they lead the league by 10 points. It is unlikely that too many other teams will hassle and harry them as much as Arsenal did, and we could be staring at another procession.
Pep Guardiola’s reign as City manager has been marked exactly by this level of consistency. Indeed, the only time City didn’t win the league—in 2019-20, with Liverpool in imperious form—they showed their appetite by handing Liverpool a 5-0 thrashing soon after the Reds had been crowned Champions. Last season, City racked up only 86 points—compared to 100 points in 2017-18 and 98 points in 2018-19—but still finished 14 points ahead of Manchester United in 2nd place. If City keep up their current winning streak, we would be in for another 90+ points haul. In a league that boasts of the reigning European Champions (Chelsea) and a team that has bossed this season’s Champions League (Liverpool), such numbers are not just remarkable, but legendary.
“You have to be perfect. And if you’re not perfect, you have to hope Manchester City are not perfect,” said Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp before the game with Chelsea. Turns out, City weren’t perfect and still won. Liverpool and Chelsea too weren’t perfect and all they could do is stymie each other. While this season’s City aren’t the purring machine of the past few seasons—yet—what the team does possess, and their main rivals don’t, is control, especially in midfield. So it was perhaps fitting that it was Rodri who found a way to win against Arsenal. Ever since the elegant midfielder was signed by Pep Guardiola in 2019, City’s midfield play has gone up another level. So much so that even with Kevin De Bruyne missing, City have not missed a beat. For this, the team have Rodri to thank. He’s absolutely brilliant in controlling the ball and dictating the tempo of a game. While he’s an excellent playmaker, Rodri’s ball control and eye for a pass ensures that he’s also brilliant at calming things down when teams come at City. This was evident during the see-saw 6-3 win against Leicester City last month, and it was evident again against Arsenal.
For the first 53 minutes, Arsenal had made City look entirely ordinary. The Gunners pressed with gusto, harried City into mistakes, and the explosive Bukayo Saka threatened to run away with the game. City’s equalizer was down to a mistake from Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, but once Riyad Mahrez buried the penalty, City started dominating the ball. Although they didn’t create much till the winner, Rodri was instrumental in calming things down in tight areas.
Liverpool and Chelsea both lack this level of midfield control. During 2018-19 and 2019-20, two seasons when Liverpool strode European football like a colossus, this crucial role of midfield control was fulfilled by Gini Wijnaldum. Since his departure to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season, the Reds have sorely lacked in this department. Thiago was bought to play the exact same role as Rodri, but despite flashes, he has not been able to settle due to covid infections and injuries. The other source of Liverpool’s control was their defense, and especially the frictionless brilliance of Virgil Van Dijk. But he too has been relatively lackluster this year as he feels his way back from a season ending injury he suffered in December 2020.
For Chelsea, this lack of control is down more to missing players. Last season, Jorginho turned in probably the best sustained football of his career, as he helped Chelsea win the Champions League, and then controlled Italy’s midfield on the way to the Azzuri winning the Euros. He’s played 17 out of Chelsea’s 21 Premier League games this season, and when he’s been out injured, Chelsea have struggled. This was best exemplified in the game against Liverpool, when his assured, metronomic passing was sorely missed as Liverpool turned up the intensity and Chelsea had to match it. Chelsea do not do intensity as well as Liverpool, and had Jorginho started, they may have edged a win.
At the end of the day, though, the table doesn’t lie. The simple truth is that Chelsea and Liverpool are both great teams, but flawed. Manchester City, right now, is simply much better.