It’s been a rough week for Manchester City, but perspective is needed. They’re still 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League with six games to play. They’ll shortly wrap up the title, adding it to the League Cup secured in February. And they’ll complete one of the most dominant domestic seasons in decades.
Even if Pep Guardiola’s side are unable to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit against Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final tie, City have still achieved a great deal this term, marrying style with substance, showing beautiful football can yield epochal success.
But recent defeats to the Reds and Manchester United, as well as a handful of testing moments earlier in the campaign, have highlighted City’s fallibilities, proving them to be human after all.
While the champions-elect have swept almost all before them without meaningful resistance, there are similarities in the approaches of the sides who have stretched City this season, with lessons to be learned for future opponents.
Although Liverpool and United can come as close as any side in the Premier League to matching City for quality, boasting expensively assembled squads of their own, the fact the runaway Premier League leaders have, at times, struggled against far inferior teams suggests narrowing the qualitative gap on the Etihad club is not necessarily how you beat them.
With only two blotches on their league record this season, away to Liverpool in January and at home in the Manchester derby last weekend, it is City’s domestic cup scares that are most instructive when assessing the chinks in their armour.
Knocked out of the FA Cup by Wigan Athletic of League One and stretched to their limits by Championship sides Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bristol City in the League Cup, the key to upsetting City’s dominance, it seems, is boldness.
Sit back, ‘park the bus’ and aim to frustrate them all you like: City will eventually break you down and beat you, often sooner rather than later. But what the lower-league sides who enjoyed a degree of success against them all shared was that nothing was expected of them; they all had nothing to lose and they played accordingly.
This, in turn, encouraged a fearlessness within the respective performances of these sides, something that was also manifest, albeit in a slightly different manner, in the displays of Liverpool, in both the Premier League and Champions League, and United in their wins over City.
For Liverpool, their natural predisposition aligns perfectly with the attributes needed to cause City problems. Jürgen Klopp’s side is top heavy, with arguably the most dynamic attack in Europe, and the German coach’s gegenpressing philosophy is tailor-made for unsettling opponents who rely on sustained possession.
In both their league and European victories over Guardiola’s men, Liverpool denied time and space to City’s defence and midfield, cutting off passing lanes as they looked to build from the back and robbing key creators, such as Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, of the breathing space they become deadly within.
It’s a model that comes with inherent risks: pressing aggressively leaves space in behind, space which can be exploited if the press is played through. But, with such attacking prowess on their side, the rewards for a team like Liverpool are high. Steal possession and attack at speed into the spaces behind City’s high defensive line and success is there to be had, as they have proved.
The dichotomy between United’s first-half display at the Etihad last weekend and their rousing, come-from-behind second 45 minutes perfectly encapsulates the idea that showing City too much respect is to sign your own death warrant.
In the opening period, City were typically dominant, shooting on goal nine times – José Mourinho’s side never troubled Ederson – and monopolising possession in their customary fashion.
But the second half was a different story. Although United certainly rode their luck – also a prerequisite of overcoming the soon-to-be Premier League champions – they played with renewed ambition. Hitting the target four times to their hosts’ one, three unanswered goals gave the Red Devils a remarkable 3-2 victory, delaying City’s planned title celebrations.
As long as Guardiola remains in charge, and as long as they are able to keep adding to their already talent-rich squad, City will keep relentlessly adding to their trophy haul. With a supremely gifted collection of individuals, tutored by the finest coach of his generation, there is no surefire path to victory against the side from the east of Manchester.
Containing them is nearly impossible; fighting fire with fire will often lead to defeat, too. But pressure City, deny them space and be prepared to bite back, then fortune might just favour the brave.