There’s not much we’re yet to discover about Manchester City.
We know Pep Guardiola’s side are capable of spellbinding football, be it through mesmerising passing moves or individual brilliance. We know they are ruthless in pursuit of achievement, the substance to their style borne out by a record-breaking points haul en route to the Premier League title last season.
And we know they spare no expense in ensuring Guardiola is equipped with the tools he needs to bring to life his unique vision of how football should be played.
But Liverpool’s ascent to the summit of the Premier League this season has raised fresh questions of City, their response to which will go a long way towards determining how they ultimately place in the pantheon of English football’s greatest sides.
Through a combination of gradual improvement through the instalment of a well-defined on-field ethos since Jürgen Klopp took charge in 2015 and the injection of £230million’s worth of talent over the last 12 months, Liverpool are on course for a first top-flight title in 29 years.
The Reds are undefeated after 20 Premier League games this season, have the division’s meanest defence, a fearsome attack and own a seven-point advantage over the chasing City.
It’s testament to City’s quality and previous dominance that, despite the fact Liverpool have led the title race for almost a month, Klopp’s men are only just beginning to convince the masses and indeed their own fans that this, finally, could be their year; they were top for three weeks before the bookmakers made them title favourites.
Liverpool’s form is so imperious that if they continue to collect points at their current rate of 2.7 per game they’ll finish the season on 103, eclipsing City’s record-setting 100 from last term. They are also on course to do so with the fewest goals ever conceded in a Premier League season, equalling the 15 Chelsea shipped in 2004/05.
City may have lost three times in December, but they are hardly having a disaster of a season. At their current rate, they are heading for an end-of-season points total of 89, which would have been enough to win the title in all but six of the 23 seasons since the Premier League switched to a 38-game campaign in 1995/96. The reigning champions raised the bar so high last term that they are in danger of falling victim to their own success.
This is where we will begin to learn new things about Guardiola’s City, though. In the Catalan tactician’s first season at the Etihad tiller in 2016/17, City mustered only a fourth-place finish as the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss began to mould the squad in his image and put across his on-field philosophies.
Last season, they clicked. Frontrunners from the off, City stormed to an unassailable lead – they were 15 points clear of second-placed Manchester United this time last year – and never looked back. With no real external competition, they had to look inward to remain motivated, setting their sights on divisional records and aiming to win with dazzling panache.
Whether they retain their crown or not, it won’t be the same for City this season. Now, we get to see how they cope with genuine adversity, whether they are capable of hunting down a runaway leader and displaying all of the traits that demands – determination, focus, the ability to find a yet higher gear.
It begins with Liverpool’s arrival at the Etihad in the first round of fixtures of 2019. October’s 0-0 draw at Anfield showed just how evenly matched these two teams are, and Liverpool’s triumphs over City in the league and Champions League last season will have imbued the challengers with confidence.
But, win, lose or draw, there will be 17 games and so much football left to play after the two title rivals meet. A “six-pointer” against the Reds represents the perfect opportunity for City to narrow the gap, but they must meet every game thereafter with equal focus and intensity if they are to chase down Klopp’s men.
Sporting legacies are written based not only on great achievement but on the ability to triumph through adversity, to overcome the odds. No one laid a glove on City last season, but now they have the chance to show they can get back up after being knocked down.
Only once in the Premier League era has a team surrendered a lead as big as Liverpool’s at this stage of the season – Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United ‘Entertainers’ in 1995/96.
History and probability are on Liverpool’s side, but no league leader has ever been pursued by a side capable of amassing 100 points in a Premier League season, nor by a team so crammed to bursting with individual talent and coaching nous as City.
Breaking Liverpool hearts from their current position will be as big a test for City as breaking all those records last season.