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“City are more than just in-form”

Liverpool will not hold on to the Premier League title this May.
The famous trophy has ended the season in Manchester 17 times out of 28, and it looks increasingly likely that come the final day it will head up the M62 to the competition’s most successful city once more. It is also as likely to end that journey at Old Trafford as it is to continue all the way to Hull.

This might seem like quite the claim. I’m writing off the title defence of a team just four points off the top with 18 games to play, who finished that season with the second highest points tally in the competition’s history. But inspired by the week’s headlines, I too shall end January by speculating with reckless abandon.

Yes, Manchester City conceded five goals at home to Leicester, whom they now only lead by two points. Yes, their defensive frailties have at times been mercilessly exposed, and by Christmas they had dropped as many points as in the entirety of their last title winning season.

Club record goalscorer Sergio Agüero, key to so many of City’s previous title wins, has been on the pitch for just 8.25 per cent of City’s league campaign. Their main creative force Kevin De Bruyne will miss their showdown with the reigning champions at Anfield, where they have won just once since the 1980s, and their top goalscorer is a defensive midfielder.

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That defensive midfielder, however, has more league goals-per-game than Sadio Mané, Timo Werner and every Manchester United forward. That exposed defence has conceded one league goal in January. That side who started the season so poorly, are unbeaten in their last 19 games in all competitions.

It isn’t just that City are winning, it’s the manner of those victories. Since their emphatic dismantling of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, they have won their subsequent five league fixtures by an aggregate score of 13-0, even putting four past West Bromwich Albion in a rampant first half.

More importantly, they have eked out the narrowest of wins against Brighton and an Aston Villa side who demonstrated their ability to bloody the nose of title contenders by putting seven goals past Liverpool in the autumn. City’s recent performances are those which separate potential champions from their merely in-form competitors.

The blossoming defensive partnership between the formerly out-of-sorts John Stones and Rúben Dias has been phenomenal, their impact perhaps most clearly illustrated by the fact that whilst having made the fewest saves in the league, nobody has kept more clean sheets than City.

It can be debated endlessly whether Dias’ signing has been more transformative for his team than Virgil van Dijk’s for Liverpool, but frankly, what matters now is that Dias is available for the rest of the season.

As Liverpool learned in 2018/19, it’s not enough to simply be good, you’ve got to be better than the rest. What about the now chasing pack? Well, Liverpool have just completed a four-game goalless run, losing their unbeaten home record in the process, and Manchester United lost at home to Sheffield United (a team that, prior to that fixture, were on a trajectory towards the lowest points total in Premier League history).

Leicester, it has to be said, have been incredibly impressive, but both team and manager have a history of letting an advantageous position slip late in the season.

In such tight and intense campaigns, mentality and squad depth are everything, and it is difficult to disagree with José Mourinho’s assertion that even City’s B team would be title contenders. Liverpool, on the other hand, are without their three first choice centre backs for the rest of the season and will be devastated to have seen their Anfield unbeaten run brought to an end by Burnley last week. As for Manchester United, if the team in 20th can beat you, anyone can.

Image: Stuart Grout via Wikimedia Commons