As Liverpool’s form has stuttered of late City have found their groove, recording six consecutive league victories and registering 10 clean sheets, their most after 17 games of a single campaign in the competition.
They may sit in second place, two points behind city rivals Manchester United, but they have both a game in hand and the invaluable experience of handling the pressure when the crunch comes.
It is a far cry from a month ago when they languished below mid-table and critics were labelling the current team as the worst of manager Pep Guardiola’s tenure.
One of the key factors for their upturn in fortune is the way Guardiola has modified his team’s approach to the game. Renowned as an aggressive pressing team, the unusual circumstances of this truncated season has meant a less energetic approach was required.
“We were running too much,” Guardiola said prior to the match with Brighton on Jan 13.
“Without the ball you have to run. But with the football you have to walk, or run much less: stay more in position and let the ball run, not you.”
It certainly helps that the player at the centre of the team and their resurgence is arguably the finest midfielder in the world plying his trade right now.
Kevin de Bruyne is currently operating at a level above and beyond his team-mates and opponents, a modern-day Mozart of the football pitch who orchestrates everything around him, conducting the tempo of play. Equally adept with both feet, his range of passing is exquisite and his razor-sharp football brain enables decision making capabilities akin to that of a clairvoyant. One suspects he will no doubt make a fine coach one day, should he choose to.
He has now assisted 100 goals in all competitions for City since making his debut for the club, 76 of which have been in the Premier League, which sees him enter the competition’s all-time top 10.
Unfortunately, the news was confirmed yesterday (Jan 22) that de Bruyne damaged his hamstring against Villa and could be out of action for up to six weeks - a major blow and it will be interesting to see how the team compensate for his absence.
Another key factor in their upturn in form has been in defence where Ruben Dias has been a resounding success since signing in September of last year. For as much as Guardiola likes all of his players to be comfortable on the ball, including his goalkeeper, Dias places the actual art of defending first and foremost as a priority, something the statistics support.
His influence can be seen in how he has galvanised the entire back line, particularly the resurgence of fellow central defender John Stones who has gone from the forgotten man of the Etihad to one of the team’s most integral components. Nobody ever doubted his ability but many questioned his penchance for over-elaboration and unncessary risk-taking. Alongside Dias he seems to have matured and is performing admirably, his two goals last Sunday against Palace contributing significantly to the team’s victory.
Fellow England international Phil Foden, who Guardiola once described as the most talented player he has ever seen, has also progressed impressively of late and is now making it very difficult for his manager to omit him from the starting 11.
Add into the mix talents such as Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, İlkay Gündoğan and City’s charge looks ominous. Plus all-time record scorer Sergio Aguero still has to return once he has successfully served his COVID-19 quarantine and been cleared.
City are no longer a dark horse, as they were during the first half of the campaign. Expect them to up the ante furthermore as they enter the final straight of the season in their charge for the title.