Sat. Jan 16th, 2021

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Man City looked lost after their worst start under Pep Guardiola – so what’s changed?

8 min read

Manchester City are back in the hunt for their fifth Premier League title in 10 years after ‘sensational’ performances at Chelsea and Manchester United.

City’s Carabao Cup 2-0 semi-final triumph at Old Trafford and their imperious 3-1 victory in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge has seen them return to their scintillating best.

The dark days of November, when City were enduring their worst start to a season since Mark Hughes’ managerial era with just 12 points after eight Premier League games, seem dim and distant now 

Manchester City celebrated their return to form with an impressive win at Old Trafford

Manchester City celebrated their return to form with an impressive win at Old Trafford

City are back and playing the free-flowing football that has kept them at the top of the English game for a decade. 

Former Manchester United star Gary Neville has hailed their recent showings as ‘sensational’ and with league leaders Liverpool only four points ahead of City, who have two games in hand, a serious assault on the championship is underway.

And the Carabao Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur and Jose Mourinho awaits.

So Sportsmail asks, who has brought City’s mojo back and who will now decide the strength of their challenge for silverware?

Dias shows Stones the way

John Stones is following Ruben Dias' lead at the heart of the Manchester City defence

Ruben Dias' has impressed with powerful performances in Manchester City's defence

Ruben Dias (right) is setting the standard for John Stones (left) in Manchester City’s defence

In some ways the numbers speak louder than words.

Manchester City’s comfortable victory over Manchester United meant Ruben Dias and John Stones have only conceded one goal in 900 minutes of football together.

That is serious defending in a run that has included games against Manchester United (twice), Southampton and Chelsea, all teams known for their attacking prowess.

Dias has said that 'winning is the only option' for Manchester City and that is how he plays

Dias has said that ‘winning is the only option’ for Manchester City and that is how he plays

Dias, signed for £64m from Benfica in September, has transformed City’s back line.

In 2020, when Dias has been on duty, City have conceded around half the number of goals per game. It’s reduced from 0.9 to just 0.5.

In Dias’ 13 Premier League starts this season, they have kept seven clean sheets.

He clearly lives for defending. Among all the tackles, blocks and the bravery of his performance at Old Trafford, there was one tackle that summed up his attitude.

Dias shackled Manchester United's Anthony Martial in the Carabao Cup semi final

Dias shackled Manchester United’s Anthony Martial in the Carabao Cup semi final

Late on, the match almost won, Anthony Martial threatened to escape down City’s left. Dias sprinted out to the wing, slid in, took the ball and dumped the Frenchman over the touchline.

As he jogged back to the comfortable surroundings of central defence, he wore the satisfied look of a job well done. Martial hadn’t had a sniff of goal all evening.

Dias, like all the best defenders, has an overwhelming desire to dominate from the first munite to the last.

‘Obviously, in this club and where I come from, winning is the only option.’ the Portugal international told the Manchester Evening News in December.

Dias and Stones began their partnership in the 5-0 home win over Burnley

Dias and Stones began their partnership in the 5-0 home win over Burnley

This attitude has rubbed off on Stones, who was recalled to the starting line-up in City’s 5-0 thrashing of Burnley in November.

As poor as Burnley were that night, Dias and Stones met fire with fire when the Clarets’ uncompromising duo of Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood came calling.

A new partnership was forged in that battle.

Any mention of Stones at almost any point in his career has included reference to his quality on the ball, followed by a question mark over his ability to do the ‘ugly stuff’.

The former Everton youngster still has oodles of quality – his passing accuracy remains around 95 per cent, among the best of any Premier League defender, and he has threaded an impressive 33 passes into the attacking third this term.

Stones and Dias celebrate tackles like goals and have shipped just one goal in 900 minutes

Stones and Dias celebrate tackles like goals and have shipped just one goal in 900 minutes

However, there is also an enthusiasm for defending we have not previously seen. A steeliness that fits him well.

Stones and Dias celebrate tackles like goals. Defending comes first. Ugly is good.

And while City struggled prior to Christmas to find their usual fluency in attack, Dias and Stones have ensured they have stayed in touch with the leaders in this topsy-turvy season.

The title challenge is on.

Kevin De Bruyne is off the leash 

Kevin De Bruyne is back to his scintillating best as City's defence has given him a platform

Kevin De Bruyne is back to his scintillating best as City’s defence has given him a platform

Defensive solidity brings benefits higher up the pitch.

With more confidence in their back line than at any point since the departure of club talisman Vincent Kompany, City can commit to their true passion and attack.

The last two performances, the majestic 3-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the swatting aside of United’s Carabao Cup challenge, have been marked by passages of glorious free-flowing football.

City’s spark is back.

De Bruyne is once again pulling the strings for City

Raheem Sterling played with freedom at Old Trafford

Manchester City’s midfield and attacking players like de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling are playing with freedom again and are back to their scintillating best

At times this season City have appeared uncharacteristically ponderous in possession. 

The ball has not moved with the same zip, but at Chelsea and Old Trafford Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan were at their rampaging best.

City’s shimmering talents are off the leash. and De Bruyne is once again leading the charge.

‘Their passing was so precise, sharp, quick, you cannot live with it,’ said former United defender, turned pundit, Gary Neville. ‘You cannot get anywhere near it and there were periods in that first half where City were brilliant.

‘I said a few weeks ago, watching City, it was almost as if the players had become bored of playing really well and achieving the standards they had achieved previously,’ he said on The Gary Neville Podcast on Sky Sports.

‘City, over the 90 minutes, looked like they are back to their best or near to their best,’

Fernandinho nullified the threat of Bruno Fernandes in the Carabao Cup semi final

Fernandinho nullified the threat of Bruno Fernandes in the Carabao Cup semi final

The platform for the thrills and spills of the flair players is not just set by Stones and Dias, however. Fernandinho, 35, rolled back the years and put in a classic performance in defensive midfield at Old Trafford, even topping it off with a precise volley to make it 2-0.

The Brazilian helped nullify the threat of United’s most dangerous player in Bruno Fernandes. Shutting down the space afforded to the talented Portuguese, limiting his delivery into United’s front players he shifted the balance in City’s favour and allowed De Bruyne to shine.

Fernandinho set out his commitment to old-fashioned values early on, when he clattered through the back of Fernandes.

But winning the ball back – by fair means or foul – is only part of the job and Fernandinho has the passing ability and vision to quickly turn defence into attack before opponents can reset their defensive shape.

Former City centre-half, Joleon Lescott, who played with Fernandinho, appreciates his former team-mate.

Brazilian Fernandinho is a ball winner who has excellent passing and vision to launch attacks

Brazilian Fernandinho is a ball winner who has excellent passing and vision to launch attacks

‘Fernandinho has produced the most consistent performances [in defensive midfield] and Rodrigo is an ever present and does exceptionally well, but Fernandinho has a different intelligence especially for a counter-attack,’ Lescott told the club’s website.

‘He knows how to foul and not get a yellow card. He can nullify attacks without them realising and be that figurehead to know where the game’s going.

‘He brings a different understanding to that role.’

But the City captain’s contributions are limited. He has only made three starts in seven Premier League appearances this season.

Rodri put in a huge performance for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge

Rodri put in a huge performance for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge

And Rodri has shown signs that he is ready to inherit the mantle.

After criticism for his performance in City’s sobering 5-2 home defeat by Leicester City in September, Rodri has performed consistently in the holding role and excelled in the team’s Rolls Royce performance at Chelsea.

The 24-year-old achieved the most touches, the most successful passes, the most duels contested, the most recoveries and the most tackles of any player on the pitch at Stamford Bridge, according to Squawka.

Such dominance in midfield is the bedrock on which any title challenge is built.

If not Aguero, who will fire City to the title?

Sergio Aguero is almost ready to return for Manchester City but can he fire them to the title?

Sergio Aguero is almost ready to return for Manchester City but can he fire them to the title?

This crazy, Covid season means there will be twists and turns, but the only obvious impediment to City’s title challenge now, is goals.

Two top performances should not gloss over the struggle to score, which Pep Guardiola was lamenting pre-Christmas.

After a particularly frustrating 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion on December 15, a game in which City had 26 shots, Guardiola cut a forlorn figure.

‘We control the games but we cannot do it,’ he said. You have to shoot one ball inside the net.

Gabriel Jesus is a fine understudy for Sergio Aguero but he has suffered injury and illness

Sergio Aguero is set to return for City and his goals will be vital if he stays fit

Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero have both suffered injuries this season

‘We cannot score goals. It’s difficult for managers to find solutions.’

Three goals in the first half at Chelsea must have eased the Catalan’s concerns, but a return of 24 from 15 Premier League games is nowhere near the required standard.

On the face of it, the problem is the injury to City’s perennial goal machine, Sergio Aguero, 32. He has only made two starts in five Premier League appearances this term and is yet to score.

Even in an injury-hit campaign last season, the Argentine notched 16 times in 24 top-flight matches. And with Aguero almost ready to return and Liverpool suffering their own goal drought, he could make the difference yet again, if he stays fit.

Aguero’s absence has been compounded by injuries to his understudy, Gabriel Jesus, 23, who has found the net just twice in seven Premier League matches.

Jesus has scored  72 goals in 164 appearances for City and could make the difference this term

Jesus has scored  72 goals in 164 appearances for City and could make the difference this term

At Old Trafford, City did not even field an established centre forward, but went with two false nines in De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez.

And they relied on set pieces to make their superiority count.

City will be buoyed by Jesus’ return to the squad after suffering coronavirus. While not as prolific as Aguero, he does have 72 goals in 164 appearances for the club.

But the underlying problem is City did not invest in a striker of sufficient quality in the summer to underwrite their campaign.

Ferran Torres has put in good performances for City but has only two Premier League goals

Ferran Torres has put in good performances for City but has only two Premier League goals

Winger Ferran Torres has done his best to fill the void, but despite some encouraging performances in the Premier League he only has two goals in 10 appearances.

Reflecting on the summer recruitment campaign, Guardiola said: ‘If you decide to buy a striker, it has to be a striker in the league of Gabriel and Sergio but we cannot afford it. That is the reality.’

But now, with the transfer window open, the team firing on all cylinders and within touching distance of leaders Liverpool, there is every incentive to invest. And what striker wouldn’t want the opportunity to lead the line for a City team in this form?

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