When looking at the fixture list in August, this weekend’s clash between Manchester City and Chelsea — the title favourites against the title holders — appeared crucial in determining the destination of the Premier League trophy.
Instead, it’s anything but a six-pointer: City are way out in front, while Chelsea are merely chasing Champions League qualification after a wretched couple of months. But also in the sights of Pep Guardiola’s side is the Premier League all-time points record, the holders of which are… Chelsea.
The 2004-05 Chelsea side managed an incredible 95 points, while the team of last season managed 93. Both involved managers in their debut season, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, respectively, and both depended upon the use of a formation that was, at the time, relatively unusual to the English top-flight.
Both sides started the season slightly sluggishly, before roaring into the distance following a crucial formation switch in the autumn: Mourinho revolutionised with his use of 4-3-3, while opponents desperately struggled to cope with Conte’s 3-4-3. In a tactical sense, both men asked questions that opponents could not answer.
Mathematically, City appear on course for the record and need 21 points from their remaining 10 games. Since only three of those are against top-six rivals — home vs. Chelsea and Manchester United and away to Tottenham — seven wins shouldn’t be too difficult.
Guardiola’s system is also revolutionary, if not in simple formation terms then certainly in the style of player used in various positions, particularly the two advanced midfield roles. But in this notional points competition for the title, his side’s advantage is that they started the season excellently, as opposed to Mourinho and Conte’s sides who took a few weeks to click into gear.
City have been absolutely rampant from the opening weeks, putting together a winning run that went down in club history and briefly threatening Arsenal’s historic record of going the entire season unbeaten. Guardiola’s learning period in English football wasn’t at the start of this season, but throughout last year, his first Premier League campaign.
He immediately deployed a system with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield and, although he changed system towards the end of last season, moving towards a 4-2-3-1 with more solid players, City benefited from Guardiola’s work on the training ground, which prompted their flying start to this campaign.
In a sense, the fact this is Guardiola’s second season makes the points tally more impressive. Whereas Mourinho and Conte shook the league with a new system that was eventually worked out by managers, who found that matching the formation was the best response, nobody has entirely figured out how to stop City this season.
Some teams, like Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle, have used an incredibly deep block, but this seems to invite pressure. Liverpool, meanwhile, inflicted defeat upon City with a high-energy, pressing system, but that’s their default style and the fact they collapsed in the final minutes of their 4-3 win demonstrated the physical exertions required.
There is no obvious tactical solution, it’s not a case of fighting fire with fire and it’s probably not about a simple chalkboard-based, numerical response; City are simply playing fast-paced, dynamic football with outstanding players in key positions. It must also be emphasised that City are playing considerably more attractive football than those they are set to overhaul.
Mourinho’s Chelsea were a strong, tactically-disciplined side who kept 25 clean sheets in 38 games, played largely on the counter-attack and lacked either a truly elegant playmaker or a prolific goalscorer. Frank Lampard was their outstanding player in 2004-05 and, while he epitomised his manager’s approach with energy, well-timed runs and clinical finishing, it was efficient rather than beautiful.
Upfront, Didier Drogba struggled badly in his first Premier League campaign and, while Arjen Robben was the player to provide moments of excitement out wide, he spent the majority of the campaign injured. Even Joe Cole, English football’s great hope at that time, was converted from an elusive playmaker into an up-and-down worker, praised by his manager only for his defensive effort.
Conte’s champions were better to watch, in part because of the wonderful Eden Hazard, whose drifts inside from the left produced many a great moment. But the PFA Player of the Year was N’Golo Kante and his midfield partnership with Nemanja Matic, in combination with a three-man defence and wing-backs, meant the defining feature of Chelsea’s play was the defensive structure.
The omission of Cesc Fabregas from midfield for much of the campaign outlined Conte’s demands and, while the Spanish international gradually worked his way into the side and provided a succession of assists, Chelsea were again ruthless rather than eye-catching, though their 30 victories did set a new record for wins in a season.
Guardiola’s side essentially tick every box. They’re ruthless but also wonderful to watch, as their midfield passing and the movement of the wide players combine to create an attacking unit greater than the sum of its parts.
At the other end, the centre-backs are ball-players, goalkeeper Ederson is renowned for his distribution and, though there’s no natural defensive midfielder, the goals-against record remains good thanks to organisation and because City’s attacking play is so good that opponents are afraid of pushing men forward.
There’s no question that, regardless of what happens over the next two-and-a-half months, this City side is among the greatest in the 26 years of the Premier League. But perhaps the main barrier to this success is success elsewhere.
With up to six Champions League games remaining, Guardiola’s focus will almost solely be upon winning his third European Cup, a distraction that Conte’s side of last year didn’t have to worry about. European glory clearly takes precedence, but a points record would demonstrate that Guardiola’s side have reached a level never previously seen in the Premier League.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.