The game was about to enter stoppage time when Kevin De Bruyne raced to cut out a quick throw-in from the Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier and scolded himself for failing to do so. Manchester City were 7-0 in front and the result had been a foregone conclusion for an hour but that did not matter to De Bruyne. Leeds had the ball and the City midfielder wanted it back.
You could pick any number of moments from the past 12 months to highlight the sheer relentlessness of this City side but that seemed as good a recent example as any… 7-0 up and still sprinting like it was the first minute.
Pep Guardiola would stop short of calling 2021 the perfect year – defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League final hurt and the prospect of another domestic treble was ended when they lost to the same opponents in the semi-finals of the FA Cup – but they remain the country’s best team, the side to beat, a record-breaking machine navigated by a serial winner who will simply not let up.
“We are still there [at the top],” the City manager said. “I am not saying in December how many titles we will win but we are still there, which is fantastic after what we have done these [last] years.”
City still have two Premier League games to play before the new year – Leicester at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday and Brentford away three days later – but they have already recorded the most victories (34) and most away wins (18) in a calendar year by a top-flight English side, just two of a series of eye-watering statistics from the past 12 months.
Their total of 106 goals over that period is a Premier League record and helped them amass 104 points from 126 on offer, with 34 wins and 23 clean sheets from 42 league matches.
In truth, the extraordinary momentum they have gathered dates all the way back to a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham on November 21 last year, since when they have seldom taken their foot off the pedal, and it is going to take a gargantuan effort from either Liverpool or Chelsea, and a sharp dip in City’s own form, to deny the champions a fourth Premier League title in five seasons.
The title was effectively won last season during a 19-game unbeaten league run between late November and early March as notable for City’s collective defensive solidity as their slick attacking football. They kept 13 clean sheets during that period and conceded just 32 shots on their own goal – and something similar seems to be taking shape this season.
Their 18 matches to date – the past eight of which they have won – have yielded 11 clean sheets and, during that time, the opposition have managed just nine goals from 37 shots on target, an average of 2.06 shots on target per game, City’s best record under Guardiola to date and comfortably the best in the league.
A Cruyff acolyte, Guardiola has always worked to the principle that the best form of defence is to have the ball and his beautifully engineered set-up allows City to exert a high level of control over it. “To be stable as a team, it is [to have] the ball,” Guardiola said.
“If you see individually our players, they are not good defenders. Individually, Bernardo, [Ilkay] Gundogan, Kevin, Rash [Raheem Sterling], Riyad [Mahrez], even Joao [Cancelo], Oleks [Oleksandr Zinchenko], individually we are not good defensively but we have the ball. The ball – and what you do with it – is the only reason why you are stable.
“You create chances with the ball, you concede fewest with the ball. It is how you play in the middle part [of the pitch], the midfield players, how you handle the situations there – [then] you will be stable behind, you will be productive up front. Without that, some players will concede a lot of chances.”
Possession alone does not explain City’s success, though. They enjoyed plenty of possession during the 2019/20 campaign and the start of last season but they have addressed their vulnerability to quick transitions to the point where it is now very difficult for teams to counter-attack successfully against them.
Leicester ransacked City 5-2 at the Etihad in September last year but Brendan Rodgers’ side are unlikely to find anything like the same space on Sunday.
City’s positioning and short, sharp passing allows them to converge quickly in numbers on opponents if they do turn the ball over, they are adept at forcing opponents wide or away from goal and their onus on combination play in wider areas often means they are not conceding possession in dangerous positions but areas where space is restricted.
They have also cut out the sort of individual mistakes so apparent in that collapse against Leicester. City have committed just two errors leading to a shot in the league this season. Manchester United and Arsenal, by contrast, have committed 13 and 14 respectively.
It helps that in Ederson they have such a formidable goalkeeper, too, both from a defensive and offensive point of view. Guardiola rates the Brazilian as one of City’s best-ever buys. “His consistency in all this period is incredible,” he said. “I have had the feeling that over the last three or four games he has even stepped forwards again, too.”
From an attacking perspective, Guardiola has largely abandoned his use of inverted wingers and instead reverted to the tactic of asking his wingers to play high and wide (like Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling did in 2017/18), thereby pinning the opposition full-backs and creating space for his No 8 midfielders, like Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan, to attack the box from inside.
It is no surprise Gundogan was City’s top scorer in the league last season and Bernardo is so far this term. The strategy has also had the added benefit of enabling Joao Cancelo to exploit that half-space City’s full-back turned playmaker is so adept at finding.
Whether this is the best City side Guardiola has produced is debatable but it certainly feels the most egalitarian: more than ever, the strength is in the collective and the system king.
It should not be forgotten that some of City’s biggest names, such as De Bruyne and Sterling, have suffered noticeable slumps in form at different periods this year and it was also a year in which the club said goodbye to another legend in Sergio Aguero, a loss they have almost effortlessly absorbed. The system is so well honed now that City can comfortably swallow changes in personnel and high-profile absences that might cripple most sides.
It has been quite a year, and there is little to suggest 2022 will not offer more of the same.