City’s win at Old Trafford sent them 11 points clear at the top of the table and the title looks to be sewn up already. After a start that saw them tear teams apart with their free-flowing football and goals galore, they have had to dig deep in recent weeks, grinding out results with grit and determination. It is because of this rugged approach that many feel they could finish the current campaign unbeaten. But how do they compare to Arsenal’s Invincibles?
City have struggled for consistency between the sticks for a number of years but the big money signing of Ederson in the summer seems to have solved the issue. Ederson’s ability to play it out from the back makes him perfect for Pep Guardiola’s footballing philosophy and his performances this season have showed exactly why City invested so much money in him.
At just 24 years of age, Ederson is almost a decade younger than Jens Lehmann was in 2004, meaning he is far from the finished article – a very scary proposition for opposition fans. Unlike Ederson, Lehmann was suspect with the ball at his feet and his distribution caused Arsenal trouble at times during the unbeaten season.
But Lehmann was a top class shot stopper and his ability to read the game provided the Arsenal defence with the security they needed to play in their expansive style. On top of this, the German’s experience and vocal approach brought leadership from the back and forced those around him to up their game.
The season is still young and, due to their vastly different playing styles, it’s difficult to separate the two at the minute.
Since Arsenal’s phenomenal season, football has changed greatly, with tactics playing a much bigger role in the game. The most basic of those changes is in formation. In 2003/04, 4-4-2 was still very much the go to formation, with very few opting for an alternative formation. Since then, we’ve seen the 4-2-3-1 and now the 3-4-3.
Arsenal’s back four was built around solidity. At the time, Sol Campbell was one of the best – if not the best – central defender in the Premier League. Despite all his defensive attributes, Sol struggled to play it out from the back, opting for simple passes to his full backs or central midfielders, thus reducing the likelihood of sloppiness.
In the full-back positions, Arsenal had Ashley Cole – the best left back in world football then – with Lauren at right-back. The Cameroonian was a no-nonsense defender – a converted midfielder who defended first. These four players, with Lehmann behind, made for a very difficult back line to penetrate.
Since the money started pouring into Manchester City, they’ve openly struggled for central defenders, spending a fortune to find the right formula (£130m on full-backs alone). After another show of flamboyance in the summer window, Pep seems to have found the right formula – amazing what a blank cheque book can do!
Although he’s found the right balance as a unit, there is always the fear that Stones or Otamendi will make an individual error and cost the team at a crucial period. This is always an issue for teams that play it out from the back, but City’s form at the other end is likely to get them out of trouble.
Much has been written about the Gilberto/Vieira partnership down the years – and rightly so. They were an incredible duo; two warriors that had a seamless understanding, with the ability to defend and attack with ease.
With İlkay Gündoğan back for City, they now have a similarly strong unit, with Fernandinho alongside him. Alternatively, they have the option to play David Silva in the middle against lesser sides. Despite this quality, this is arguably the weakest area of the City team, whereas it was the heartbeat of the Invincibles. Gündoğan’s fitness record is appalling, and an injury to the aging pair of Fernandinho or Silva could see City left relying on Fabian Delph to see out the season.
There’s much more to attacking play than just the strikers, and; like City’s current system, Arsenal had two wingers in Ljungberg and Pires that played in extremely advanced positions. Bergkamp and Henry are probably the best duo the Premier League has ever seen, doing it consistently over a seven year period, with Henry bagging himself 30 goals during the league campaign.
City’s goals are coming from every direction. Raheem Sterling’s future looked in doubt in August, but nine Premier League goals, including a couple of last minute winners, have made him one of the first names on the team sheet. On the other side you’ve got Leroy Sane, a player who could easily win the Ballon D’or at some point in his career.
Sterling and Sane are a number 10’s dream. They make constant runs in behind, creating space and options for Kevin De Bruyne to utilise, highlighting his extensive passing range. On top of this, City have two of the most clinical strikers in the league – Aguero and Jesus – who rotate on a weekly basis.
This strength in depth was not a luxury Arsenal had. No one in England, or even world football, had such strength in depth 14 years ago. No one, bar Chelsea, could have afforded it. It’s that strength in depth that could see City smash Arsenal’s record this season. They have already broken the record set by Arsenal and United of 13 consecutive wins, and; at the minute, there is no sign of stopping them.