City’s start is no flash in the pan but his­tory is lit­tered with flops

Guardi­ola’s side well placed for ti­tle if they avoid the prat­falls, writes Jonathan Wil­son

The Observer - Sport - - SPORT FOOTBALL -

United in 1985 had a lead of 10 points but were bur­dened by a lengthy wait for the ti­tle and a no­to­ri­ous drink­ing cul­ture

Manch­ester City’s start to the sea­son has been re­mark­able, largely be­cause they are chal­leng­ing records for two dif­fer­ent types of dom­i­nance. Only Tot­ten­ham in 1960-61 have a bet­ter record at this stage, win­ning 11 out of 11, while only seven other sides have won 10 and drawn one of their first 11 games, all in the past 40 years which per­haps sug­gests how money has cre­ated big­ger di­vides be­tween teams.

And only six sides have ever scored more than City’s 38 goals af­ter 11 games, four of them in the 19th cen­tury. What seems re­ally telling, though, is that only one team fea­tures in both lists – and that’s City them­selves un­der Roberto Mancini in 2011-12.

That, per­haps, of­fers the first note of cau­tion. City in 2011-12 did go on to win the ti­tle, but only be­cause of two goals in in­jury time on the fi­nal day of the sea­son. It was not, in any sense, the pro­ces­sion it already feels that this sea­son could be­come for Pep Guardi­ola’s side.

The gap, it’s true, was only five points af­ter 11 games then, as op­posed to the eight it is now, and City were still a long way from be­ing de­clared fully free of Ci­tyi­tis but still, the warn­ing is there. Draws against Stoke and Sun­der­land at the end of March fol­lowed by a de­feat to Ar­se­nal in which Mario Balotelli was sent off were al­most enough to de­rail their chal­lenge.

City, of course, are City, and prone to that sort of thing, but two of those other teams to start the sea­son with 10 wins and a draw from 11 games also failed to win the ti­tle. Liver­pool in 1990-91 were un­beaten un­til go­ing down 3-0 at Ar­se­nal at the be­gin­ning of De­cem­ber. But the emo­tional strain of Hills­bor­ough was tak­ing its toll on their man­ager, Kenny Dal­glish, and he re­signed fol­low­ing a 4-4 draw against Ever­ton in an FA Cup fifthround re­play in Fe­bru­ary. Liver­pool lost the next two league games and ended up sec­ond, seven points be­hind Ar­se­nal.

Those were spe­cific cir­cum­stances and Liver­pool’s lead, any­way, had been only four points. Manch­ester United, in 1985, had a lead of 10 points af­ter 11 games, hav­ing won their first 10 be­fore draw­ing with Lu­ton. They did not lose un­til their 16th game of the sea­son. But they – like City in 2011-12 – were bur­dened by a lengthy wait for a league ti­tle. There was also a no­to­ri­ous drink­ing cul­ture at the club.

Mark Hughes lost form as news broke of his im­mi­nent move to Barcelona, while John Gid­man, Gor­don Stra­chan and Remi Moses all suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries. Steve Ni­col has said re­cently that Liver­pool al­ways expected United to crack at some point and they did, even­tu­ally fin­ish­ing fourth, 12 points adrift of the cham­pi­ons.

Two of the eight sides who have started the sea­son as well as Guardi­ola’s City in terms of wins and draws, then, have failed to win the ti­tle. Three of the eight who have started with as many or more goals have. Tot­ten­ham in 1963 had 40 goals af­ter 11 games, but the give­away is that they had also con­ceded 21. Even within that first 11 games, af­ter which they were sec­ond on goal av­er­age un­der the old sys­tem, they had lost 7-2 at Black­burn. The sea­son col­lapsed in March with four de­feats and a draw in five games and they ended up fourth.

It was a sim­i­lar story for Burn­ley two years ear­lier. They won nine and drew one of their first 11 games, scor­ing 38 goals to stand four points clear of Manch­ester United (with two points for a win), but they had leaked 22 goals. Although they scored six or more goals in a game five times that sea­son, Harry Potts’s side kept only seven clean sheets. Fa­tigue caught up with them in April as they lost four games to fin­ish sec­ond be­hind Alf Ram­sey’s newly pro­moted Ip­swich, and they then lost in the FA Cup fi­nal to Tot­ten­ham.

Ever­ton in 1894-95 had 39 goals at this stage hav­ing won eight and drawn two of their open­ing 11 games, but they were never quite the same af­ter los­ing their 100% record with de­feat to Black­burn in the ninth game of the sea­son. They ended up sec­ond, reeled in by Sun­der­land, who claimed their third ti­tle in four sea­sons un­der Tom Wat­son, ar­guably the first man­ager as we would now un­der­stand the term.

The good news for City is that none of the con­di­tions for those fail­ures seem to ap­ply. While their de­fence is not en­tirely con­vinc­ing, they have let in only seven goals so far in the Pre­mier League – only Pre­ston in 1888 and Sun­der­land in 1892 have ever had a bet­ter goal dif­fer­ence at this stage of the sea­son. There is no drink cul­ture at the club nor any crush­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure and even if a cou­ple of key play­ers were to be in­jured, their squad is so deep that Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gün­do­gan have barely fea­tured this sea­son.

But per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, there is no ev­i­dence of a re­morse­less chal­lenger in the mode of Ar­se­nal in 199091, Liver­pool in 1985-86 or Sun­der­land in 1894-95. Already, the ti­tle feels like City’s to lose.

Lau­rence Grif­fiths/Getty Im­ages

Lead­ing the charge: City’s Ser­gio Agüero and Leroy Sané are poised to shat­ter records.

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