Will Manchester City run away with it or crack at some point?
There is no evidence of a remorseless challenger in the mode of Liverpool in 1985-86
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola will be delighted with his team’s start to the season. Photograph: Reuters
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 fifth-round 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 per cent 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 1990-91, Liverpool in 1985-86 or Sunderland in 1894-95. Already, the title feels like City’s to lose.