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Is there any stopping this Manchester City team - at home or abroad?

Is there any stopping this Manchester City team – at home or abroad?Rui Vieira/Associated Press

If one were a betting man, the safest of punts would be Pep Guardiola is the only Premier League manager to have had a serious work of poetry dedicated to him. He is definitely the only one to have a undertaken a reading, as Guardiola did in 2015, when he appeared at Munich’s Literaturhaus to perform a piece by his late friend the revered Catalan poet Miquel Marti i Pol.

The work dedicated to Guardiola and his wife is titled “Book of Loneliness”, per The Independent, which conversely sprung to mind on a day when he may have felt he had never had so many friends in English football. On Saturday as his beatific Manchester City side cut a swathe through Everton in a first half of near perfect football, to leave a hushed Goodison Park crowd open mouthed in appreciation, it was hard not to reflect on the circular nature of football. 

For it was at the same ground, a little over 14 months ago, when Everton beat City 4-0 to inflict on Guardiola the worst defeat of his managerial career. The loss left City in fifth, trailing league leaders Chelsea by 10 points. As English football’s gleeful acolytes reminded anyone who would listen, and spoke over those who wouldn’t, how the Premier League isn’t La Liga, or the Bundesliga, Guardiola cut the loneliest of figures.

If he was twitchy on the touchline, he was even twitchier off it. A hard to watch post-match interview when he put the defeat down to profligacy on his team’s part, rather than porousness, had those of us reporting it pondering whether an idealist could ever win the Premier League. In May, after Manchester United had won the Europa League, to add to the League Cup they had collected earlier in the season, Jose Mourinho was at his pointed best when he said, via the Telegraph, “there are lots of poets in football, but poets – they don’t win many titles.” 

On Saturday at the Etihad, the poet has the chance to put the pragmatist firmly in his place. Along with the rest of us who ever doubted him. It’s a storyline Hollywood would baulk at, let alone a soap opera. 

Mourinho would rather swallow a bowling bowl than his pride in front of Guardiola. The Catalan will no doubt bring the champagne to wash it down with either way. Mourinho would be advised to spend the free midweek he has, while Guardiola takes his team to Anfield to play Liverpool in a UEFA Champions League quarter-final as eagerly anticipated as the possible title party, perfecting the art of looking gracious while every fibre of his being wants to poke his bête noire in the eye. 

If City play as they did at Everton it is hard to envisage anything other than a day out for the club’s supporters every bit as sweet as when Sergio Aguero scored that goal against Queens Park Rangers back in 2012. City’s players will retreat to bed on Friday evening acutely aware the next day’s events offer a once in a lifetime opportunity to write their own name in the club’s rich folklore. Or in Aguero’s case, a twice in a lifetime opportunity.

A City victory would see them wrap up the title with six games remaining, eclipsing Manchester United’s record of five games in 2000/01. They are similarly chasing United’s record title-winning margin, set in 1999/2000, when they finished 18 points clear of second placed Arsenal. A win at the Etihad would extend City’s current lead to 19. It’s more than conceivable they will also set new records for points in a season (Chelsea won 95 in 2004-05), most wins (Chelsea last term won 30 of their 38 games, City have 27 wins from 31 to date), while the 18 games they won consecutively earlier in the campaign topped the previous record of 13 as shared by Chelsea (2016/17) and Arsenal (2001/02).

As and when each new record tumbles, expect the fevered debate as to whether Manchester City are the greatest Premier League side ever, to become even more hysterical. Whether Guardiola’s current crop trump Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998/99, or Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04, seems to have turned even the most mild mannered neutral into adopting a binary position. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to think it’s possible to admire the Brooklyn Bridge without being furious about the fact it’s not San Francisco’s Golden Gate. 

At times at Goodison the difference between the two sides was so great it was as though they were playing different sports. What made City’s seamless fluidity even more impressive was the fact it came on the back of an international break. 

City have started to recall Roger Federer, who the late American writer David Foster Wallace, in his New York Times piece titled “Federer as Religious Experience”, wrote: “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” 

He could also have been writing about Manchester City, or more pertinently Guardiola, when he further mused: “Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision…

“What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce.”

When Everton found themselves two goals down inside the opening 12 minutes, as Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus each scored sublime team goals, Toffees manager Sam Allardyce looked to his bench, and then to a hostile home crowd, before arching his neck back skywards as though turning to the heavens for answers. The big man upstairs most probably winked and pointed out how it was Jesus who had just extended City’s lead. Guardiola has a direct line.

If the head curator at the nearby Tate Liverpool had any sense they would snap up the rights to the game’s opening 45 minutes, and play it on a loop as a permanent video installation. Masterpieces in sport are no less beguiling than those found in any other cultural sphere. 

On the day City were 3-0 up at half-time as they closed to within one win of the title, over in Germany, Bayern Munich were 5-0 up against Borussia Dortmund as they too moved to within three points of retaining the Bundesliga crown for a sixth successive season. For both clubs, it is the UEFA Champions League that has provided the only genuine competition in campaigns that have said much about their own strength domestically, and arguably just as much about the lack of it elsewhere.   

Over the course of the game Allardyce’s overall demeanour, as he repeatedly shook his head and slumped with his hands in his pockets, recalled another Federer anecdote. In 2015 an exasperated Andy Murray, upon running out of ideas playing against his Swiss counterpart, turned to his coaching team and screamed: “What do you want me to do?”

It was a rhetorical question. Just as when facing City in this type of form, there’s nothing you really can do. 

That’s not to say Allardyce helped himself. By the time City’s away following broke into a chorus of “you’ve got Sam Allardyce”, hordes of Evertonians were heading for the exits, presumably before walking straight into the Mersey. The biggest act of self-sabotage on the day, though, was Allardyce’s decision to field a central midfield two of Wayne Rooney and Morgan Schneiderlin (a Louis Van Gaal commissioned piece) against City’s three comprising Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. It was like trying to stop a tsunami using an umbrella. An umbrella made of paper.

In the first half both De Bruyne (61) and Fernandinho (62) completed more passes than the entire Everton (59) side combined. No Everton player completed double figures in terms of completed passes in the opening 45 minutes – Ederson managed 11. In the 57 minutes Rooney and Schneiderlin played together they managed eight completed passes between them, per Football365. It took Schneiderlin until the 36th minute to break his personal duck, which in more general terms is a bit like learning to tie your laces at 36 years. Manchester City’s final possession figure of 82.13 per cent is the highest recorded by an away side in a single Premier League game (since Opta started running the data in 2003/04).

Clearly Opta’s statisticians were having almost as much fun as City’s supporters, who took great delight in directing a “you’re just a fat Granit Xhaka” chant at Rooney. However dire Everton were, and they really were dire in the first half, it is perhaps worth noting how they had taken 23 points from the previous 30 available at Goodison. This should not have been a gimme. Everton were also the only Premier League club Guardiola had yet to beat in his two-year tenure in England, with a record of six wins from their last nine home games against City not to be sniffed at either.

The danger with City, as a neutral observer, is that we become complacent, or normalise, something that is anything but, because they make it look so simple. This is football elevated to another dimension. Routinely they play in a manner that would pique the interest of someone who neither follows nor understands the game. It is of a transcendental quality that gives it universal appeal. They make the hardest things look easy, as if trying to enable the uninitiated to understand.

Part of the appeal of English football is its rough edges; when City play, matches become as smooth as a pebble lying on the bottom of a seabed. The opponent in some senses becomes almost inconsequential, an obstacle to be bypassed rather than engaged with, like a pothole in the road. Everton could have replaced their midfield with traffic cones and been no worse off. It’s unlikely a cone would have gone 36 minutes without completing a pass.

If City’s three goals looked as though they had come straight off the training ground, it is because they almost certainly had. When writing the opening sentence to this piece I went back and forth changing the description of Guardiola from “manager” to “coach” and then back again. In England coaching has always been secondary to managing (which probably explains a lot). To the extent the main man at a football club is never described as a coach. Yet to describe Guardiola as anything other is a misnomer. Managers coax better performances out of players, great coaches make players better period.

City’s opening goal scored by Sane and assisted by David Silva, is a case in point. Simple and stunning it could have come straight off the plate of a Michelin starred restaurant that knows it is doing something differently, perfectly. That the left-sided Sane had drifted into the penalty box from the right flank to score with a technically perfect volley, says everything that needs to be said about the fluid interchangeability of this City side.

In terms of where they are at in their respective careers, Silva, at 32, is a World Cup winner with 119 caps for a Spain side that will be remembered as one of the finest ever in international football. Sane, ten years his junior, is very much in the infancy of his. Given the German winger has such beguiling raw materials to work with, such a dramatic improvement, though immeasurably accelerated this season, to the point if unleashed he could be one of the stars of the World Cup, is at least partially understandable.

The real outlier is Silva.

Somehow, the club’s best ever player, indeed one of the Premier League’s greatest ever, is looking fitter, faster, sharper, more quietly aggressive than ever. At an age when most players are figuring out whether they can reinvent themselves for one final hurrah, Silva is playing his normal game. Just better. At 32, Guardiola has him playing the best football of his career. Silva’s impeccable standards have been set against a backdrop of him having to deal with his son, Mateo, being born prematurely in December last year. He has required constant treatment ever since, with Silva making frequent trips back to Spain where his partner and family are based.

The fight for the PFA player of the Year has been billed as a straight duel between De Bruyne and Mohammad Salah, yet Silva would be just as worthy a recipient as either of them. Prior to City’s shock defeat to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup, he had won his previous 26 club games in all competitions, the longest run of any player since the league began in 1888.

The type of improvement seen in Sane and Silva has been more the rule than the exception under Guardiola’s reign in Manchester.

“He really helps players develop and he even helped me improve at the age of 30,” Philipp Lahm once said of his then boss at Bayern Munich (via the Manchester Evening News), while Xabi Alonso described the penultimate coach he ever worked with as being the best of his career. Nicolas Otamendi would no doubt concur with the view age is no barrier to improvement. Last season he was a punch line. This term he has arguably been the league’s outstanding central defender.

Learning Guardiola’s exhaustive processes is invariably exhausting. Those that complete the course, though, tend to come out the other side as much better players. Raheem Sterling has gone from national boo-boy to potential national saviour heading into a World Cup summer, with his 21 goals this season as many as in his previous two campaigns at City combined. Kyle Walker has earned comparisons to Lahm by his manager without any snickering heard from the back. De Bruyne has gracefully metamorphosed from potentially being one of the best midfielders in Europe to being one of the best midfielders in Europe, Aguero no longer plonks his deckchair in the opposition’s penalty area but links play when required, while Fabian Delph has had the last laugh on those who accused him of becoming a full-time Carabao Cup player when he joined City from Aston Villa in 2015.

What is even more demoralising for the rest of the league is how young but potentially world class talents such as Bernardo Silva and Aymeric Laporte, since his move in January, have been eased in this season as they adopt to a new culture both on and off the field. Next term they will be all the stronger for it, while City can also expect Bernard Mendy and Ilkay Gundogan to be back to full fitness. Jesus too is another who has quickly learnt he will have to bide his time. If Isco is added to the roster then City may again be in a league of one next season. 

To use a glib cliché, Sane’s goal on Saturday would have been worth the admission price alone. City rarely leave anyone feeling short changed. Jesus’ header to extend City’s lead was a less a spectacular finish, but there was just as much to admire in the build-up. When Everton’s players pressed high to cut off the option of Ederson playing from the back at a goal kick, the Brazilian simply pinged a low-ish straight pass to Sane on halfway. De Bruyne couldn’t have hit a ball better, though his cross for Jesus, after being feed in by Sane after a sublime piece of control, was equally tailor made. Most clocked the goal in at 12 seconds from the moment the ball left Ederson’s boot. Tiki-taka this was not from Guardiola’s side. What was remarkable was how every player involved seemed to know to the letter what their specific role in it would be. 

Sterling’s goal was virtually a carbon copy. Another choreographed routine that saw him sweep in from Silva’s cross, an 11th assist of the season for the Spaniard. Yannick Bolasie’s consolation for Everton after half-time raised the spirit of the home crowd, without ever causing undue consternation for a City side that by then had more than one eye on Wednesday’s return to Merseyside.

With the Liverpool game in mind, De Bruyne was taken off before the end. The Belgian was afforded a warm reception by all four corners of the ground.

It seems Guardiola isn’t the only one who appreciates great poets.

All stats provided via either Opta or unless otherwise stated

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