Liverpool’s 1-0 loss to Southampton in their last Premier League fixture was greeted with cheers in Manchester. That result at St Mary’s kept Manchester United level on points with the champions in the top spot and means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will climb to the summit of the standings if they avoid defeat by Burnley on Tuesday. Liverpool losses are always well received at Old Trafford, but last week was particularly so.
However, the Reds’ setback at St Mary’s went down equally well among followers of Manchester City – and it is they, not United, who are now favorites to win the Premier League title. DraftKings Sportsbook offers +110 on Pep Guardiola’s men lifting the trophy, with Liverpool drifting to +275. United may be the team on top by the end of Tuesday, but their +600 odds show that the bookmakers are still not completely sold on their credentials.
There are several reasons why City have overtaken Liverpool in the betting markets. One is simple math. City may be down in fifth place right now, but they have one or two games in hand on all four teams above them. With that in mind, a four-point gap separating them from top spot is not too problematic.
Another reason is this team’s experience. With three La Liga, three Bundesliga, and two Premier Leagues to his name, Guardiola knows what it takes to win a title. So do many of his players, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Kyle Walker, Ederson and Fernandinho having been involved in City’s triumphs of 2017/18 and 2018/19. Some members of the squad won the title under different managers too.
The biggest difference between City this season compared to last is their defensive solidity. Ederson claimed the Golden Glove award last time out after keeping more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper; it was not as if City were conceding two or three goals every game. Indeed, by the end of the campaign, they had let in only two more than Liverpool.
Nevertheless, City’s defensive vulnerabilities were clear to see in certain matches. Guardiola’s side dominated many games, and their monopolization of possession afforded the backline a degree of protection. Yet when opponents were able to get a foothold in a game, City’s defense struggled. They shipped three against Norwich City, Liverpool, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and two against Crystal Palace and Newcastle United. City dropped points in all five of those contests, and their weak defense was a key part of why they did so on each occasion.
The back four were not the only ones to blame. Across the pitch, City did not play with the same off-the-ball intensity as they had done when winning the league in 2018 and 2019. Their pressing dropped off, and opponents were able to hurt them in transition much more regularly.
It is a problem they appear to have eradicated this season. No team in the division has conceded fewer goals than City’s 13. John Stones is enjoying a renaissance at center-back alongside summer signing Ruben Dias, who has been excellent to date. Given that no team looks likely to run away with the league this season, the side with the most solid defense could be best placed to lift the trophy.
City, of course, could yet stumble. They have looked unconvincing at times this term. A 5-2 defeat by Leicester City early on was an aberration as far as their defensive performances go, but City was deservedly beaten 2-0 by Tottenham Hotspur and have failed to overcome Leeds United, West Ham United, and West Bromwich Albion too.
Their attack has looked surprisingly blunt in several games, and their passing rhythm and attacking intent have sometimes been diminished. A 0-0 draw at Old Trafford last month was particularly disappointing, as City were content to simply avoid defeat by Manchester United. That is an attitude Guardiola has seldom harbored throughout his managerial career.
Other top teams have stumbled this season. United failed to win any of their first four home games of 2020/21. Tottenham won only one of their five matches in December. Liverpool are currently on a three-game winless run. Chelsea has triumphed in just one of their last six outings.
City may yet have another dip, but they are certainly in a good place right now. A 3-1 victory over Chelsea in their last Premier League fixture was perhaps their most impressive display of the campaign to date. Having shored up their leakiness at the back, City now seems to be rediscovering their attacking verve. It is an ominous sign for their rivals that they have done so without really making use of Sergio Aguero, City’s all-time top goalscorer who has made only two starts in the league so far.
After 17 games last season, 24 points separated Liverpool in the top spot from Sheffield United in seventh. In 2018/19, there was a 20-point gap between table-topping Liverpool and seventh-placed Wolves. The corresponding figure right now is four points.
That suggests this season’s title race will be unpredictable. We have already seen several sides occupy the top spot, including Leicester, Southampton, Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham. Even Arsenal, now down in the bottom half of the table, had a brief stay at the summit of the standings in September.
In such an open race, the title-winning experience could be vital – and City has that in abundance. They know how to cope with the pressure that comes with being a contender as the finish line comes into sight. It is something the current Manchester United, Tottenham, and Chelsea teams lack.
If City beat Brighton & Hove Albion on Wednesday and Crystal Palace on Sunday, they could be within touching the place of the top spot. That would cement their status as Premier League title favorites.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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