Manchester City’s route to the Premier League title has been untouched by serious opposition – a coronation in the making since they went top of the table in September.
Manchester United’s home defeat by West Brom on Sunday means Pep Guardiola’s team have reached their target with only two league defeats, against Liverpool and Manchester United, and have not looked back since that 6-0 win against Watford at Vicarage Road put them top of the pile.
It has been an impressive feat of management by Guardiola to turn a 15-point deficit to deposed champions Chelsea last season into a runaway triumph.
Guardiola has been helped, of course, by Manchester City’s spending power but it must not be ignored that rivals such as United, Chelsea and Liverpool have hardly had chequebooks that were gathering dust.
While there has long been an inevitability about Manchester City’s fifth top-tier league title in English football, even manager Pep Guardiola probably never envisaged the ease with which it would ultimately be achieved.
Despite their recent slip up chief pursuers Manchester United, City look on course to register more points (current record is 95) and more wins (currrent record is 30) than any previous champion. Along the way, they also put together the longest winning run in English top-flight history.
Not too many observers saw those sort of records tumbling after Guardiola’s first season of acclimatisation. But a frantic pre-season transfer window turbo-charged the team and City out-passed and out-scored everyone else.
In place of ageing full backs and a creaking goalkeeper came the pace and power of Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, backed by the calm assurance of Brazil’s Ederson between the posts. Mendy quickly got injured but there was no stopping City.
Other players, like Raheem Sterling, knew they had to shape up to even feature in such a competitive environment. Kevin De Bruyne discovered the form of his life, David Silva excelled and Sergio Aguero continued to score at a rate no other City striker has ever managed.
After eight games City were alone at the top, rapidly establishing a five-point gap, followed by eight and then 15 points after 15 games.
By Christmas, City were already putting together 18 consecutive victories – only one short of Bayern Munich’s major league record, also set under Guardiola.
Along the way, they beat Liverpool 5-0, Watford 6-0, Crystal Palace 5-0, Stoke City 7-2, Arsenal 3-1, Manchester United 2-1, Swansea City 4-0, Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 and Bournemouth 4-0 before eventually drawing 0-0 with Palace on New Year’s Eve.
Guardiola’s response was to spend a club record 57 million pounds ($80.3 million) on Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao in January, taking his spending to an eye-watering 448 million pounds on 16 players since arriving.
Cynics moaned that City were buying the title, but at least they did so by bringing in the right players.
By contrast, Manchester rivals United never got the same bang for their bucks and appeared to pay over the top to snatch Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez from under City’s noses in the same window.
For all the expensive arrivals at Old Trafford over the past year, the gap never closed. City scored more goals, shared among more players, had more shots and even hit the woodwork more times than anyone else. For good measure, they also passed and touched the ball more.
At the heart of those statistics was De Bruyne, who since the start of the 2015-16 campaign has provided more assists than any other player in the top five European leagues.
“He can do everything on the pitch. And, in terms of mentality as well, he never hides,” said Guardiola. “The big players you realise (who they are) in the bad moments, the bad moments in terms of 75 minutes, (if) we are losing, how you react in that situation.”
De Bruyne’s workrate and ability to produce a never-ending procession of pinpoint passes took City to a new level which only Liverpool approached.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were the first to beat City in the league, blitzing them at Anfield with the help of Mohamed Salah, and then embarrassed them in the Champions League.
But most other times City took to the field, it was only ever a question of whether the opposition could contain them. More often than not, the answer was no.