What if I had told you a month ago that City would take 12 points from 12, scoring goals for fun all the while conceding zero goals by the time the international break came around? What if I hadn’t stopped there and predicted that City would be five points clear of United, Arsenal, and Liverpool and eight – EIGHT – clear of Chelsea? You’d have called me a lunatic, and for good reasons. Quite frankly, City’s start defies logic, and while it doesn’t mean that City will coast to the finish line, it does almost certainly guarantee that whichever team does win the league, they will have collected an incredibly impressive amount of points in doing so.
As you’d expect, you don’t start a season 4 for 4 because of luck. For City, it starts with a clear tactical shift (dating back to City’s six game winning streak that ended the 2014-15 season) and a summer recruitment policy that further enforced that shift. Pellegrini came to England having played a narrow 4-4-2 (that was really a 4-2-2-2) at Villarreal and Malaga, and used that formation to score over 100 goals in his debut season while overseeing the club’s double.
Last year however, City consistently looked far too open in defense and far too devoid of ideas going forward. But the final six games of the season offered hope for a brighter future: a three-man midfield that offered protection in defense, while not costing City much in the final third.
City entered the transfer window with two obvious recruitment goals: to get younger and more dynamic. And in Liverpool-wantaway, Raheem Sterling, the club found the perfect player. Young and pacy, Sterling offers City a winger/forward that the club has been missing since wait for it, Shaun Wright-Phillips. Rememeber when City tried to fill this need with Scott Sinclair? Well, the recruitment policy appears to have changed a bit, as City are now meeting inflated prices for “crack” players. (Although I do think the Sterling price – considering age, performance, potential -- was just about right.)
The introduction of Sterling in a 4-2-3-1 meant moving Silva into the middle and playing the little magician behind Aguero. With the league’s best striker in front of him, Navas to his right and Sterling to his left, Silva’s found arguably the best form of his career and again turned City into a goal scoring dream.
Behind Silva, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho both appear to have recaptured their best form as well, allowing City to control the ball, dictate the tempo and disrupt/defend counterattacks as well as they’ve done since Mancini’s magnificent scarf was seen on the touchline. It appears obvious in hindsight, but perhaps the World Cup had a more negative impact on both Fernandinho and Yaya Toure than was previously assumed. For the latter, it meant yet another summer without a prolonged rest, and at 31, that appears more important than ever. And for the former, perhaps losing 7-1 in a World Cup semi-final causes psychological hangovers that don’t simply go away at the start of a new club season. In my opinion, Fernandinho was the most important player in the 2013-14 title winning season, revolutionizing the way City could play and without him in that form, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that City struggled throughout the 2014-15 season.
But does any of this explain how City have managed four clean sheets out of four to start this campaign? Following City’s dominant 3-0 win against Chelsea last month, I wrote about the reasons I think City have defended so well, but even still, I struggle to comprehend the incredible turnaround at the back. An unchanged back five surely plays a part, as players defend better with increased familiarity. But still, that means four consecutive games with Aleks Kolarov playing a crucial role in the best defence in the Premier League. Again, that defies logic.
Bacary Sagna’s presence at right-back has been hugely important through the first month of the season, and in his current form, I struggle to see how Zabaleta will get back into the starting XI. But with City again hoping to challenge on all four fronts, perhaps City would be best served if Pellegrini were to play different players in specific competitions – aka please for the love of God, rest Yaya Toure for the Capital One Cup fixtures – and that rotation will surely allow Zabaleta significant game time.
I don’t think it was City’s intention to buy a top level centre-back this summer, and did genuinely believe them when they assured Denayer he would get significant first-team action. But when a club with City’s ambition, is offered the chance to sign one of the best centre-backs in the world – and Nicolas Otamendi was by most accounts the best centre-back in La Liga last season – you simply can’t say no. And while I do feel for Denayer, he’s a young player who, if patient, will almost certainly have a first team future at City.
Lastly, that final redheaded piece of the proverbial transfer puzzle, Kevin de Bruyne. I’ve been more outspoken than most in my hesitancy of the price, the player, and the tactical effect his arrival will mean on the team. I’m concerned that by replacing Navas with de Bruyne, City will again become too narrow, with too many playmakers and not enough runners. I’m concerned that de Bruyne has already had the best statistical season of his career (seriously, not many players produce 10 goals and 20 assists in a single league season). And yet all that said, Kevin de Bruyne is a serious statement of intent from Manchester City. Not only did City sign the best player from a Champions League club, they did so while said club insisted said player was not for sale. Sure, they met an inflated price tag, but in so doing, City have further established they have power in the transfer market that very few teams have.
It’s one thing to come into money and splash cash on average to good players, but to be able to buy the best players from the best leagues is truly a sign of an elite club, and if the summer transfer window and August's results are anything to go by, City have well and truly broken into the European elite.