The beginning of the Premier League season tends to be somewhat fragmented. International breaks in September, October, and November result in teams often struggling to find a rhythm, as most clubs lose their top players for two weeks at a time. When those players return there is a chance that they’ll have picked up injuries, or (particularly in the case of non-European players) are fatigued by the travel associated with international duty.
However, international breaks can also be beneficial. For players like John Stones and Kevin De Bruyne, they offer an opportunity to regain their fitness as they prepare to make their returns. Additionally, this most recent international break may have come at a good time for Guardiola and his staff.
After an underwhelming performance against Wolves in their last match, Pep has had ample time to evaluate where the club stand and what (if anything) should change going forward. It may simply be a case of a couple key players returning from injury (Stones, De Bruyne), or that the relentless match schedule will require the team to be rotated more.
Regardless of what conclusions Guardiola may draw, it is imperative that City return from the international break looking refreshed. The club are set to play four Premier League matches before the November international break, and any poor results in that stretch may see their title defense come to an early end.
City return to action Saturday with a trip to Selhurst Park to take on Crystal Palace. Afterward, in between matches in the Champions League and the League Cup, they have home matches against Aston Villa and Southampton. While it is true that Palace did manage a shock win at the Etihad last season, and neither Villa nor Southampton should be underestimated, City are expected to get all nine points from those three matches.
If they wish to stay within touching distance of Liverpool, then any points dropped in that stretch could prove too costly. But if they win all three, then they’ll have the chance to travel to Anfield and cut the lead to just five points (or potentially less if Liverpool drop points to Manchester United, Spurs, or Aston Villa).
Over the last couple seasons City and Liverpool have separated themselves from the rest of the would-be title challengers, and as a consequence supporters of both clubs have kept a keen eye on the results and performances of their title rivals. The fact that Liverpool have still yet to drop points has put the pressure on City, and the supporters have begun to get nervous about the gap.
For the players, a quick start and early goal against Crystal Palace would go a long way in easing any fears about potentially slipping further behind in the table. And this relatively manageable stretch of matches could set up a pivotal meeting with Liverpool in the last match before the November international break.
How the team performs in this stretch will dictate the mood around the club when we reach the next international break. Close the gap and the title race is on, with the pressure shifting onto Liverpool. Slip further behind and Liverpool may be too far gone, with City having big questions to answer.