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The biggest point deficits Man City have overcome to win the Premier League

As Manchester City were in the midst of their longest winless Premier League sequence since Pep Guardiola’s appointment in 2016, the strength of their title defence was called into question.

Jurgen Klopp wasn’t having any of it. The Liverpool manager insisted that to write off City this season “would be the biggest joke in the history of football”.

City duly ended their barren run but Guardiola’s reigning champions jetted off to the Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia five points adrift of league-leading Arsenal. As the campaign nears its halfway mark, City are also playing catch-up to Klopp’s Liverpool and Aston Villa.

However, the seven-time Premier League champions are no strangers to reeling in early pace-setters.

Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola endured a slow start to the 2021/22 campaign / James Williamson – AMA/GettyImages

During City’s first Premier League title under Guardiola in 2017/18, the eventual centurions led the division from mid-September onwards, never slipping more than three points behind any short-lived summer frontrunners.

However, that City team could lean upon the unrelenting stream of goals provided by Sergio Aguero, who would leave as the club’s all-time leading scorer in 2021. The previous City side to win the top-flight title without Aguero had been the golden vintage of 1967/68.

Guardiola missed out on his first-choice target Harry Kane so late in the window that City didn’t sign a replacement for Aguero. This enforced strategy shift, coupled with the hangover of losing the Champions League final in June, ensured that City slipped as many as six points behind the team that had beaten them in Lisbon, Chelsea.

Yet, from Halloween onwards, City would lose just one more league game – ironically at the hands of Kane’s Tottenham Hotspur.

Manchester City's Argentinian striker Se

Manchester City complete a famous comeback on the final day to overhaul rivals Manchester United / PAUL ELLIS/GettyImages

Everyone remembers City’s comeback on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign at home to Queens Park Rangers but the turnaround had begun five weeks earlier.

City had topped the table as late as March but with just six games remaining, the noisy neighbours trailed Manchester United by eight points. Mario Balotelli’s red card in defeat to Arsenal – a 1-0 loss decided by a goal from future City assistant manager Mikel Arteta – marked the nadir of a spring slump.

However, Sir Alex Ferguson’s United endured an uncharacteristic collapse of their own, losing to lowly Wigan Athletic before drawing 4-4 with Everton ahead of a decisive trip to the Etihad. Vincent Kompany’s towering header handed City control but they still needed Aguero’s last-day heroics to complete the comeback.

Ilkay Guendogan

Ilkay Gundogan finished as Man City’s top scorer after being moved to a false nine role / Naomi Baker/GettyImages

“I don’t like the team, I don’t like the way we play,” Guardiola told his coaching staff after City’s 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion left the champions eight points adrift of top spot on Christmas Day. “The results don’t matter, I don’t like it, I don’t recognise my team and the way we play… I don’t like at all what I’m watching.”

And so, City’s version of the false nine was born. Guardiola had introduced the system at Barcelona to take advantage of Lionel Messi’s unparalleled ability to thrive between the lines and in the box. In Manchester, the addition of an extra midfielder added another layer of protection against the counter-attacks that underpinned most of City’s defeats.

Ilkay Gundogan finished as City’s top scorer but the German was hardly the only player to fulfil the role. In fact, throughout each game, there would be a carousel of sky-blue shirts cycling through the central role. Between mid-December and March, this dizzying approach earned City 15 league wins on the spin.

John Stones

John Stones became Man City’s most important player in the second half of 2022/23 / Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/GettyImages

It may have been April Fool’s day but Arsenal’s eight-point lead at the Premier League summit was no gag. Arteta’s side had only dropped points in six of their first 29 league games to establish control of the Premier League summit.

Yet again, Guardiola was backed into a corner and came out swinging with a new system. City had long been inverting their full-backs into midfield but Guardiola instructed his centre-back to step forward in 2023 while the wide defender tucked in, thereby leaving the opposition less space to strike in transition.

John Stones lived up to his billing as the Barnsley Beckenbauer by mastering this hybrid central role but the inclusion of four orthodox centre-backs in City’s defence was just as crucial.

Upon City’s title triumph in May, which also depended upon Arsenal’s collapse, Guardiola explained: “I learned this season when you play against [Bukayo] Saka, Vinicius [Junior], these type of wingers, [Gabriel] Martinelli or [Mohamed] Salah or [Sadio] Mane in the past that you need proper defenders to win duels one against one.”

Yaya Toure

Yaya Toure was instrumental in City’s late title tilt in 2013/14 / Richard Heathcote/GettyImages

Throughout the bonkers 2013/14 campaign, there were a whopping 25 changes of leadership at the Premier League summit. Yet, with five games remaining, it seemed scarcely conceivable that there would be any altering. Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool sat atop the table, five points clear of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea while eventual champions Manchester City were nine points adrift of the Reds, but with two games in hand.

Mourinho had said that he would rather be in City’s position of playing catchup but the attempt at mind games proved prescient. City won their final five games of the campaign while both Liverpool and Chelsea faltered, handing the title to a side inspired by Yaya Toure’s sensational 20-goal haul from midfield.

Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola oversaw a remarkably stingy defence at Manchester City in 2018/19 / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/GettyImages

“Attack wins you games,” Sir Alex Ferguson once opined, “defence wins you titles.” While this theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the long run, City’s success in the second half of the 2018/19 campaign owed plenty to their imperious defence.

Across the club’s final 13 league games, Ederson conceded just three goals. Liverpool had opened up a double-digit lead over City (for one day) at the halfway point of the season but narrowly lost 2-1 at the Etihad in January to offer those in Sky Blue hope.

Liverpool didn’t lose another Premier League game all season but City were faultless from February onwards, collecting all 42 points available. The ultimate example of City’s defensive supremacy came on a trip to the south coast in March as Bournemouth failed to attempt a single shot on or off target while losing 1-0.


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