The second half of the 2020/21 Premier League is underway. The Hard Tackle runs the rule over Manchester City and what beckons them for the rest of the season.

Ever since Pep Guardiola took over the reins at Manchester City back in 2016, the Cityzens have been the trend-setters and the record-breakers in English football. So, when they were outplayed and outclassed by Liverpool’s “Mentality Monsters” in the Premier League title race last season, it will have come as a bitter pill to swallow for the club.

Indeed, Guardiola’s men had finished a whopping 18 points below the champions and while the manager hailed Liverpool for their incredible campaign, he will have been left seething at his own team’s failings.

The over-reliance on Kevin De Bruyne, the lack of a proper replacement for former captain Vincent Kompany, the gaping hole left by the departure of club legend David Silva, the inconsistencies of the team as a whole – there were a number of issues that needed tackling if they were to topple Jurgen Klopp’s Red Brigade and reclaim their throne come the new season.

Guardiola was left scratching his head after being blown away by Liverpool last season (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Guardiola was left scratching his head after being blown away by Liverpool last season (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Manchester City went about their business in the transfer window in a swift manner, as usual, addressing key issues with urgency. Thus, in came Nathan Ake to provide cover at centre-back and left-back while Ruben Dias arrived from Portugal to add further steel to the defensive unit, while Ferran Torres was signed from Valencia to offset the departure of Leroy Sane.

And thus, Manchester City entered the new season, with the aim of reclaiming their Premier League crown and end their bid for the elusive UEFA Champions League trophy.

The Season so far…

Manchester City began their season a week later than most of the teams owing to their involvement in the latter stages of Champions League and the FA Cup in the 2019/20 campaign. And the campaign started in an auspicious manner as Pep Guardiola & co. cruised to a 3-1 win over Wolves at the Molineux.

But, things unravelled soon for the Cityzens as the second matchday saw them succumb to a shock 5-2 defeat at the hands of Leicester City, at home, exposing the chinks in their armour that still very much existed. A 1-1 draw against newly-promoted Leeds United raised further alarms.

City did manage to pick up wins against Arsenal and Sheffield United on either side of a draw against West Ham United but were largely unconvincing, scoring just three goals. Then came the biggest test of their season up until that point – a game against the reigning champions, the usurpers, Liverpool at the Etihad.

A closely-fought encounter, the game ended in a 1-1 draw with both teams showing respect to their opponents on the field. While goals had become shy for Manchester City, there had been a marked improvement in the defensive side of things, thanks to a certain Ruben Dias, who had only arrived last summer but was already making a mark.

However, things would fall into disarray when Guardiola’s eternal rival, Jose Mourinho, pulled off a counter-attacking masterclass to hand Manchester City a 2-0 defeat that saw them drop to ninth place in the Premier League table. The loss would have hurt big time for Guardiola and Manchester City and in many ways, that proved to be the major turning point in their campaign.

A defeat against his arch-rival sparked a turnaround for Guardiola (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

A defeat against his arch-rival sparked a turnaround for Guardiola (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Indeed, that was the last time Manchester City lost a game in the Premier League and in any other competition as they have gone on a 21-game unbeaten run across all competitions, pushing themselves to the top of the Premier League table, the fifth round of the FA Cup, the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League and the Carabao Cup finals.

There have been a few missteps – the 1-1 draw against relegation battlers West Bromwich Albion in November, the narrow 1-0 wins against Brighton & Hove Albion and Sheffield United as recent as last month, but by and large Manchester City have hit top gear and in the process, have looked near-unbeatable.

The fact that they had quite a few first-team players missing due to a coronavirus outbreak within the squad over the festive period makes this unbeaten run even more impressive. The 5-0 thrashings of Burnley and West Brom, the thorough outclassing of Chelsea in a 3-1 win away at Stamford Bridge have all been a treat for the fans.

However, the cherry on top of the cake was the 4-1 drubbing that they handed to Liverpool at Anfield last week. It was a performance and a result that sent out a resounding statement – Manchester City are back on top and are there to stay. After 23 matchweeks, Guardiola & co. have opened up a five-point lead at the top and that too with a game in hand.

Surprise Package

There have been some brilliant individual performances for Manchester City this season. Phil Foden is starting to show on a regular basis why he is regarded as the best young talent in the country; Raheem Sterling has taken over the goal-scoring mantle, reaching the 100-goal mark under Pep Guardiola recently.

Ilkay Gundogan, with his recent goal-scoring run, has been a huge revelation, while Joao Cancelo’s development into a full-back-central midfielder hybrid has been a joy to behold. John Stones’ story of resurgence after a couple of difficult campaigns has a sense of romanticism that many a football fan love.

However, not many would have envisaged the kind of impact Ruben Dias has had since arriving at Manchester City from Benfica. With all due respect, the Portuguese league hardly offers the level of quality and competitiveness that the Premier League does. Many players making the jump find it hard to adapt to the rigours of English football easily and take plenty of time to adapt.

But, Dias has taken to Premier League football like a fish to water. The 23-year-old Portuguese, without an iota of doubt, has been one of the best centre-backs in the English top-flight this term. Composure on the ball, strong game-reading ability. and awareness, technical quality and precise distribution skills meant he was tailor-made to a Pep Guardiola team.

However, it is his leadership at the back that has stood out big time. Despite his relatively young years, Dias has brought a sense of calm and assuredness at the back that Manchester City have lacked since the departure of a certain Vincent Kompany.

And it would not be overstating to say that his presence has helped Stones and Aymeric Laporte flourish at the Etihad. In 20 Premier League appearances, Dias has led Manchester City to 13 clean sheets. “It gives me pleasure to make the other team feel powerless,” he recently said in an interview, summing up the mentality he has brought in and also helped instill within his teammates.

The Big Challenge

Maintaining this level of performances for the rest of the season, of course. Guardiola’s tactical ingenuity, coupled with some top-quality international players in the side has meant that Manchester City haven’t felt the absences of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero as strongly.

The likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling have stepped up in a timely manner while Bernardo Silva has rediscovered his best form after a disappointing last season. Now, the challenge for them will be to sustain this level and maintain their standards for the rest of the campaign.

Things will certainly not be easy, more so once European football returns, which would see them play three games almost every eight days. And the upcoming run of games for Guardiola’s side will be gruelling as they face Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester United in a row in the league before another difficult run awaits against Wolves, Leicester City, Leeds United, Aston Villa and Southampton.

The run-in in May could be a tricky prospect as well, with a game against Chelsea followed by away trips to Newcastle United and Brighton – two teams who could be battling for survival in the business end of the season before they sign off against Everton.

De Bruyne’s return in the near future will undoubtedly be a huge boost, but given the layoff, will he be able to hit the ground running? Will Ruben Dias and John Stones remain as solid as they have been as the pressure ramps up in the run-in? Can Foden & co. continue to keep up this level of performances week in week out for three more months?

The answers to all these questions will need to be affirmative, i.e., Manchester City will have to be extremely consistent in the face of an unrelenting fixture schedule and the fatigue and the pressure that will come with it, if they are to realise their ambitions come the end of the season.

Predicted Finish in 2020/21 Season: 1st

Things may not have started on the best note for Pep Guardiola & co. but they are peaking at the right moment. Their current run of form – 14 wins in a row in all competitions – make them overwhelming favourites. And one should also note that they have had to make do without two of their best players – Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne for quite a few games during this run.

As mentioned previously, they had several issues to deal with heading into the campaign and to a large extent, that has been taken care of. Their current unbeaten run shows that they have found the balance and consistency that lacked last term and the fact that they have done so without De Bruyne for a number of games is an indicator that they are not as reliant on him as they were before.

Set for another title triumph? (Photo courtesy - Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Set for another title triumph? (Photo courtesy – Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Ruben Dias has filled the large, Vincent Kompany-shaped hole at the back while the combined impact of Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan has meant that David Silva’s departure has not had a debilitating effect on the team.

Manchester United and Leicester City are their closest challengers currently. But, both teams have shown an inconsistent side to their game and just do not have the kind of depth and quality in the ranks like Manchester City possess. Chelsea are set for another rebuild under another new manager while Tottenham’s title challenge died away in a flicker.

The demolition of Liverpool at their fortress that is Anfield this past weekend pretty much signalled what is likely to happen come the end of the season. Manchester City should, in all likelihood, dethrone Jurgen Klopp’s Red Brigade and reign supreme perched atop the English footballing pyramid.

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