Manchester City’s ninth consecutive league win, a 6-3 victory over Leicester City that their manager described as a “rollercoaster”, will have been watched on Merseyside and in west London with interest: the ups and down causing some alarm for the challengers to their throne, but also some encouragement.
It was only a few weeks ago that this was being billed as the Premier League’s most open title race in recent memory, a genuine three-horse race at that. It still is, but a month which started with the three contenders separated by two points looks likely to end with the defending champions clear by six.
City have scored 30 goals over their nine-game winning run. Seventeen of those have come within the last fortnight, in their last three games. Four of them were scored inside the opening half-hour on Boxing Day, when Pep Guardiola’s players wiped the floor with an injury-ravaged Leicester.
This is far from over yet, though. So far unaffected by the recent wave of Omicron scheduling chaos, City have played a game more than Liverpool. And though they might appear unstoppable, as with many of the narratives which come and go over the course of a season, that is at least partly a consequence of the fixture list itself.
Guardiola’s side have only played a team sitting in the top seven twice during this nine-game run: one being a West Ham outfit who were comfortably but only narrowly beaten, the other a Manchester United side in free fall during their final days under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Upcoming meetings with Arsenal and Chelsea will be more instructive.
Then there is also a slightly larger, more significant crumb of comfort for City’s challengers too. For while the opening 25 minutes of the first half against Leicester demonstrated their undoubted yet still ominous strength, the same period at the start of the second half saw the resurfacing of an old weakness.
The question of how to eventually replace Fernandinho was the elephant in the room during Guardiola’s first two title-winning seasons. No other player in City’s set-up could perform his demanding role as the fulcrum and foundation stone to their attack but also the dark arts destroyer of the opposition’s attempts to counter. The same question could now be framed around his eventual successor.
That is a mark of how far Rodri has come, finally establishing himself as not only Fernandinho’s replacement but also as one of the leading holding midfielders in Europe. Boxing Day was the third league outing he has missed this season. City failed to win the other two and briefly threatened to throw the points away this time as well, suffering a sudden, dramatic slump during the second half.
Fernandinho is still around, of course, and at the age of 36 he came into the midfield in Rodri’s place, just as he did in last season’s corresponding fixture. That day, he was overwhelmed by Leicester’s counter-attacking transitions in a surprise 5-2 defeat. This time, though far from the only player to drop off after the break, he could not prevent City’s four-goal advantage being cut down to just the one.
Two of Leicester’s three goals – the first scored by an inspired James Maddison, the second by Ademola Lookman – came by way of counter-attack. They were the first chances that City have conceded on the break in their last 14 league games. It was the same number of chances that they have conceded to counter-attacks during Rodri’s 16 appearances. Correlation does not always equal causation, of course, but that feels significant.
Last season, when City’s tendency to concede chances on the counter-attack became something of a common criticism, Guardiola dialled down the intensity of their play. City ran less, focused more on holding their shape out of possession than they had in the past, managing space to prevent opponents from finding easy routes through. It brought a much greater sense of control and it was a collective rather than an individual solution.
But even so, the physical and mental demands on the individuals performing those roles are still great and, as mentioned, Fernandinho is 36-years-old. While he and Rodri were somewhat rotated last season, there is now an undisputed first-choice and when he is missing, it is noticeable. Guardiola even admitted that when 4-0 up against Leicester, he did not feel that City were particularly in control.
“Every time they had the ball they arrived in the final third, even in the first half. The result was in control, but not the game, so it was not a shock to see them come back into the match,” he said. “They changed the shape and sat deep, waiting for situations to happen… We lost too many easy balls. They had the quality to take advantage of our mistakes in these positions. We struggled when we lost the ball.”
Those are not the type of comments you expect to hear from a manager whose team were leading 4-0 at half time, even if they only went on to win 6-3. Clearly, the lack of control was a concern. If that was simply down to Rodri’s absence, then it should not be too much of a worry. But for those who find themselves six points adrift and chasing the champions, it is at least a reason to believe that the gap can still be bridged.