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Fifteen Ways to Explain Manchester City’s Record-Breaking Start to the Premier League Season

With David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne leading the way, Pep Guardiola’s team has set a new benchmark in England with 15 wins in a row

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The biggest compliment we pay Manchester City is that it’s getting hard to talk about them. Without ever hitting full gear, they went to Old Trafford and easily dispatched Manchester United, who are supposedly their closest rivals, 2-1. With a 4-0 midweek victory against Swansea, they broke the English top-flight record with 15 wins in a row. It’s not even Christmas, and they’ve already got an 11-point lead on the rest of the league. They’re the best team in England, and they’re the best team to watch, too: With an unpredictable attacking style that uses every inch of the field and all 11 players, they’ve turned all of their results into a near-certainty.

Eventually, unchallenged greatness starts to get boring, since there are only so many ways to say, “This team is way better than everybody else.” So rather than searching for the right words, let’s look at the numbers. Here are 15 stats that explain City’s incredible start to the season.

1. City haven’t just taken the most shots in the Premier League; they’ve taken the best ones.

In most sports, any conversation about strategy is really a conversation about balance: finding the right distribution between volume and efficiency. In basketball, do you work the ball around the perimeter and hunt out the best shots, no matter how deep it takes you into the shot clock? Or do you listen to Phoenix Suns–era Mike D’Antoni and get up whatever shot you can in seven seconds or less in order to create as many possessions as possible? In baseball, do you do a Joey Gallo and try to hit a home run every time you’re up, despite the negative effect it’ll have on your on-base percentage? In football, would you rather have Le’Veon Bell leading the league in rushing with fewer than 4 yards per carry or Alvin Kamara barely breaking 600 yards but doing it at a 7-yard-per-carry clip?

Like most all-time great teams, City have figured out how to have their cake and eat it, too. They’ve taken 307 shots in the Premier League this season, and are averaging 0.16 xG per shot. Per Understat, the only other team in Europe’s top five leagues to lead its country in total shots and shot quality through the past five seasons is PSG in each of the past three years. Guardiola’s City have turned what’s supposed to be the most competitive league in Europe into a British version of Ligue 1.

2. Pep Guardiola has the longest top-flight winning streak in Spanish, German, and now English soccer history.

For all the trolling about how Guardiola manages only the best players in the world or how Manchester City has more money than God, there’s really no getting around it now: Guardiola is better at maximizing top-level resources than just about any manager in the history of the sport. Barcelona were one of the most dominant teams Spain has ever seen and the same goes for Bayern in Germany. City are now well on their way to achieving the same status in England.

“We showed that this kind of football can be played in England,” Guardiola said after Sunday’s win against Manchester United. “People say it can only be played in Spain, but we showed it is possible to have the courage to play.”

3. In 2010-11, Manchester United won the Premier League with a plus-41 goal differential. City have the same number through 17 games.

That same season, United, who were in the midst of a run of two titles in three seasons to cap off Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 years in charge of the club, also made it to the Champions League final. United, of course, lost to Barcelona. Guardiola beat Ferguson’s team that year, and seven seasons later, he’s about to lap him.

4. Opponents have completed 36 passes within 20 yards of City’s goal.

We’ll get to the wild attacking numbers, but this is where City’s dominance begins and ends. It’s not just that City suppress opponents’ shots—they’re currently on pace to allow the fewest shots per game of any Premier League team this decade—but they won’t even let opposing teams consider making a pass near the 18-yard box.

If you can break past City’s wall of pressing, then you’ve got a decent chance to slip one in. They’re giving up better shots this year than last (up from 0.09 xG per shot to 0.12, per Understat). But if final-third defending is City’s biggest weakness, Guardiola’s solved the issue by making sure they almost never have to do it.

5. Ederson has made 27 saves in the Premier League.

For comparison, Manchester United’s David De Gea has made 65. They’ve conceded the same number of goals thus far. I’ll let you figure out which one of those is sustainable.

6. Despite dominating possession, City haven’t committed the fewest fouls in the league.

Part of the reason opponents can’t ever get close enough to see the smiley face on Ederson’s neck is that City is the best pressing team in the league by far—opponents are averaging just 6.05 passes before City makes a tackle or an interception, per Understat; the second-best is Tottenham at 7.9. But whenever the press gets broken, Guardiola’s side will just foul whoever has the ball. At 66.3 percent they’re the only team in the league even averaging more than 60 percent possession, but they’re still committing 9.1 fouls per game, more than Bournemouth, Leicester, and Burnley.

7. Kyle Walker has been a more productive attacker than Christian Eriksen, Sadio Mané, and Alexis Sánchez.

When City bought Walker from Tottenham over the summer, one of the big questions surrounding the deal was, well, “Why the hell would you pay £53 million for Kyle Walker?” Granted, Walker had a handful of impressive seasons under Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, but it seemed like City were only bidding against themselves and yet still managed to pay a world-record fee for a defender.

Through 17 games, Walker’s been the best fullback in the league—if not one of the best players, period. In a system that pushes its wingers up against the opposing backline or lets them drift infield, Walker has essentially been asked to man the entire right side of the field. In doing so, he’s played a vital role in City’s possession game and progressing the ball upfield.

Earlier this year, the consulting service StatsBomb IQ released a new statistic called xGChain. While most stats focus on either the shot or the pass that led to the shot, xGChain aims “to credit players for the attacking contributions they make outside of shots and assists.” This statistic looks at every possession that leads to a shot that a player is involved in, figures out how valuable the shot was, and then assigns that value to the player—regardless of whether he made the first or 30th pass in a move.

This season, David Silva leads the league in xGChain, and he’s followed by the unsurprising quintet of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku, and Gabriel Jesus. If you’re saying, “Those are six of the best attackers in the league,” no one’s gonna argue with you. As for no. 7? It’s Walker.

8. Silva and De Bruyne are tied for the league lead with eight assists.

Guardiola took two of the best attacking creators in the world and turned them into something closer to traditional midfielders, and they often function as a pairing in front of Fernandino in defensive midfield. This seemed like it might turn City’s midfield into something of a defensive turnstile while also tamping down on the creativity of the team’s two most creative players by shifting them to deeper positions. City’s given up the fewest goals in the league, and the pair’s ingenuity is powering a league-best attack. The theme continues: In a two-way sport that’s characterized by tactical tradeoffs, Guardiola has figured out a way to get everything he wants.

9. De Bruyne has scored two goals with his right foot, three with his left foot, and assisted two with his right, four with his left, and two with his head.

Sorry Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard, Salah, Kane, et al. But he’s the best player in the league right now.

10. At age 32, Fernandinho has played more than 1,800 minutes in all competitions.

In order to have an all-consuming four months like City’s start to the season, some things have to go your way. It’s not all down to De Bruyne’s ambipedal magic or Guardiola’s ability to see the game through a fourth dimension; some of it’s just dumb luck. City really don’t have another defensive midfielder on the roster. But despite his advanced age and career-long penchant for red cards, Fernandinho’s managed to play every important minute of the season at maybe the most physically demanding position in City’s system.

11. Manchester City has won every game Fabian Delph has played in.

And it’s not like he’s been a human victory cigar, either. Delph came over to City in 2015 after a spell at Aston Villa that saw him grade out as an OK-ish midfielder. He’s ridden the bench ever since arriving at City, and it wasn’t clear that he was ever expected to do much more than that anyway. But then left back and proprietor of the only good Twitter account Benjamin Mendy tore his ACL, and rather than opting for Danilo, who came over from Madrid in the summer and is a fullback by trade, Guardiola has given almost all of the minutes to Delph. The result: 17 wins in 17 games, and Delph has already played more minutes than he’s played in any season since leaving Villa.

12. Nicolás Otamendi, who is a center back, has scored five goals in all competitions.

Even the best attacks will run into days when every shot gets blocked, a keeper gets hot, or it seems like the ball is a couple pounds heavier than normal. When that’s happened, City’s typically been able to rely on Otamendi, the much-maligned and defensively questionable defender, to smash in a cross, a rebound, or a free kick. Then the floodgates open: In the Premier League, when City already has the lead, they’ve gone on to post a plus-23 goal differential.

13. Seven City players have at least four Premier League goals.

While Mohamed Salah (13 goals) and Harry Kane (12) are starting to distance themselves from the pack in the Golden Boot race, City have six players in the goal-scoring top 20. While Guardiola’s Barcelona teams were heavily reliant on Messi—coaching tip: If you have the greatest player of all time, then keep giving him the ball—he’s had uneasy relationships with most of his other strikers. He turned David Villa into a winger, Zlatan Ibrahimovic told him to “go to hell,” and there were even stories about friction between Guardiola and Robert Lewandowski, despite the latter’s unadulterated success under Pep at Bayern.

It always felt like, rather than relying on one specific finisher, Pep’s ideal team was a rotating and interchanging cast of creative and capable goal-scoring attackers. He’s got that now: Sergio Agüero is leading the team with 10 goals, but he’s played just over 900 minutes. If you add up goals and assists, City have six of the Premier League’s top 10: Sterling is second with nine goals and five assists, while Agüero, with an additional three assists, along with Silva and De Bruyne (both five goals, eight assists) are tied for third, and Leroy Sané (six goals, six assists) and Gabriel Jesus (eight goals, three assists) round out the top 10.

14. At their current pace, City will earn 110 points by the end of the season. The Premier League record is 95, set by Chelsea in 2004–05.

That triple-digit mark probably won’t happen. We’re two games away from the midpoint of the season, and City have 16 wins and one draw. They’ll have to come close to winning the rest of their games to hit that number. To break Chelsea’s mark, though, they’ll need 15 wins, two draws, and three losses in their remaining games. Even if they significantly fall off their current pace, they’ll still put up historic numbers.

15. Among Europe’s top five leagues, City average the most possession per game, the most shots on goal, and the fewest shots conceded.

Out of any team in the world, City control games more thoroughly than anyone else, they test opposing keepers the most, and they protect their keepers the best. After finishing last season in third in the Premier League and getting knocked out in the Round of 16 in the Champions League, Guardiola’s team seems like the cream of the international crop as we approach the midpoint of the season. But even that seems like it’s underselling them. No, City don’t just look the best team in Europe right now; they look like the best team in all three phases of the game.