Pep's secret lies in improving stars and meaner defence

 Pep Guardiola's philosophy was introduced in imperfect fashion last season, but a perfectionist's principles have stayed the same.
Pep Guardiola's philosophy was introduced in imperfect fashion last season, but a perfectionist's principles have stayed the same.PHOTO: REUTERS

History was made as the past was brought to mind.

Manchester City equalled a club record of 11 straight league wins at Huddersfield on Sunday as, for the first time since 1995, they trailed at half-time in a top-flight game and still prevailed.

They are unbeaten in their last 26 games, winning the 18 most recent, both club records, and have made the best-ever start to a Premier League season.

Their dominance of the division is reflected in the statistics. City are the 42-goal top scorers and have the most shots per game, an average of 16.9. They average 66.1 per cent of possession with a pass completion rate of 89.1 per cent, which are over seven and five per cent respectively better than anyone else. They have even conceded the fewest shots on their own goal.

The reasons encompass the technical and the mental, the attacking and the defensive, the players they have bought and the players they have improved.

Pep Guardiola's philosophy was introduced in imperfect fashion last season, but a perfectionist's principles have stayed the same.

"What we have done good this season is a consequence of what we did last season," the manager said.

Heavy spending has helped, but Guardiola was quick to point out that only Ederson and Kyle Walker of the summer signings were in his first-choice side.

Instead, it is a triumph of coaching. Wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane have allied raw speed with the positional game Guardiola values. They begin in wide positions to stretch defences. They veer into the penalty box, combining pace with potency. They have a combined 20 goals as City have become more clinical.

Sterling already has a career-best 12, seven of them late goals and six of those important. "Now he's a winning player," Guardiola noted.

The England international referred to a mentality shift in a more ruthless side. "We have tried to be killers this season," he said.

It is evident in the way they have beaten top teams - Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal already - and the lesser lights alike.

Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan felt City conceded a lot of goals from "stupid mistakes" last season. Now points are not being squandered in careless fashion.

Ederson has replaced the error-prone Claudio Bravo and has been virtually flawless. John Stones has been a different sort of upgrade, improving his own performances.

Because City now have more mobile full-backs, their defenders can advance further upfield.

Any Guardiola team are built around the midfield. And he has three players who have the most assists in the league. David Silva tops the chart with eight while Sane and Kevin de Bruyne have six apiece.

Silva and de Bruyne are teamed in a role the Belgian described as "free No. 8s". A more cautious manager would not use both in the centre of midfield, but Guardiola is reaping a rich reward for trusting his two most technical talents.

They can be rampant. Yet throughout his reign, City have been better with a midfield trio of de Bruyne, Silva and Fernandinho.

Weakened teams were not as fluent against Wolves and Feyenoord, when they scored one goal in 210 minutes. It offers a warning at a time when he may have to rotate and when they will face more defensive sides like Huddersfield.

A packed November, December and January will deny him the training-ground time he treasures.

A December week when City face Manchester United and Tottenham could be particularly pivotal while, with Benjamin Mendy and Stones already out, City cannot afford injuries to Fabian Delph, Nicolas Otamendi or Ederson.

With fatigue a factor, routs are giving way to narrower wins, but if Guardiola can keep his key players fit, their winning habit should be sustainable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Pep's secret lies in improving stars and meaner defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe