Despite the fact Manchester City have played just six Premier League games so far in 2020/21, many have decided that they are in a state of crisis and are already out of the title race.
But such remarks completely neglect the lack of pre-season they had and the time required for the players to get back up to speed. There’s also the small matter of the number of injuries Pep Guardiola has needed to deal with.
Make no mistake about it, City haven’t looked quite as fluid and menacing as they usually do, but then again, which team has actually been at the top of their game both defensively and offensively so far this term?
Ultimately, Guardiola’s men are just warming up into the season and the 1-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday was another step in the right direction. And to underline that, the victory also means the Cityzens finished the month of October without defeat.
At first glance, some may suggest City weren’t clinical enough in attack as they were only able to find the back of the net just once against a Sheffield United side who have managed the grand total of one point from seven games. And yes, Guardiola would have preferred to see his side kill off the game in quicker fashion, but ultimately it was a dominant display from his side.
More importantly, City were commanding at the back and never looked like conceding. Indeed, it was the resolute defensive display which will have been most pleasing – and reassuring – for Guardiola and the club’s fans.
Some questioned the money paid to bring Ruben Dias to Manchester, while there were also doubts about whether he would be able to make the step up in class. It’s safe to say those concerns no longer exist – he’s made an almost seamless transition, immediately coming in and looking like he’s been a leading defensive figure for many years at City.
Dias has already played in a back three with Kyle Walker and Nathan Ake, and as part of a four with Eric Garcia next to him. But most excitingly, Guardiola was able to select Dias and Aymeric Laporte in the same starting lineup for the second game running. Once again, they were absolutely sublime, sniffed out any danger that came along and shut their opponents out of the game.
Dias’ no-nonsense style of defending and aerial ability perfectly compliments Laporte’s clever defensive positioning and reading of the game. Constantly in communication, both players were always aware of their surroundings and how to deal with any possible threat.
Blades boss Chris Wilder opted to start with Oli McBurnie and Rhian Brewster in attack with the hope of challenging City physically, as well as with Brewster’s pace. But despite the hosts’ best efforts to get both their forwards involved, Dias and Laporte were always in control.
Sure, this is a Sheffield United team that have scored just three goals so far this term, but it was the manner in which Guardiola’s men were able to stifle their opponents which was so impressive. The hosts looked to fight back after going a goal behind, particularly during the second half, but they were unable to get McBurnie or Brewster into the game.
Indeed, the fact that the Blades managed just one shot on target during the whole contest speaks volumes about the control City had at the back.
But as is so crucial with any Pep Guardiola team, the two centre-backs were also outstanding with the ball at their feet. Most notably, Rodri was able to receive the ball in positions where he could either drive forward or link up with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva.
The Spaniard is undoubtedly a very talented player, but he’s come in for criticism in more recent times due to his lack of influence at the base of the midfield. But with Dias and Laporte behind him, the perfect foundations were set for Rodri to flourish.
Elsewhere, the likes of Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo – both of whom were excellent against the Blades – were allowed to get forward and support attacks, safe in the knowledge that Dias, Laporte and Rodri were more than capable of dealing with any threat that came their way.
Guardiola claimed after the game that it will not be possible for the pair to start every game this season – and no one would, or should, expect this. This is especially the case considering Laporte’s recent injury troubles. But the defensive foundations have now been set and the right combinations have been found – the former Barcelona boss now must help Dias and Laporte’s partnership blossom further by giving them the time they need on the pitch together.