Manchester City’s flying start to the season is already inviting comparisons with Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-04, who claimed the Premier League title undefeated.
Here, we compare Pep Guardiola’s side with Arsene Wenger’s class of 15 years ago.
Start and projected finish
City, the defending champions and league leaders, have opened their season with 13 wins and two draws from their opening 15 games, earning them 41 points. This already puts them ahead of the Gunners, who had accumulated just 35 points at this stage and were a point behind then leaders Chelsea. At their current rate of progress, City would finish the season with 104 points, eclipsing their own record 100 from last season and bettering the Invincibles’ 90 by 14.
Guardiola’s men have scored 45 goals so far this campaign, a neat average of three per game. Continuing at this rate would see them net 114, again beating their own record from last season of 106. After 15 games in 2003-04, Arsenal had scored 29 – the same as title rivals Chelsea and Manchester United. They went on to end the campaign with 73, an average 1.92 per game.
Defensively, City have improved this term. They have conceded seven goals as opposed to the 10 they had shipped in at this stage a year ago. Arsenal had already conceded 11 goals after 15 games in 2003-04 and allowed in 26 during the whole campaign. City conceded 27 during last season’s title success but their present average suggests they could get through the whole campaign letting in as few as 18.
Wenger’s Invincibles typically played in a 4-4-2 formation in which full-backs Lauren and Ashley Cole provided extra attacking options. Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell were solid centre-backs while Patrick Vieira and Gilberto offered protection from midfield. Creativity came from Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg while Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp made a formidable attacking pair.
Guardiola rotates his side and varies their shape more often the philosophy remains the same, with high pressing and fluid attacks built from the back, often beginning with goalkeeper Ederson. There is consistency at the back with Aymeric Laporte and John Stones being this season’s preferred central pairing and Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy – before he was injured – offering pace out wide. Fernandinho anchors the midfield while any combination of David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus add the attacking impetus. Kevin De Bruyne, last season’s star man, has barely featured yet due to injury.
Arsenal’s main challenges in 2003-04 came from United – the previous year’s champions – and Chelsea, who were newly acquired by Roman Abramovich and spending lavishly. At the halfway stage United led the way by a point with Chelsea three points further back. United wobbled in the new year and Arsenal took a decisive grip with a nine-game winning run. They eventually finished 11 points clear of a Chelsea squad that boasted Frank Lampard, John Terry, Marcel Desailly, Emmanuel Petit, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United had lost David Beckham but still had Paul Scholes, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane and a young Cristiano Ronaldo.
This season, City’s biggest challenge is coming from Liverpool, who have added greater defensive strength to the attacking abilities that carried them to the Champions League final under Jurgen Klopp last season. Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are the next best but are starting to fall behind. City have already won at Arsenal and Spurs and drawn at Anfield. They travel to Stamford Bridge this weekend.