In four of Pep Guardiola’s five Premier League title-winning campaigns, City have found themselves at least six points off the pace and in various degrees of jeopardy, only to reel in their rivals with a barrage of victories. They have even recovered a 10-point deficit, suggesting an 11-point net advantage is required.
An early season advantage over City almost acts like a Premier League handicap system, keeping things interesting before the inevitable conclusion. The great racehorse Arkle won races giving up as much as 35lb, and it can feel as if City have just as much in hand as they turn towards home.
City’s knack of winning from off the pace pre-dates Guardiola’s arrival. Memorably, they trailed Manchester United by eight points in April before Sergio Agüero won Roberto Mancini’s City their first league title in 44 years.
Their chances that season, 2011-12, looked to be over when a Mikel Arteta goal condemned City to a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal in which Mario Balotelli was sent off. United proceeded to lose at Wigan Athletic and throw away a two-goal lead in a 4-4 draw against Everton. Vincent Kompany’s header earned City victory in a decisive Manchester derby at the Etihad, and they jumped above their local rivals on goal difference. Then as now, City’s home fixture against their closest title challenger was crucial to turning the tide of the season.
Guardiola’s first title at City in 2017-18 was the exception to the pattern, when they crushed the opposition to reach 100 points. The most they trailed by was three points, and that was only because their second game of the season against Everton was scheduled for a Monday night. They drew that match and won the next 18.
The following season was the first of the great tussles with Liverpool, when City found themselves 10 points behind in late December after a home defeat by Crystal Palace and Boxing Day loss to Leicester City. City did have a game in hand, and used a win at Southampton to kick-off a second half of the season that saw them rack up 18 wins from 19 league games. They finished on 98 points to Liverpool’s 97, with their 2-1 win over Jürgen Klopp’s side in January another pivotal night at the Etihad.
Liverpool’s response in 2019-20 demonstrates the heights a team must reach to truly bury City early in the season. A 3-1 win over City at Anfield sent Liverpool eight points clear in November after 12 matches played, and by Christmas Day they were 12 points clear with a game in hand. That was achieved by a ludicrously good run to the halfway mark of 55 points from a possible 57.
City had another slow start to the lockdown season of 2020-21, then they were eight points behind after 13 matches, albeit with a game in hand. Another ding-dong with Liverpool followed in 2021-22, but they were front-runners in the run-in despite a relatively slow start that saw them six points behind Chelsea at one stage in November.
While many suspected Arsenal would struggle to last the course and distance last season, City trailed them by eight points as late as April. Arsenal’s lead was always slightly more fragile than they needed it to be, owing to City’s game in hand and that all-important decider at the Etihad. Successive draws with Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton presented City with the chance to personally hammer the nail into Arsenal’s coffin, and the job was done.
Across City’s five title-winning seasons under Guardiola, they average 2.58 points per game from Feb 1 onwards. That is the equivalent of a 98-point pace across a season. If we imagined a scenario where a team led City by 10 points with 15 games to go, and assumed City matched their average points per game record in run-ins, it would still require the leading team to win a further 30 points to be sure of the title. That is a 76-point pace under immense pressure.
The good news for Liverpool and Arsenal is that City’s 14 wins from 14 games in 2018-19 is something of an outlier, driving up that average points-per-game return. Nevertheless, their win percentage in the home stretch has never dropped below 73 per cent under Guardiola.
Liverpool perhaps have a small advantage over Arsenal having ticked off their visit to the Etihad, though Mikel Arteta’s team have a win against City on the board. Regardless, it will take a double-digit lead before either can breathe easily.