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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Manchester City

Simon Bajkowski of the Manchester Evening News on the league leaders

28 December 2021

Manchester City are top of the Premier League at the time of writing, having made a gradual climb to the summit over the first few months of the season. What have you made of what you have seen so far?

It has been very promising from a City perspective. They tend to start every season under Pep Guardiola as one of the favourites – if not the favourites – to win the league, but they don’t always start too quickly. They had a lot of players at the Euros in the summer and they had a lot of challenging away fixtures at the start of the season, so though they were expected to be up there and challenging for top spot, I think it has gone better than expected, the fact they are already on top by December and on a very good run of form. They weren’t that consistent in the opening months of the season, but since they came back from the November international break, it looks as though everything has clicked and no one has been able to stop them.

With City, Liverpool and Chelsea separated by just a handful of points, there seems to be quite an exciting title race emerging. Do you think they will relish that situation, having run away with it more so in previous years?

I think so. When City won their first title under Guardiola in 2017/18, the hardest thing they found about it was that there wasn’t that challenge there so they had to challenge each other, whereas a year later, Liverpool pushed them on to 98 points and that is a rivalry that has continued through the seasons since. They like to be in front, but they also like the challenge of other rivals putting extra pressure on them to make them know they need to get a result every game.

Though City were heavily linked with a move for Harry Kane in the summer, a deal never materialised. Do you think trying to find that that long-term replacement for Sergio Aguero will be the focus in January?

Not so much in January, but the summer transfer window is when that No 9 decision has to be made. It seems silly to say it when they are beating teams 7-0, but they have shown this season they are missing that central striker, that figurehead. It is impossible to replace Aguero, in a way, but there are players out there they could sign who would come close to it. They tried in the summer, but they weren’t able to land Kane and they will try again to land that player - whether they win the Premier League or the Champions League this season – because it has been earmarked for the next stage of the project under Guardiola. They do miss out on transfer targets but they rarely miss out for two summers running.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Wednesday night?

Everything has been going through Bernardo Silva and Rodri during the good run – those two have been irreplaceable in the team and the heartbeat of the midfield. City won their first few Premier League titles with the best midfield in the league and then it kind of fell apart as Fernandinho played a bit less, but there are signs this season that they are looking formidable again in the middle. Having said that, it will be very interesting to see if Kevin De Bruyne (above) can keep up the type of performance he gave against Leeds because he had not shown that in a long time, but was immediately back to his devastating best. The threats come from all angles, unfortunately for the opponent.

How is Guardiola likely to set up his side in west London?

They have generally lined up with a very loose 4-3-3 formation, but with Joao Cancelo as a full-back, pushing right up through the team, wingers are high and wide and midfielders pushing through to press high in the forward line. They like to play high up the pitch and pen their opponents back into their own third of the pitch and then allow their creative players to plot a way through for an attacker to finish off in the box. The personnel is interchangeable because of the amount of talent in the squad, but the team tend to set up in the same way. They have shown in recent games against Aston Villa, Leeds and Wolves that you can set up very aggressively against them or set up very defensively against them – and if you are not on top of your game, they will find a way through regardless.

The two teams met in three memorable cup ties throughout 1989 and once in the FA Cup in 1997, but this will be the first league meeting between them since March 1951, when Brentford won 2-0 at Griffin Park. What’s your score prediction for this one?

I think it will be tight, so I’ll go for 2-1 to City. I think Guardiola will be much happier playing Brentford now rather than at the beginning of the season when they were still on that high.

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