Manchester City missed too many chances for Pep Guardiola’s liking last term. To correct that failing he has assembled not only the most offensive, but the most aggressive team he’s ever had.
It may still only be September but the Catalan already has goal difference on his mind. The sole way he can ensure his team win the matches they are expected to win and stay ahead of title-chasing rivals is to set out to obliterate every opposition team from first whistle to last.
When they hit their stride, there is simply no stopping them.
You might expect in any football team that the defenders play at the back – doing most of their work in their own half – and the attackers go to the front.
Pep has turned that paradigm on its head. He’s lifted the defensive, midfield and attacking sectors of the team and plonked them far, far closer to the opposition goal, setting up a hyper-aggressive attacking unit that – in possession – appears in a unique and dominant 2-1-4-3.
Without the ball? Don’t worry about that; they are never without the ball for any significant spell.
Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones – with Fernandinho splitting them - played mostly on the halfway line against Crystal Palace. The midfield of Benjamin Mendy, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker were much closer to the opposition goal. Up front were Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane who gorged themselves on the pitiful Palace defence.
Silva and De Bruyne are the engine room but they prowl and probe around the other team’s box. That’s where City are plotting their midfield now. And everything City do well emanates from those two.
Against Palace they completed 180 passes between them – 91 for De Bruyne and 89 for Silva. De Bruyne had 78 of his in the Palace half. For Silva that figure was 65. De Bruyne put in six crosses and Silva seven. De Bruyne played three of what Opta describes as key passes. Silva hit six. De Bruyne had two second-assists – that is the pass before the pass – while Silva had two assists of his own.
Their shots? One between them; for Silva. Guardiola knew last season that Silva and De Bruyne would be influential in any successful City team but was also aware of their limitations in front of goal.
Now they load the bullets, they switch play, cross accurately and play cute through balls. It is their industry that has allowed Sane and Sterling further forward to flourish.
If you can imagine Chelsea’s highly successful 3-4-3 from last season without any semblance of caution and about 500 per cent more venom then you would be close to seeing Pep’s current City team for what it is.
That bloodlust is necessary and it’s frightening. City have won their last three league games 5-0, 6-0 and 5-0. They scored four more in the Champions League.
This was a glimpse of the power City possess when firing on all cylinders. There is simply no let up.
That said, Guardiola might well have been pulling his hair out in the first half here if he had any left. He was instead compelled to kick a chair on the Etihad sidelines to channel his frustration at a team too slow in possession and too compliant in allowing the opposition to settle into a defensive shape.
Guardiola’s teams in the past – at Barcelona and Bayern Munich – were criticised for a kind of sterile dominance. They would keep the ball for long stretches of the match without actually looking like scoring.
City were lulled into performing like that here momentarily and Guardiola was not going to tolerate it. He put his arm around a ball boy at one stage and demanded he be quicker in returning balls to the field. He barked orders every time the ball went dead at a player who wasn’t shifting the ball quick enough.
City’s lull lasted maybe half an hour until Pep got them through the Tunnel Club and into the environs of the dressing room.
From then on it was all about overwhelming the opposition - not only in possession - but in speed, purpose and chance creation too. Guardiola expects rapid ball circulation as a matter of habit in his City players and when they are not giving it to him he is not shy about reminding them. What came after the break was utter destruction.
Every month the world of boxing seems to throw up a superfight these days. Well, there would appear to be another heavyweight contest looming at the top of the Premier League too as two old foes step on the scales.
Let’s have the tale of the tape.
In the red corner Jose Mourinho. He delivered another masterclass in Floyd Mayweather football against Southampton on Saturday. Cover up, break through occasionally, win the rounds.
If Manchester United are going to hang at the top of the table, it is going to be like this; cautious and a clean sheet at all costs.
In the blue corner Pep Guardiola. These days he’s like Vasyl Lomachenko – the Ukrainian featherweight who’s stopped his last six opponents on the road to superstardom.
And Pep’s City team appear like a boxer performing deep inside hostile territory where he can’t trust the scorecards; no option but to go for the KO every time.
Crystal Palace corner would have thrown the towel long before the 90th minute on Saturday afternoon if they’d had their chance.
And on this form, no defence looks enough to contain them.