Man City's 'mentality monsters': Runaway leaders deserve more respect for fighting spirit

Manchester City celebrate Rodri goal vs Arsenal 2021-22Getty

Manchester City ended 2021 with the most victories in a calendar year and they started the new one in the same menacing manner.

They didn't produce the performance of Premier League champions in Saturday's 2-1 triumph at Arsenal but it was undoubtedly the kind of result that wins titles.

How Rodri's last-minute winner at the Emirates must have demoralised Chelsea and Liverpool.

The midfielder and his team-mates can have a relaxing Sunday afternoon watching their two closest rivals face off at Stamford Bridge knowing that at least one of them will drop points.

And if it wasn't already, it's now undoubtedly a must-win match for both Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp. Chelsea are now a whopping 11 points behind City. Third-placed Liverpool are a point further back, though the Reds do have a game in hand.

In truth, it's hard to see how either side can catch up, not with City in this form. The win over Arsenal was their 11th in succession and even when they fail to hit their usual heights, they still find a way to pick up all three points.

Pep Guardiola's players probably haven't endured a more difficult first half all season. They were outplayed for 45 minutes in north London and deservedly trailed 1-0 at the break, after Bukayo Saka's 31st-minute strike.

However, Arsenal offered City a way back into the game, and City took full advantage.

Opinion is split on the VAR penalty awarded against Granit Xhaka for his challenge on Bernardo Silva, but the midfielder was certainly guilty of a clumsy challenge before then compounding his carelessness by needlessly grabbing the Portuguese attacker's shirt.

Brazilian defender Gabriel deserves far less sympathy than his Swiss colleague for two ridiculous yellow cards, the first of which arrived for scuffing the penalty spot, just two minutes before he took out Gabriel Jesus with a clothesline.

Even then, a 10-man Arsenal side proved difficult to break down as they reorganised themselves brilliantly to frustrate their visitors.

However, three minutes into injury time, a hopeful cross into Aymeric Laporte dropped for Rodri to steer the ball home from close range.

"We were 1-0 down and things changed because of our mentality," the match-winner told BT Sport. "We didn’t do a great game but we pushed, we never dropped.

"I didn’t know what I was doing there [in the penalty area] with Aymeric. It was crazy!"

Klopp may have claimed that the Premier League's Covid spike has not impacted on City but he should perhaps give more respect to their winning mentality.

While the club has not confirmed any cases, John Stones, Olkesandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden were all described as "not fully fit", while Joao Cancelo played less than 48 hours after a run-in with thugs at his home.

Arsenal, meanwhile, may have been without manager Mikel Arteta, but had just short of a week to recover from their 5-0 win over Norwich, while City were back in London only two days after winning at Brentford.

Squad restrictions meant Pep Guardiola made three changes to his starting line-up and admitted it affected his side.

"Congratulations [to my players]," the Catalan said. "Arsenal were better. We faced a team in the last year who struggled to be in the top four but they are there now and had six or seven days from their last game.

"We had two and a half, we came back and didn’t have energy."

Despite that, they kept pushing. In injury time, Bernardo Silva chased to get the ball back off a ballboy as Aaron Ramsdale feigned injury.

At full-time, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling slumped to the floor because of fatigue. The rest of the side summoned what energy they had left to gather in a huddle to celebrate a huge three points.

It was a joyous scene that summed up their spirit and togetherness.

"We are not a team to score goals in injury time," Guardiola added. "I don’t remember the last time we scored a goal after 90 minutes.

"Eleven wins in a row is so great in this period. Just take a look at our bench today: it was four guys from the Academy.

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"We had many injuries. Today, we were mentally and physically tired. But sometimes the luck falls on our side."

Guardiola and his players, though, know exactly what's required to win titles. Saturday's victory at Arsenal will have only hammered that home to their already wavering rivals.

City have "mentality monsters" of their own.