Will Pep Guardiola's Manchester City become the new 'Invincibles'?

With 14 wins and just one draw so far, Manchester City are on pace to pull off the most dominant season in Premier Le...

Posted: Dec 8, 2017 4:41 PM
Updated: Dec 8, 2017 4:41 PM

With 14 wins and just one draw so far, Manchester City are on pace to pull off the most dominant season in Premier League history -- but can they go undefeated?

Since drawing with Everton in their second league game of the season, Pep Guardiola's City has won 13-matches in a row while posting a staggering 36 goal difference.

Manchester rivals -- United and City -- play Sunday

City lead United by eight points in league table

City are unbeaten so far in the league

Their Champions League performances been nearly as impressive, with City winning its first five matches and locking up the group before losing to Shakhtar Donetsk earlier this week.

Should they win the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford on Sunday, City would equal the 14-match mark set by Arsenal over two seasons in 2002. The nucleus of that Arsenal team went on to form the "Invincibles" of 2004, still the only undefeated side in Premier League history.

How good can City be?

Last month, City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to dismiss the idea of equaling Arsenal's "Invincibles" mark -- right before drubbing the current Arsenal side 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium.

But the longer City's undefeated streak lasts, the more it will invite comparisons to Arsenal's "Invincibles" and, to a lesser extent, the extraordinary Barcelona teams Guardiola managed between 2008 and 2012.

In order to remain undefeated, however, City will need a combination of motivation, leadership and plain old luck to complement its exceptional talent, according to football analyst Pat Nevin.

"I don't think that I have enjoyed watching a team more than I have enjoyed watching (City), purely in a creative and artistic way," Nevin, who was twice named Chelsea player of the year during his 20-year career, told CNN Sport.

"They are not dissimilar to (Guardiola's) Barcelona in many ways, who probably were the best team that I've ever seen. So that's really high praise," he adds.

"But it's still early. There are still quite a number of things that could go wrong."

READ: Ronaldo wins fifth Ballon d'Or

Injury risk

Like all great champions, Arsenal's "Invincibles" managed to skirt major knocks to its stars. One could argue, however, that this City squad is better equipped to sustain injuries than that Arsenal team -- whose league title might have been in doubt if Thierry Henry had been sidelined.

Though Arsenal finished the 2004 campaign with a goal difference of 47, Henry and his 30 league goals did most of the heavy lifting. Robert Pires added 14, with three others contributing four goals each.

City appears to have more balance with an abundance of natural goal scorers. Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero have chipped in nine goals apiece this season, along with Gabriel Jesus's eight and Leroy Sane's six.

But of all the glamorous names in the City squad, the one player who Nevin calls irreplaceable is perhaps central defender John Stones.

"The base of all the play comes from him, and the goalkeeper (Ederson)," he says, referring to City's Portuguese sweeper goalkeeper.

"So the other players can all be replaced," he says, noting the strength in depth of City's squad. "Even (creative midfielder Kevin) De Bruyne can be replaced by (David) Silva. But Stones, not sure you can replace him to the same level."

Succumbing to pressure

One clear disadvantage for City is all the hype that surrounds an undefeated season -- now that the benchmark has been set, says Amy Lawrence, author of "Invincible, Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season."

"The longer it goes on for Man City, the more people will start to ask the question, 'Can they do it?'" she explains, noting that exactly three years ago people were asking the same of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side who went on to lose away to Spurs on New Year's Day.

"What was very clear from talking to the players from that Arsenal team is that they didn't start thinking about an unbeaten season until pretty close to the end. I just don't think it was on their minds."

"The only person whose mind it was on was Arsene Wenger," she adds, referring to the Arsenal manager. "The players just didn't think it was a thing to try to do because it seemed a bit outlandish."

Incentivizing the 'Invincibles'

Keeping players motivated during the "Invincibles" season was a particular challenge for Wenger on two occasions, notes Lawrence.

The first was after Arsenal unexpectedly crashed out of the Champions League quarterfinals to a team that had not beaten it in five years: Chelsea, in its first season under Roman Abramovich.

"They probably thought they could have won it that year," she says. "They had to dig really deep to get back on track and find their form again in the league."

The second, ironically, came after Arsenal won the league trophy with four matches to spare.

"The only time he really made a huge issue of it was as soon as they won the league," Lawrence says of Wenger. "Arsene was by that point really obsessed about the fact that they didn't mess it up."

Arsenal grinded out two draws and a pair of one-goal victories to pull off the feat -- but it wasn't easy.

"All the players will tell you that it was almost like a disconnect between what was in their heads and what was in their bodies," say Lawrence.

"They just couldn't get themselves going. It was like the marathon runner who has crossed the line and someone says: 'Just go and run another mile, will you?'"

Guardiola, of course, is no stranger to motivation.

He was tasked with incentivizing a Barcelona squad that twice swept La Liga and Champions League trophies, and took over an equally successful Bayern Munich club, only to win the Bundesliga all three seasons in three consecutive seasons.

Lawrence sees similarities between Wenger and Guardiola "in terms of a manager who feels very in tune with his squad."

Wenger handpicked the "Invincibles" roster in his mould "and it really clicked," she says, and sees Guardiola trusting his Man City players in the same way.

Nevin says that what most impresses him is the way Guardiola stuck to his guns despite criticism after last season.

"I love the purity of the thought that you must attack, you must keep the ball. Creativity seems to be above everything else," he says, using praise that has often been attributed to Wenger.

"A lot of people in British football said, 'Oh you can't do that here in the Premier League,'" he says. "And there were one or two of us screaming from the sidelines, 'shut up, he's miles ahead of the rest of you.'"

Leadership and luck

Every great team has its leaders, and the "Invincibles" were full of them says Lawrence.

She names Sol Campbell, Dennis Bergkamp, Henry and Jens Lehmann as examples of different styles of veteran leadership -- though the unquestioned alpha on the team was bruising defensive midfielder Patrick Vieira.

The Senegal-born Frenchman had his teammate's backs on the pitch, and organized dinners for the players and their partners off of it.

While City may lack as many dominant older personalities, Vincent Kompany stands out as a Viera-like presence.

While Kompany is no longer a first team fixture, the City captain "is a very good people person" and a true leader who bridges the cultural divide within the club's diverse squad, says Lawrence.

"You absolutely need luck," continues Lawrence.

"There were certain defining points that season that had to go a certain way for Arsenal. And I'm convinced that if Man City are fortunate enough to stay in this, they will have similar things to look back on where it could have gone a certain way."

Lady Luck appeared to be on Arsenal's side early in the season against Manchester United.

With the scored tied 0-0 in the 80th minute, United ace Ruud van Nistelrooy's was awarded a controversial penalty and hit the crossbar. The resulting fracas would come to be known as "The Battle at Old Trafford."

Who would win?

At least one "Invincible" who played in that match thinks City have a good shot at equaling Arsenal's achievement.

Despite been estranged from Arsenal since departing after 2006, left back Ashley Cole pledged his allegiance to that historic side.

"I think the (Arsenal) 'Invincibles' would win. I think I would have to say that -- no bias," he told ESPN.

One thing is certain, whether this City squad does go undefeated or not, it's built to last.

"If I wasn't such a Chelsea fan, I would be desperate for them to win the league," says Nevin, before adding a frightening thought for City's opponents.

"I think by next season they will be even better."

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