As the Manchester City players left the pitch in the wake of the 3-1 victory over Brighton, it was hard to remember a season’s work better executed than this. Much has been written about the slew of records that have fallen to Pep Guardiola’s side this season, and the plaudits will be ringing in the players’ ears long after this weekend’s final round of games have taken place.
To win any league title, home form must be as solid as a rock, and City’s record at the Etihad this season has been exemplary. After the opening home game of the season resulted in two lost points in a 1-1 draw with Everton, only Manchester United and Huddersfield have stood in the way of a clean sweep of victories. While United’s victory in the Manchester derby may have been aided and abetted by one of the most lax refereeing performances of the season from Martin Atkinson, it was notable as not only the sole home defeat in the league all season, but the first time City had lost after being two up at home since 2008.
Last weekend’s shutout by Huddersfield Town was the only other game that did not deliver all three points to the home side all season. The West Yorkshire side — with the drop to the Championship staring them squarely in the face — managed to withstand City’s attempts and come away with a vital point. City, try as they may, could not get out of second gear with the title already won and a sun-drenched trophy presentation imminent.
If rock-solid home form is a prerequisite, then City certainly summoned something close to perfection this season. Where they have really excelled and where the colossal points gap to second place has been constructed is away from home, however.
With one game to play — at St Mary’s this weekend — City’s incredible away record can be equalled with a win (it presently stands at 15 wins, two draws and one defeat). Incredibly, the spread of goals is also reasonably even, despite the overriding expectation being for home games to witness the majority of goals.
City have scored 44 away goals and 61 at home. Clearly, the onus on home sides to open up and attack on their own patch has helped City in this respect.
At the Etihad, Everton set the benchmark for the season in that first game. Defending stoutly, they hardly bothered attacking at all for long periods, being content to let City have supposedly harmless possession either side of the halfway line. That they hung on for a point was ultimately down to two factors: profligacy in front of goal and a ludicrous red card to Kyle Walker just before half-time.
However, in emerging relatively unscathed, Everton gave the green light to others, who intended to build their game plan around extreme caution. A succession of teams duly arrived and played to preserve the clean sheet, among them West Ham and Southampton, both beaten by extremely late Raheem Sterling and David Silva winners.
When reigning champions Chelsea arrived in March and offered little more than the same, the die was cast. Even City’s supposed rivals in the big six at the top of the table were palpably running scared.
With greater freedom afforded Guardiola’s marauding attacking machine away from home, the goals just kept flowing. Despite this, there were occasions when even home sides went into full containment mode, with Rafa Benitez’s tortoise tactics at St James’ Park standing out as the moment City realised just what an impact their attacking was having on the mindset of the rest of the division.
Only Liverpool, set up in that exhausting, harrying style that has taken them to the Champions League final, could claim to have had any meaningful success against City this season and even they copped for a 5-0 drubbing in the league fixture in Manchester. Tottenham and Arsenal, the capital’s most expressive sides, were brushed aside both home and away, with City’s performances at the Emirates, Wembley and Stamford Bridge among the most persuasive of the entire season.
Try as they might, it seemed each approach was doomed to almost certain failure against this well-oiled machine. Those that came close to derailing it (Southampton, West Ham, Bournemouth) were beaten by excruciatingly late goals. Those that stole a point (Burnley and Palace) looked so drained by the end of their endeavours that it took them a couple of games to recover. Indeed even Liverpool, having won impressively at Anfield against City, proceeded to lose at home to bottom club West Brom in the very next fixture.
Beating City has not been an easy task this season. Home and away, the levels of performance have been almost identical. The consistency married to this balance of output has had a clear and undeniable outcome: one of the most scintillating championship wins in the history of the English game.
Simon is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.