The numbers behind Manchester City‘s utterly dominant season are absurd.
Through 17 games Pep Guardiola‘s side have dropped two points – a draw with Everton.
They’ve won 15 consecutive games – a new English top flight record – and are so far out in front, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham are all closer in terms of points to the relegation zone than they are to City.
The champions-elect have already scored a staggering 52 goals, surpassing 12 teams’ totals for the entire 2016/17 campaign.
On course for the most commanding season in Premier League history, City are an unstoppable force but the question is, can they match Arsenal‘s unbeaten season in 2003/04?
We examine what it would take for Guardiola’s men to join the Gunners as the Premier League’s only undefeated side.
CLEAN BILL OF HEALTH
Escaping the clutches of an injury curse has proved pivotal for any side challenging for the title.
Arsenal were fortunate Thierry Henry was not sidelined with his 30 goals that season carrying the goalscoring burden.
Granted, City are far better equipped in an attacking sense to deal with any potential setbacks with £43million summer acquisition Bernardo Silva a creative deputy to David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne while Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have been rotated repeatedly.
Unlike the Gunners, there is an abundance of natural goal scorers throughout the side with David Silva scoring five and assisting eight, De Bruyne likewise, Raheem Sterling nine and three with the man on his opposite flank Leroy Sane on six and six.
Strikers Sergio Aguero (10) and Gabriel Jesus (8) have plundered 18 goals between them but the responsibility is equally shared. From an attacking sense, City are well stocked but defensively they are a little vulnerable.
Left-back Benjamin Mendy is recovering from a serious knee problem and will not return before April while Vincent Kompany is too injury-prone to be relied on. The biggest loss, however, has been John Stones.
The England international is unlikely to play again this year due to a hamstring injury and of all City’s stars he is arguably the most irreplaceable.
The base of their play comes through him and his 96 percent pass success rate is the highest of any outfield City player this season.
Stones is missed but the Sky Blues they have fared well without him so far, perhaps the festive fixture list will alter the narrative.
BUY IN JANUARY
A natural segue from injuries is the January transfer market.
Guardiola is well aware at least one defender is required next month with the Catalan going as far as saying City will be “in trouble” if they don’t dip into the market.
“We are thinking about it,” Guardiola said this week. “In that department we have too few players and to handle all competitions we are in trouble, real trouble if this is the case. But I can’t assure anything. We’re going to see what will happen in January.
“Maybe we are thinking of looking at another central defender because of Vincent’s problems, John Stones is four or five weeks out. And we miss an important player like Mendy.”
Eliaquim Mangala, who was nearly sold in the summer, replaced Kompany at half time in the 2-1 win over Manchester United and started against Swansea but he is a player Guardiola truthfully would rather not use more of.
That may force the Catalan to revisit signing West Brom’s Jonny Evans or lock horns with Liverpool for Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk. The more prominent problem is at left-back, though.
Fabian Delph has filled in for the injured Mendy but errors against Southampton and United hardly inspire confidence.
It’s well documented just how important wing-backs are in Guardiola’s system with their high energy stretching the play and allowing room for short metronome-like passes through midfield to create space in behind.
Van Dijk’s team-mate Ryan Bertrand has apparently been earmarked and the 28-year-old is a suitable fit given his quality going forward.
GET THROUGH CHRISTMAS UNSCATHED
The festive period is a traditional test of strength for sides battling for the title.
The added workload can define the season and the bad news for City is that their next five league games will be played in the space of 18 days from December 16 to January 3.
For context their first five fixtures of the season were played in 33 days.
The good news, is that the make up of those games are kind. Guardiola’s side have just one team to face from the top six with Tottenham the visitors to the Etihad Stadium this weekend.
Of the other four, three are currently in the bottom half – Bournemouth at home, Newcastle and Crystal Palace away – while the other is a Watford side they put six past at Vicarage Road in September.
Not one appears capable of defeating City and the heavy rotation policy adopted by Guardiola will ensure they are in the best shape to tackle the hectic schedule.
Beside, they are already entering Christmas with a far superior record to Arsenal after 17 games in their unbeaten season.
City have 16 wins to the Gunners’ 11, have scored 22 more goals and conceded one less for a points tally of 49 points contrasted to the Invincble’s tally of 39.
The Invincibles are mostly remembered for their vavavoom in attack as Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp spearheaded a 4-4-2, although it looked more like a 4-2-3-1 with the Dutchman dropping in as No10.
What is often overlooked, however, is just how good they were defensively. Arsenal accumulated 15 clean sheets and conceded only 26 times with a marriage of attacking flair and defensive solidity forming the bedrock of their success.
Victories were achieved by strangling teams into a slick submission but City are a complete contrast – they simply smash teams off the pitch.
From back-to-front Guardiola has built a bulldozing side and while the style is frightening, it does carry a risk of defeat.
Indeed, recent slender victories against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham were only achieved thanks to winners past the 80-minute mark with City’s defensive frailities exposed.
They’ve actually conceded less than the Arsenal side of 03/04 at this juncture yet they still look far more susceptible to both pace and the aerial threat at set-pieces.
Without Stones’ speed across the ground and Kompany’s strength in the air, the weakness will remain but thankfully for Guardiola that isn’t a problem when you can just dominate the ball instead.
City’s formation is a fluid, ever-shifting shape which features a variety of interchanging of positions and that fluency allows Guardiola the freedom to switch around personnel.
Take for example the Manchester derby.
City lined up with a 4-3-3 and Gabriel Jesus started through the middle only in typical Guardiola fashion for a switch inside 10 minutes to see Sterling operate as a false nine with the Brazilian and Sane either side.
The tactical change allowed Sterling to drop in and flood the midfield, create chances with his quick feet as Jesus and Sane attacked the box.
It’s this capacity to alter their structure with ease which will keep opponents guessing.
Arguably the biggest hurdle in City’s path to invincibility is their opportunity to win multiple trophies this season.
Obviously if given the choice between treble success or an unbeaten campaign, City fans would opt for the the former but that was an option never really on the table for Arsenal in 2003/04.
Wenger’s side were knocked out of the Champions League last eight by Chelsea while Man United were victors in a FA Cup semi-final.
With the possibility of wrapping up the title by the Champions League quarter-finals, you would expect Guardiola to begin prioritising Europe over a record-equalling season considering where that trophy sits in the club’s ambitions.
All respect to FC Basel but they will likely be levelled in the last-16 and from there tougher ties await.
Arguably the biggest threat to a perfect season is the distraction of other cup competitions.
LEADERSHIP AND LUCK
Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Jens Lehmann offered varying leadership styles but all unquestionable possessed dominant personalities to offer a nucleus of support.
City don’t really have that steely identity but through vice-captain David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne they own two players who will shoulder the heavy lifting from a creative standpoint.
In behind them, Fernandinho is the midfield pivot and represents the embodiment of Guardiola on the pitch with his tactical acumen making him one of City’s main men.
They are players who lead through their performances rather than personality but to go unbeaten City need more than game generals.
Luck is a title-challenging prerequisite and the fortuitous 2-1 win over Huddersfield is a testament to that.
Their fortuity isn’t without merit, though, and while Sterling’s winner against the Terriers was lucky, it was City who deserved the three points.
The manner of victory carried an element of good fortune but City commanded every aspect of that game and ultimately, they made their own luck.
More will be required to go undefeated.
Gareth Bale came off the bench to book Real Madrid's place in the Club World Cup final as the European champions recovered from the shock of going behind to beat Emirati champions Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday.
Despite dominating throughout, Madrid trailed at half-time to Romarinho's opener in a match also marred by use of the video assistant referee (VAR) that ruled out a goal for both sides.
Madrid's pressure finally paid off 10 minutes into the second half when Cristiano Ronaldo levelled before Bale broke Al Jazira's resistence with his first touch eight minutes from time.
"It's great to get the goal," Bale told Real Madrid TV. "When you come on you want to make an impact, but the most important thing is to win and be in the final."
Real will go for their fifth trophy of the year when they face Brazilian side Gremio on Saturday but check out all the match highlights from the win over Jazira in the video above.
The paper says reports in Spain suggest club bosses have decided that if a deal cannot be done by the end of December, then they will need to move on.
They could then look to sign Arsenal‘s Mesut Ozil, the paper adds.
However, according to the Daily Mail, Ozil favours signing for Manchester United over Barcelona should he leave Arsenal.
The paper says the Germany international has made it plain to friends that he is eyeing a switch to United, while Jose Mourinho is said to be watching his situation closely.
Newcastle are reportedly eyeing Liverpool striker Danny Ings and Manchester United defender Luke Shaw.
The Daily Star claims manager Rafael Benitez wants to bring in the two players as he bids to avoid the drop, and will make a move if the club’s takeover goes through.
Bournemouth are demanding £15million for striker Benik Afobe, the Sun reports.
The paper says West Brom and former club Wolves are interested in the 24-year-old, but Eddie Howe wants more than the £10million they splashed out on him two years ago.
Kyle Scott is in stalemate with Chelsea over a new contract, the Sun claims, with a host of clubs keeping a watchful eye on him.
The paper reports that the 19-year-old midfielder, who has 18 months to run on his current deal, has impressed Leicester and Huddersfield, but Chelsea are keen for him to stay.
SOCIAL MEDIA ROUND-UP
Hopefully Klopp causes a fight in the tunnel to take the focus away about how far behind Man City we are. https://t.co/evmV06tUs1— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) December 13, 2017
Only three players have 5+ goals and 5+ assists in the Premier League this season:— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) December 13, 2017
David Silva (5 and 8)
Kevin De Bruyne (5 and 8)
Leroy Sane (6 and 6)
All three play for Man City 😳 pic.twitter.com/xTG5AgIACk
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Liam Walsh: The 20-year-old is ready to leave Everton and sign for Bristol City, according to the Sun. The paper says the promotion-chasing side look set to sign him for about £1 million and are expected to swoop early in the January transfer window.
Pontus Dahlberg: Watford are said to be close to signing the teenage goalkeeper. talkSPORT says reports in Sweden suggest IFK Goteborg are already looking at replacements, with Watford reportedly ready to pay £3million for the 18-year-old.
Provided by Press Association Sport