Should Liverpool stutter, Tottenham is perhaps its likeliest replacement as City’s competition, a club galvanized by a new stadium, energized by a run to the Champions League final and bolstered by new arrivals: Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon, Real Betis’s Giovani Lo Celso and Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon.
Even then, though, expecting Spurs to close the gap — it finished 27 points behind City last year — seems ambitious. So, too, is the idea that any of the rest of England’s putative Big Six might be genuine contenders: Chelsea, with its rookie manager and its transfer ban; Manchester United, its transfer policy still so enigmatic; Arsenal, stronger now, but so far back. None seems in a position to take a great leap forward.
If there is to be another title race in England this year, then, it will rely not on City’s rivals rising to its level, but on City sinking to theirs; not on others getting more points, but on City’s gathering fewer.
For that to happen, more teams from outside that cosseted elite need to follow Benítez’s lead and find a way to bring City low. It has been done: Besides Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Leicester City both beat Guardiola’s team last season.
How they managed it varied. Benítez’s approach, aside from that candle, was to clog the middle of the field, to force City wide, to make sure not so much as a scintilla of space opened between his defense and midfield, and to contain Guardiola’s players as far from the Newcastle goal as possible. He told his players, before the game, to expect that the slightest mistake would be punished, that they could not afford so much as a moment’s rest.
Claude Puel, whose Leicester beat City in the Premier League and held it to a draw in the Carabao Cup, prioritized something else. “You have to accept you will not have the ball,” he said. What matters is what you do as soon as you have it. “The first control, the first touch, the first pass after you recover it is very important,” he said. “It has to be forward.”