Soccer is a free-flowing sport that’s nevertheless defined in cliche. The margins are small at the top. Games are won in the midfield. You have to capitalize on mistakes. It’s all about finding space.
You’ve heard them all before. You’ll hear them again.
Because they all applied to Manchester City’s statement-making 1-0 away win at fellow title contenders Chelsea on Saturday, recapturing the Premier League lead over Manchester United on goal difference. Through seven games, City has spilled just two points – on match day two at home against Everton. It came into Saturday’s contest having consecutively beaten Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace 5-0, 6-0 and 5-0, respectively.
But then Chelsea hadn’t lost since its opener either. And the defending champions are deeper now than they’d been last year, with Alvaro Morata slotting in remarkably well for departed striker Diego Costa.
This game surely won’t much affect the outcome of the title race. There are 31 rounds of games to go, after all. Seasons aren’t decided in late September. Neither, for that matter, does your record against the other big clubs tend to be terribly relevant to the final standings — provided that you don’t get swept by several teams.
For the narrative and state of mind, however, it was significant. Last season, City started out looking unbeatable as well, before fading in week seven. From there, it went on a wretched run where Pep Guardiola’s side won just one of five and three of nine. To have bucked that trend this season will reinforce the notion that this City team has all the tools to win after last claiming the English championship in 2012 and 2014.
It was largely a game of noise and fury and toil and intensity. But there were very few major chances. It was a tussle in tiny spaces, at a seemingly unsustainable tempo. Guardiola and Antonio Conte played a tactical game of chess between grand masters.
But about those cliches. While City was, on the whole, the better team, the game was decided when De Bruyne capitalized on a rare pocket of space in the middle. Both teams had packed the midfield, with Chelsea ceding the flanks to collapse on City’s high-octane attack. So when De Bruyne was finally able to lope into the middle after an exchange with Gabriel Jesus in the 67th minute, he didn’t hesitate and sent a roaring shot past Thibaut Courtois from the edge of the box.
City spent much of its night in Chelsea’s half, with 62 percent of possession, yet all it had to show for it besides De Bruyne’s goal was a pair of shots from David Silva, a Fernandinho header parried by Courtois and a late rocket volley by Gabriel Jesus saved off the line by Antonio Rudiger. For City’s 17 shots, with six on target — to Chelsea’s four and two, respectively — most all of them had been of low quality.
Chelsea fared even worse. Cesar Azpilicueta hit a harmless dribbler at Ederson, and Eden Hazard aimed his open shot too closely to the Brazilian goalkeeper.
Aside from City solidifying its title application, the game also underscored a new fact of life in the Premier League. What was once the most appealing aspect of the world’s most popular circuit was that on any given day, any team could beat any other. But the only parity that seems to exist now is at the very top. When the big clubs play, truly tight games only seem to occur when they face each other.
Because the top six – which currently includes interlopers Watford – has been utterly dominant. In 41 games, City, United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Watford and Liverpool have lost just five times. Only six teams have cracked double digits in scoring through six or seven games. Unsurprisingly, they comprise the six highest spots. City and United have scored 22 and 21 goals, respectively, and each conceded just twice.
There is hardly any margin between the Manchester teams, with a single goal separating them in the standings – after United cruised to a 4-0 victory over hapless Crystal Palace. Like the 2012 season, this feels like a year that could be decided on the final kick. Because even mighty Chelsea, which has won two titles in three years and somehow still seems on the ascent, was comprehensively outplayed by City. At Stamford Bridge, no less. And without injured City starters Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Aguero.
Chelsea couldn’t stop City at home. And 18 other teams won’t like their chances either.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.