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Manchester City, Chelsea and Competing With Perfection

That is not the only conceptual shift he has inspired. When Manchester City went into this season without a recognized center forward, it was seen not as madness but a bold, if slightly risky, call; playing with a fluid front three is no longer anathema. The idea that fullbacks can switch places with midfielders and serve as playmakers has been internalized and imitated, too. He has ushered in an era of open-mindedness in which, yes, actually, maybe goalkeepers could take penalties.

His statistical impact has been as great as his stylistic one. Guardiola, just as he did in Spain and Germany, has changed what it takes to be champion. Placed in charge of the most lavish sporting project ever envisaged — well, joint — and given control of a club that could afford to establish itself as best-in-class at almost everything it does, Guardiola has shattered our conception of the possible.

It is no surprise that the four highest points totals in English history have come in the Guardiola era: two of them for Manchester City, and two of them for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the one team that could, for a while, keep pace. A fifth is within reach this year. Each one of Guardiola’s title-winning seasons at City has included some impossible run of consecutive wins or games unbeaten.

How much of that is down to him and how much of that is down to the money at his disposal is an ongoing debate, though in his favor is the fact that he did precisely the same thing in Spain: Just as he has credited the challenge of Liverpool for forcing his team to new heights, there is little doubt that the need to outstrip Barcelona inspired Real Madrid to claim 100 points in 2012.

Either way, it has become clear that even to approach Guardiola’s Manchester City requires a rival to be nearly perfect. That has not happened this year. Liverpool lost ground over Christmas and New Year, a couple of creditable draws and a dispiriting defeat against a weakened Leicester City casting Klopp’s team adrift. Chelsea, should it lose to City on Saturday, will suffer the same fate after a stuttering, stumbling winter.

That may have consequences. Should — as appears likely — City streak away with the championship over the next few months, both Liverpool and Chelsea will have their flaws picked apart, their vulnerabilities exposed, their defects uncovered. Players might find their places in the team under threat, or their reputations diminished. It is not entirely impossible that Blues Manager Thomas Tuchel, at least, might even find his job in jeopardy should Chelsea finish the season 10 or 15 points behind.

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