Are Manchester City part of the 'top six' or do they stand alone as the elite of the Premier League?

Are Manchester City part of the 'top six' or do they stand alone as the elite of the Premier League?

The Citizens' record-breaking season shows no signs of stalling and while they continue their collision course to Premier League success, should they really be grouped in a 'top six' with sides who can only make up the numbers in a 'title race' that is already a foregone conclusion?

Samuel Smith

In September, Liverpool were eased aside by an emphatic Manchester City. Although Sadio Mané's red card paved a slightly easier path to an eventual 5-0 victory, it was the best domestic performance of Pep Guardiola's tenure.

It was a display that resembled the Spaniard's all-conquering Barcelona side, the epitome of his idea of perfect football, much more than the Citizens had done so the previous season. In Guardiola's first Premier League campaign his side were sometimes criticised for their lack of cohesion and appearing confused in certain games when his style was not properly implemented. 

Those were fair critiques. Man City never truly looked like a team coached by Guardiola last season. They had very good games but also had terrible ones; the latter predominantly against clubs where the result mattered most while the better performances were against sides they were expected to beat. They won their first six matches and the inevitable questions about invincibility were asked prior to a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and they never looked the same again, eventually finishing third to Chelsea and Spurs. Guardiola first ruled his side out of the title race as early as January following a 4-0 thrashing by Everton and by the end of the season Chelsea had a 15 point lead over the Citizens. 

Last season, Guardiola's side were defeated twice by the eventual champions and once each by Tottenham and Liverpool. They drew with the Lilywhites and the Reds in the respective reverse fixtures and also featured in stalemates against Arsenal and rivals Manchester United. Only Arsenal and United were beaten. The Citizens earned just ten points against the so-called 'top six', which was correctly considered a disappointment. 

September's mauling of Liverpool, though, was the introduction of the new Man City. Since then, Chelsea have been dispatched at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal were brushed aside at the Etihad, United were picked apart in the derby, and Tottenham, considered to be City's rivals to the most pleasing footballing aesthetics, were dismantled in a stunning 4-1 victory earlier this month in a display even more complete than the one produced against the Reds three months prior.

Guardiola's side have dominated their fellow 'top six' so much that their nearest contenders for Premier League success this season, Man United, are already thirteen points behind despite not having a terrible campaign of their own. Man City now resemble a stereotypical Guardiola team at its very best with quick, purposeful passing, attacking flair and a strong defensive base; capable of scoring as many as they please while shutting teams out at the other end. Guardiola was told he would have to adapt to the Premier League, but it now seems the Premier League is having to adapt to Guardiola. 

Midfielder Kevin de Bruyne has been this season's stand-out performer both at City and among the rest of the league; seemingly on a one-man mission to win Player of the Year that mirrors City's assault on the Premier League title. Only Everton have taken points from the Citizens, a 1-1 draw in August, and Guardiola's side have won the other 18 games - mostly breezing past each opponent with sparse scares. 

Man City's dominance challenges 'most competitive league in the world' narrative

It's a dominance that not only challenges those around the Citizens, but also narratives that claim the Premier League is the most competitive division in world football. 

This season's 'title race' is a complete fallacy, not even worth talking about and a mere non-competition. Even La Liga, roundly criticised for 'lacking competition', generally has at least two teams challenging for its title. Man United and Chelsea have done okay in relative terms, they would be far closer to the league leaders in any other season, perhaps even leading the way themselves, but Man City's record-breaking form means they are both unfit to be considered as fellow title contenders. 

Liverpool have been inconsistent, drawn too many games and lie 20 points behind the league leaders despite being fourth, while Arsenal's collapse from an elite club to one that is fighting for its identity as one of England's best teams has continued. Tottenham have under-performed to a monumental extend where they find themselves 21 points behind Man City, and even Burnley have spent a strong amount of time above the Lilywhites. 

The idea that there is a 'top six' is actually mythological. It suggests there are six big clubs all on a level playing field, challenging for honours. It is perhaps unfair and disrespectful to group record-breaking, runaway champions Man City with the other five given the magnitude of the gap they have created between themselves and the rest.

Only Chelsea and Man United have performed as expected while Liverpool have been the best of an underwhelming group with Arsenal and Tottenham. It is perhaps time to regard Man City as the 'top one' and the rest the 'big five'. Some will argue that they would need to continue this form consistently for another few seasons to be regarded outright as the elite of the Premier League's elite, but there is currently more suggestion to say they will continue to perform outstandingly than there is to suggest they will not. 

Man City's sheer magnificence has been aided by their jaw-droppingly good squad. Their usual front three of Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus are as exciting to watch as any other forwards in the world, with only Liverpool's notorious attacking quartet coming close domestically. The trio have scored a combined 26 goals already this season and have been so good that Sergio Aguero's game time has been limited, despite the Argentine scoring 12 of his own. 

Their midfield is equally as majestic: de Bruyne has shone, becoming an all-round midfield player, netting six times and assisting on eight occasions. A new-look, shaven-headed David Silva has partnered him in midfield in front of Fernandinho, whose willingness to break up play and dictate possession from a deeper position perfectly complements the more advanced pair. In reserve, Bernardo Silva has done well in his maiden Premier League season and his versatility is key when Guardiola wishes to either rotate or change shape. 

However, it is in defence where Man City have vastly improved this season. The centre-back pairing of John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi has been a success, while both Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala have deputised when either has been missing. Guardiola's full-backs were criticised last season for lacking the attacking qualities that his full-backs at Barcelona and Bayern Munich possessed, but the additions of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy have solved this problem, and Fabian Delph has been a revelation at left-back in the absence of the injured Mendy. 

£35 million goalkeeper Ederson has been a monumental upgrade on Claudio Bravo, who disappointed last season following his move from Barcelona. Ederson's saves have won points but his biggest asset is his distribution, which has often been the catalyst for many of Man City's devastating counter-attacks. 

Guardiola deserves immense praise for the vast improvement on last season. The obnoxious faux narrative that he is buying his way to the title is incorrect. His rivals, particularly Chelsea and Man United, have also spent extreme amounts but have been unable to sufficiently challenge. From Man City's squad before Guardiola arrived, only Aguero could genuinely be considered world-class. Thanks to his coaching, de Bruyne now falls into that category, while Silva and the front three come close. Money may play a part but excellent coaching and player development has been the biggest factor. 

His current side will go down as one of the greatest-ever Premier League teams, and should they do the seemingly impossible, going unbeaten for the entire campaign, they could even be more highly-regarded than the Arsenal invincibles, the treble-winning Man United side and the Chelsea team of 2004-06. And should they go down as one of the best sides ever, grouping them among this season's top clubs in a 'top six' is unfair.