A last-minute consolation and a bundled effort from a long throw-in are the only goals Manchester City has conceded in nine games across all competitions in 2021.
Pep Guardiola, one of the most attack-minded coaches in soccer history, has constructed a virtually impenetrable defensive unit in his fifth season at City and it is providing the platform for the team’s latest run at the Premier League title.
City’s lead grew to three points on Saturday after its battling 1-0 win over last-place Sheffield United was followed by second-place Manchester United’s latest slip-up, a 0-0 draw at Arsenal.
That’s five straight shutouts for City in the league — or 10 in its last 12 league games stretching back to a 2-0 loss at Tottenham on Nov. 21, when some were wondering if Guardiola’s latest iteration had the capability of winning the title this season.
Indeed, since a 5-2 loss to Leicester in City’s second league game — a result that shook Guardiola and led to him tightening up his defensive unit — the team has kept 20 clean sheets in 29 games in all competitions, conceding just 10 goals.
On a day when Guardiola rotated his lineup and City’s attack was never at its free-flowing best, a close-range effort from Gabriel Jesus in the ninth minute was enough to earn an eighth straight league win and see off a hard-working Sheffield United side looking far from the worst side in the division.
City’s defense, marshalled by the excellent Ruben Dias, was barely troubled.
When is it ever these days?
“When I woke up and went out of my building, I saw it was windy and freezing and I said, ‘Today will be the toughest game we are going to play this season,’” Guardiola said.
“Our commitment was fantastic. We played really well. We didn’t create much but we conceded few again. I am grateful to my players for the victory we had. It was so, so difficult and we did it.”
City’s 13 goals conceded is by far the fewest in the league heading into the second half of the campaign. Tottenham and Arsenal are tied for the next best record, with 20.
United has now dropped points in three of its last four league games, after a draw against Liverpool and — more painfully — a 2-1 loss to Sheffield United on Wednesday.
Edinson Cavani wasted United’s best two chances at Emirates Stadium while Alexandre Lacazette struck the crossbar with a free kick for Arsenal, which brought on Martin Odegaard — a loan signing from Real Madrid — for his debut.
United set a club record by extending its unbeaten away streak in the top division to 18 games but handed a big advantage to City, which also has a game in hand.
“We don’t think about the title race,” United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said, adding “We’re in January.”
After five straight defeats that saw the team plunge toward the relegation zone, Newcastle bounced back with a 2-0 win at Evertonto move eight points clear of the bottom three.
Callum Wilson scored two goals in the second half and now has 10 in his first season at the club following an offseason move from Bournemouth.
Everton missed out on the chance to climb to fifth place, and manager Carlo Ancelotti accused his players of being “lazy, slow, not focused.”
Newcastle’s win was bad news for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, two teams in the relegation zone which shared the points in an entertaining 2-2 draw at The Hawthorns.
Fulham occupies the third and final relegation spot and is four points from safety.
After a strong start to the season, Southampton is slipping down the standings and lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa to make it three defeats in a row.
Ross Barkley scored the first-half winner by heading in a cross from Jack Grealish, with Southampton having been denied an early penalty when Villa defender Matty Cash blocked a goal-bound shot from Stuart Armstrong with his arm.
Villa rose to eighth, Southampton dropped to 11th.
Crystal Palace is three points behind Southampton in 13th after beating Wolverhampton 1-0 thanks to the latest wonder strike by Eberechi Eze.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80