Pep Guardiola has long known the lot of the holding midfielder.

During his playing days, Guardiola operated at the base of Barcelona's engine room as the likes of Michael Laudrup, Romario, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Figo, Luis Enrique and Ronaldo took the plaudits higher up the field.

In his Manchester City side, who claimed a 15th successive win across all competitions this week to set a new record in English top-flight history, the attacking stars also trip off the tongue.

Ilkay Gundogan is enjoying the most prolific season of his career from midfield and was named Premier League Player of the Month on Friday, while Phil Foden's rapid rise is firing enthusiasm over England's Euro 2020 prospects.

City's all-time leading scorer Sergio Aguero and star playmaker Kevin De Bruyne are still to return to the mix after spells on the sidelines, but another less-glamorous player has been there throughout the dominant run.

No one in Guardiola's squad has made more than Rodri's 21 appearances, the Spain international having made the anchor role his own.

"The best holding midfielders never appear in the newspapers, in the front pages," the City manager said ahead of Saturday's game against Tottenham.

"They hide behind the team but when [the team] plays good it is because they are playing outstanding."

Since a 2-0 defeat to Spurs last November, City are undefeated in 22 matches - something that reflects very well indeed on Rodri in Guardiola's eyes.

 

A £62.8million signing from Atletico Madrid in July 2019, the 24-year-old's first season in English football proved a struggle at times.

Without Aymeric Laporte through injury for large chunks of the season, the defence Rodri was charged with protecting often looked vulnerable.

Fernandinho being pressed into action at centre-back meant the new man was left to learn on the job as Guardiola sought and struggled for midfield balance.

But Rodri has started to thrive in the months since City last tasted defeat, with Ruben Dias at the heart of defence and an attacking line ahead of him displaying its fluidity of old.

"He adapted quickly, immediately. He's still young and there are some issues that he still has to learn but he will learn them," Guardiola said. "He's a really important player for us."

No Premier League player has attempted more than Rodri's 1,723 passes this season and he retains an impressive 90.3 per cent accuracy across that volume of work.

The quality of possession Rodri plays a part in and often launches is notable.

According to Opta, he has initiated 36 open play sequences leading to a shot and five resulting in goals - both league-best returns.

Similarly, Rodri is out on his own with 81 involvements in open play build-ups concluding with a shot, while weekend opponent Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is the only man who can match the Spaniard's 11 involvements in build-ups preceding a goal.

Smoothness on the ball is a pre-requisite for any Guardiola player, especially one operating in the Catalan's old position, but Rodri has also shown an aptitude for the dirty work required to keep City's pristine machine on the road.

None of his team-mates can boast more than his 174 recoveries this term - 10th in the Premier League overall. Rodri also leads the way at City for tackles (40) and duels won (128), while winning 52 of 70 aerials contested – that is unmatched in the top-flight leaders' squad as well.

"A good holding midfielder plays for the other ones and not for himself. These are the best holding midfielders," Guardiola said.

"They think what's happening, what they have to do to correct the mistakes of the other ones and don't play for the highlights."

Manchester City's record-breaking winning run will count for nothing when they take to the field against Tottenham on Saturday, Pep Guardiola has warned.

City set a new best mark for an English top-flight club in midweek when a 3-1 FA Cup fifth-round triumph at Swansea City marked a 15th successive victory across all competitions.

Guardiola's side are five points clear at the top of the Premier League with a game in hand on their nearest rivals.

Spurs were the last team to defeat City, prevailing 2-0 last November - 23 matches ago.

Jose Mourinho's men are chasing a third consecutive win over their weekend opponents and Guardiola is taking nothing for granted.

"It's nice to make a good run but it is the consequence of thinking game by game," he said, with trips to Everton and Arsenal also on the agenda for City over the next nine days.

"The statistics are nice, but statistics don't help you to win the next one.

"We are not unbeatable. The 15 games in a row winning doesn't help us to start 2-0 in the next game.

"It's nice, it's good, it helps us to be where we are in the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League, but we have to start again tomorrow. It's an important week against three incredibly strong teams.

"From our game when we played there, we have to imagine what we have to do to play better and beat them."

Guardiola expects to have influential central defender Ruben Dias back in contention after he missed the Swansea game through illness, while holding midfielder Rodri is back in training after limping off during the second half at the Liberty Stadium.

Sergio Aguero could also make his return after a bout of coronavirus, with Fernandinho (thigh), Nathan Ake and Kevin De Bruyne (both hamstring) the only definite absentees confirmed by Guardiola.

The City boss was named Premier League Manager of the Month on Friday, with midfielder Ilkay Gundogan collecting the Player of the Month award.

Germany international Gundogan has hit a rich vein of form in front of goal and a brace in last Sunday's 4-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield took him to 11 for the season in all competitions - making this already the most prolific campaign of the 30-year-old's career.

"I'm happy for him. Lots of goals, lots of minutes, lots of good actions - it's more than well deserved," Guardiola said.

Romelu Lukaku would prove to be a "gigantic" signing for Manchester City, according to former Citizens star Elano.

Sergio Aguero has been a fringe player for City this season, with the 32-year-old struggling with multiple injury issues as well as coronavirus-enforced lay-offs.

Aguero is out of contract at the end of 2020-21 and talks are yet to begin over a new deal, while Gabriel Jesus has also struggled to solidify his place in Pep Guardiola's team in the Argentine striker's absence.

With Aguero making just five league appearances – only two of them starts – and failing to score or assist, Jesus has netted four times and teed up two more goals from 14 games, 10 of them starts.

Phil Foden, Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, who is currently out injured, have all been deployed in a central attacking role this season by Guardiola, who is reportedly set to target a forward in the upcoming transfer window.

Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland is a name that has been mooted, though all of Europe's major clubs no doubt harbour an interest in the 20-year-old.

From 15 Bundesliga appearances this term, Haaland has scored 14 goals, second to only Eintracht Frankfurt's Andre Silva (17) and Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski (19) in Germany's top tier.

However, another name which has emerged in relation to City's transfer targets is former Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton striker Lukaku, who has enjoyed another strong season with Inter following a stellar maiden campaign in Italy.

The 27-year-old is a player whose style may not be an obvious fit with Guardiola's way of playing, yet Elano believes the Belgium international would be a supreme addition.

"When you play at a club at a high level, the competitiveness is huge. And if a guy like Lukaku is free, it's not only City who want him, many others do too," Elano, who became a cult hero during a two-year stint with City between 2007 and 2009, told Stats Perform News.

"The way that City play these days everybody wants to play for City don't they? It's an amazing way to play.

"Jesus has his place at City, but if a transfer like that really happens, it would be a gigantic reinforcement for the club and all three would have to fight for the opportunity. And City will have opportunities to compete in all competitions."

City are 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League as it stands, having won a 10th straight top-flight match on Sunday, when they demolished defending champions Liverpool 4-1 at Anfield.

Asked if he believes City, who also have a game in hand over their title rivals, will go on to reclaim the league crown they won consecutively in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Elano said: "They went through a tough time, which is normal.

"When you rise so fast, they won two Premier Leagues, if I am not wrong, they also won the FA Cup so… after that, they went through a turbulent moment because they didn't win, but now they are playing well again, which is normal when you have an amazing squad like that.

"The manager has a good base to work from and I believe City has all the potential to win the title again.

"I consider [Guardiola] the best alongside some others. Each coach has his own way to play. But the most beautiful way to play football I guess is the Guardiola way."

WHAT WOULD LUKAKU BRING TO CITY?

Having spent the majority of his senior career in England, Lukaku would have no trouble adapting, and though his United connections may at first seem to represent a stumbling block, the Belgian never really settled during his time at Old Trafford.

Nevertheless, he still netted 28 league goals across 66 appearances for United, converting 42.22 per cent of 45 big chances he had, while also creating 54 goalscoring opportunities.

In his time at Inter, Lukaku has far surpassed that total in Serie A, scoring 37 times, while adding another four Coppa Italia goals and 13 in European competitions.

Last August, Lukaku became the first player to score in nine successive UEFA Cup or Europa League games when he netted in a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen. He went on to score a penalty and an own goal in Inter's defeat to Sevilla in the final.

His partnership with Lautaro Martinez helped Inter to a second-placed finish last season and they are now battling it out with rivals Milan and Juventus for this term's Scudetto.

Lukaku's big chance conversion rate has been upped to 54.72 per cent in Serie A, while he averages a goal every 121 minutes, and with the quantity of opportunities City create – they top the Premier League for that metric this season with 259, with their big chance total of 65 matched only by United – he would surely hit the ground running.

Pep Guardiola expressed his pride after Manchester City made history with a 3-1 victory over Swansea City to cruise into the FA Cup quarter-finals

The imperious Premier League leaders outclassed the Championship promotion hopefuls at the Liberty Stadium, where they eased to a 15th consecutive win – a record for an English top-flight club.

City's latest dominant victory saw them better runs of 14 in a row set by Preston and North End in 1891-92 and Arsenal in 1987, keeping them in contention for to win silverware on four fronts.

Kyle Walker opened the scoring in the first half before Raheem Sterling slotted in his 12th goal of the season early in the second half and Gabriel Jesus finished brilliantly a few minutes later.

Morgan Whittaker pulled a goal back with a sweet left-footed strike after City's Spain midfielder Rodri limped off with an injury, which Guardiola is hopeful is not serious.

The City boss was full of praise for his players after the juggernaut rolled on in Wales.

Asked about setting the record, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss said: "It is a message for ourselves. We came to win, that was the most important thing.

"We cannot deny how pleased and how proud we are to break this record from a long time ago. Records are there to be broken.

"It is not easy in the modern era to do 15 games in a row. We are happy for our club."

Guardiola added: "I had a feeling that they would create chances, they were dangerous up front. They were so aggressive but we controlled the game and we created a lot of chances but could not convert."

The Spaniard did not appear too concerned about Rodri's injury and revealed Ruben Dias was absent due to illness, while Fernandinho did not feature as he has been troubled by a quad niggle.

Guardiola will be hoping they will recover in time for a Premier League encounter with Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

Phil Foden must be "calm" and "humble" as the plaudits flow his way, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Foden completed the scoring in Sunday's 4-1 win over Premier League champions Liverpool at Anfield, having also had a hand in each of Ilkay Gundogan's two second-half goals.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has 10 goals for City in all competitions this season and has played an integral part in them establishing a five-point lead at the top of the table.

However, Guardiola was critical of Foden's performance in the false nine role before half-time on Merseyside and, speaking ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup trip to Swansea City, said he felt Raheem Sterling was City's standout weekend performer.

"I said to [Foden], 'Don't read much, don't listen much, keep your feet on the grass and keep going'," Guardiola said, before waxing lyrical about Sterling after the England star won a penalty and scored a close-range header against his former club.

"Nobody talks much about Raheem and, at Anfield, Raheem made his best game of the last two months. By far.

"He was key in the first goal, for the penalty in the first half. Every action he made was decisive in the final third.

"Of course Phil was so important in the goals, especially in the fantastic last one.

"But Raheem was fundamental for us and hopefully, because he was a little bit not in the best form in the last month, he can continue to maintain the level he played at Anfield."

Foden will be reunited with Steve Cooper on Wednesday when Guardiola's City chase an English record - a 15th consecutive win for a top flight team.

The Swansea boss coached England to success in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, where the young Mancunian was named player of the tournament.

From that point, Guardiola has faced repeated calls to grant the playmaker more minutes at City.

A strand of post-match analysis at the weekend argued the former Barcelona boss had nurtured his latest star perfectly, but Guardiola does not necessarily view it that way and also stated Foden should not consider himself an automatic selection.

"I didn’t plan to handle the way we did it with Phil," Guardiola said. "Sometimes he played and he didn’t deserve to play.

"Normally we want to increase and talk a lot, a lot, a lot about Phil but after that we'll punish him, you know? For one mistake in this private life, we know exactly what happened [Foden was sent home from England duty last September for breaking coronavirus protocols].

"Now it's just [about being] calm. I know Phil is ready to play, His physical condition is extraordinary.

"I will handle it the same way and have handled it. When I believe he can help us he is going to play; when I believe another one deserves to play he is not going to play."

Indeed, with Foden the toast of the present moment in English football, Guardiola challenged him to turn a rich vein of form into the sort of longevity that separates the best from the rest.

"He has to be calm and understand tough periods will come. It depends on him being humble and his love for the game," Guardiola added of a player who recently brought up 100 senior appearances for City.

"We’ll see if he can handle it. Now the people expect him every game to do exceptional things, this is the most important thing.

"It's difficult to play 100 games but the important thing is to do 100 more and 100 more at this level. This is the toughest.

"This is why the best players did not do one action at Anfield; they play five years in a row, being consistent, not injured. Playing, playing, playing.

"This is the next target for Phil, maintain there as high as possible, as much and as long as possible.

"It depends absolutely on him. Hopefully he can do it."

Sergio Aguero is felling better every day after returning to training but Pep Guardiola is unsure when the Manchester City striker will be available for squad selection.

City's all-time record goalscorer has endured a frustrating campaign and has not featured since coming on as a late substitute in the 3-1 win over Chelsea on January 3.

That is one of only nine appearances made all season by Aguero, who struggled with knee and hamstring issues before being struck down with coronavirus last month.

He returned to training on Monday but Guardiola cannot say for certain when the Argentina international will feature again.

"Yesterday he trained with the group for 10-15 minutes and later did some part alone," Guardiola said at a news conference ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup tie with Swansea City.

"Day by day he is feeling better. Is he ready? Not yet."

City make the trip to Wales on a 14-game winning run in all competitions, including a 4-1 victory over Liverpool on Sunday to tighten their grip on top spot in the Premier League.

That equals the all-time winning run by an English top-flight side but Guardiola has warned his players they cannot afford to take last-16 opponents Swansea for granted.

"I can't explain it. I just think about the next game and try to prepare for it as well as possible - there are no more secrets than that," the Catalan coach said.

"We are so calm when we lose and the same now we are winning. The reason why is thinking the next game and now it's Swansea."

City's winning run has come despite the absence of Aguero, with Guardiola often preferring to go without a recognised striker up top - as was the case against Liverpool.

"We play with a centre forward many games," Guardiola said. "When we don't play with a typical centre-forward people can move a bit more but we have to arrive in the box. 

"We saw the game against Liverpool - four or five players were inside the box. Every game is different. 

"We are looking forward, even Gabriel [Jesus] is dropping, improving in his position not playing like a player you can link and the striker just being there. 

"I'm not a big fan of this. I prefer to move behind this position and we have some players who can do it."

Wednesday's clash at the Liberty Stadium will be the first between Man City and Swansea since a dramatic FA Cup quarter-final in 2018-19, which the Citizens edged 3-2.

Guardiola's men have won 12 of their last 14 meetings with Swansea in all competitions, including each of the last six in a row.

However, the Welsh side have been in good form of their own of late, winning eight and drawing two of their last 10 matches, and are seeking to reach the last eight for a third time in four seasons.

Guardiola saw his side survive a scare against fourth-tier Cheltenham Town in the last round and is expecting another tough test against Championship promotion contenders Swansea.

"Swansea have a tradition of good managers: Michael Laudrup, Roberto Martinez, [Graham] Potter - now I realise how good he is as we suffered a lot when we played Brighton," Guardiola said.

"It was a difficult game the last time we played Swansea. I don't expect a different game to when we suffered there two seasons ago to go through. 

"I know they are consistent, score, good defensively, don't concede chances, so solid in their formation, physically strong, they have the quality to play upfront and in the middle. 

"It will be an incredibly difficult test. We have to do a good performance. We suffered against Cheltenham, 1-0 down with 80 minutes. I don't expect a different game tomorrow."

Man City have won 18 of their 21 FA Cup ties under Guardiola and have scored more goals (65) in the competition since the Catalan arrived in 2016-17 than any other side.

Pep Guardiola hopes Phil Foden understands there is plenty of room for improvement but said it is a joy to have the boyhood Manchester City fan starring for his team.  

Foden scored a stunner and set up another goal as Premier League leaders City romped to a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. 

Playing in a central role up front, Foden struggled to get into the game in the first half but thrived in the second after Guardiola had altered City's shape. 

His exquisite strike rounded off a remarkable 10-minute spell late in the second half in which the match went from 1-1 to 4-1. 

Two blunders from Alisson had gifted City their second and third goals – Ilkay Gundogan tucking in from Foden's cut back before Raheem Sterling headed home his 100th goal under Guardiola from Bernardo Silva's deft lob. 

Foden lashed in a fourth from a tight angle to wrap things up and condemn Liverpool to a third straight Anfield defeat for the first time since 1963.

Asked about the Englishman's performance, Guardiola told Sky Sports: "He's a guy who keeps the ball really well, he's really aggressive.

"But still he is so young, he doesn't understand in some positions what he has to do, so in the first half he was not in the right positions.

"We worked but he is a little bit distracted sometimes in these positions. Playing wide is more easy for him but he will learn.

"After that, the assist for the second goal and then scoring the fourth goal, we know what a huge talent he is, but he's still young and we are still hopeful that he can understand that he can improve, because in the first half he was not in the position that we needed and that's why we suffered in some moments to get the control."

Guardiola had never before tasted victory at Anfield, City's previous five visits during his tenure having returned four defeats and just one draw.

And, while the Spaniard acknowledged the difference a lack of supporters makes, he was still impressed by his players' ability to overcome in-game setbacks.

He added: "What's important is the three points. Of course I'm so proud of the guys. Anfield with people and without is completely different. It's good, especially when we miss the penalty, concede the goal.

"We react with huge personality. Raheem Sterling, phenomenal. The commitment from everyone. Three points, grateful, happy, but tomorrow feet on the grass and thinking Swansea.

"We are not one player. Gundogan started to be one of the top scorers, we have to do it as a team. We have an incredible captain. In this period, to do wins in a row is so difficult."

Thanks to their win, City sit 10 points clear of champions Liverpool and five  ahead of second-placed neighbours Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League – and with a game in hand on both. 

But Guardiola is not getting carried away as he looks ahead to a testing February fixture schedule. 

He continued: "I said before, I'm not a guy who predicts the future. In February, five points is nothing. Swansea, Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, many tough games. Be calm and keep going. 

"In England you think February will be softer but the schedule is even tougher. One game at a time. The next one is Swansea."

Pep Guardiola noticeably bristled when asked in his pre-match broadcast interview whether Manchester City would ever have a better opportunity to break their Anfield hoodoo.

Not since 2003 had City claimed all three points at this ground, but this time they arrived on a 13-game winning streak to face opponents who have not looked themselves of late. 

Still, their manager did not wish to tempt fate ahead of his side running out at a stadium that has been far from a happy hunting ground for him.

Not only had City never won here under his stewardship, they had been regularly dismantled across meetings in the Premier League and Champions League.

And it was fear of a repeat that no doubt accounted for a cautious start from the visitors that did not reflect the form book.

When the first real chance of note arrived late in the first half, it came for City from the penalty spot, but Ilkay Gundogan could only blast the ball into the Kop from 12 yards. 

Since the start of last season, the Blues have only scored nine out of their 17 penalties – a 53 per cent conversion rate – and this latest miss must have had Guardiola fearing it would be another forgettable visit to Merseyside.

But, as has been the case across a season that started in less-than-ideal fashion for the visitors, both team and player grew from that moment forth.

As such, it was no surprise to see Gundogan on hand to smash the ball home from close range with the first of three shots across the 90 minutes following the restart.

And, though a rare error from Ruben Dias – a figure who has had a transformative effect on City's defence this term – allowed Mohamed Salah to level things shortly after, the idea that it might inspire the hosts on to victory looked fanciful.

So it proved, with Gundogan restoring the lead after Phil Foden showed lovely feet in the aftermath of a poor Alisson Becker kick before Raheem Sterling capitalised on another questionable moment from the Brazilian goalkeeper.

The scoreline then got the gloss it deserved as Foden smashed in powerfully to underline his new-found status as a key man in a refreshed City side which now looks destined to be win the league.

Guardiola and his squad spent last season fending off the critics as Liverpool marched off into the distance to clinch the title in record time.

But, having added Dias and found new heroes in the likes of Gundogan and Foden, it looks like they who will cruise to silverware this time around.

Perhaps Jurgen Klopp can cling to that idea as he reflects on a poor performance that got the result it deserved and ended any hopes of his team taking part in a title challenge this term rather than a scrap for a top-four finish.

Having gone 1,369 days and 68 games without a Premier League defeat at Anfield, Liverpool have now lost three on the bounce at home for the first time since 1963.

Injuries no doubt account for that historic run in some way, evident as they were in the Reds once again naming two midfielders at centre-back.

Yet waiting until deadline day to sign the two defenders they desperately needed looked particularly ill-advised when Klopp revealed ahead of kick-off that neither was considered ready to feature in this game.

And the German will surely have been concerned by the fact that September signing Thiago Alcantara in no way showed himself to be capable of picking up the midfield slack as he put in an unimpressive showing.

In fairness, a lack of both fight and quality was not just a midfield issue for Liverpool, it has spread throughout the team during a run of results that has wrecked their season.

The only hope for the Reds this campaign is that the imminent return of Diogo Jota and the opportunity to restore Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to the centre of the park can help fend off potential challengers for a top-four spot.

Should that happen, Klopp will believe his side is capable of following City in immediately bouncing back into title contention next term with the help of a few tweaks.

If not, then Europa League football and a far trickier rebuild job surely awaits.

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice as Manchester City secured a record-equalling 14th successive win in all competitions – and a first for Pep Guardiola at Anfield - with a 4-1 thrashing of struggling Liverpool.  

The Germany midfielder made amends for a first-half penalty miss with a brace after the break as the visitors cut loose to march five points clear at the Premier League summit.  

Alisson's poor clearance led to Gundogan's second of the game and the goalkeeper was also at fault for City's third, as Raheem Sterling headed in his 100th for the club under Guardiola. Phil Foden rubbed salt in the home side's wounds with a superb solo goal to round out the scoring. 

The result leaves Liverpool's title defence in tatters; they have lost three successive league games at home for the first time since 1963 and sit 10 points back having played a game more than the leaders.  

Mohamed Salah did end a home league goal drought spanning 410 minutes when he converted a penalty having been pulled back by Ruben Dias, but Alisson’s errors helped City respond in emphatic fashion.

Raheem Sterling's lack of goals at Anfield is of no concern to Pep Guardiola head of Manchester City's crunch trip to face Liverpool on Sunday.

The England forward has scored three times in his past four Premier League appearances, helping to prolong a nine-match winning run that has put Guardiola's men on top of the table.

Sterling is his club's top scorer in all competitions this season with 10, although his record against the team he left to join City in 2015 is paltry.

In 14 matches for City against Liverpool, the 26-year-old has scored twice - the opener in the 2019 Community Shield at Wembley and the second in a 4-0 win over Jurgen Klopp's freshly crowned champions at the Etihad Stadium last July.

Six return visits to Anfield have drawn a blank, but Guardiola believes Sterling's performances overall have been up to the mark - highlighting his contribution as City went down 3-1 last season on Merseyside.

"I remember last time, when we lost 3-1 there, he made an incredible, exceptional game," Guardiola said of an all-action display culminating in a flashpoint with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez, an incident that infamously spilled over into England duty the following week.

"With this, I am more than satisfied.

"Of course, I want my strikers and attacking midfielders to score - everyone, two goals a game.

"That's what I want and he wants more than me. He likes to play on the biggest stages.

"I don't have doubts about this. But what I want is us to do it all together."

Indeed, the goals that have fired City back to the summit following a poor start to the campaign - they can go 10 points clear of fourth-placed Liverpool with a game in hand if they prevail this weekend - have necessarily been a collective endeavour.

Sergio Aguero, the club's all-time leading scorer, remains on the mend following a bout of coronavirus, his season having already been decimated by knee and hamstring problems.

City's leading creator Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring) will also miss out this weekend, although the likes of Phil Foden (nine goals in all competitions) and Ilkay Gundogan (nine in all competitions, seven in the Premier League) have come to the fore.

Of City players to have scored six or more goals this season - Ferran Torres (eight), Gabriel Jesus (seven) and Riyad Mahrez (six) complete the group along - Sterling has the best shooting accuracy (excluding blocks) at 72.7 per cent.

Gundogan, whose first Premier League goal of the campaign only came in the 1-1 draw against West Brom on December 15, has the best conversion rate of 24.3 per cent, with Foden and Sterling together on 16.7 behind Jesus (18).

Sterling has registered the most shots on target with 32 but has missed 14 of what Opta classes as "big chances", scoring seven.

Foden, Gundogan and Torres have only missed 10 big chances between them. On that metric, Gundogan has the best conversion rate of 62.5 per cent (scored five, missed three).

Spain international Torres, whose campaign was interrupted around the turn of the year by a positive COVID-19 test, has the best minutes-per-goal rate of 169.6, ahead of Gundogan (188.4).

One goal every 220.6 minutes places Sterling fifth out of the six, ahead of only Mahrez on 303.2. This is down on 2019-20, when he averaged a goal every 128.7 minutes en route to 31 in total - the most prolific season of his career.

"Our top scorer in the Premier League is seven goals, maybe in 14th or 15th position [in the league overall]," Guardiola said.

"If we don't understand what we have done so far, all together, we are going to drop.

"Everyone is going to solve for us, everyone is going to save us. It's going to be the team, the group.

"When that happens, we can compete. When we believe, for myself, I am going to do it or this guy alongside me is going to solve the game, we are going to lose."

He added: "Our success all the time when we are together was the quality we had as a players in a team.

"In the individual statistics we are far away from the best clubs. But our statistics as a team are really good. That is why we are first."

Pep Guardiola does not enjoy press conferences at the best of times.

As he sat down, drew his hands across his face and squeezed together a furrowed brow after Manchester City's 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City last September, he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.

"After 2-1 and 3-1 we were not strong enough to be stable and be patient," he said, having watched Riyad Mahrez fire his team into an early lead before they collapsed shambolically and gave away three penalties.

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad."

The lack of belief Guardiola eluded to owed much to City playing through a fog of bitter disappointment that still cloaked them following the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon the previous month.

A short turnaround to the new campaign was compromised by coronavirus cases and the overall impression was of something broken within a squad Guardiola was taking charge of for a fifth season – his longest spell at a single club.

At that moment, if you had been told one team would be unbeaten in 20 matches and the other would be seven points off the pace in the title racing heading into this Sunday's showdown between Liverpool and City at Anfield, your first reaction might have been surprise that the team from Manchester were only seven points behind.

THE ENFORCER

Two days after the Leicester debacle, Ruben Dias became City's record signing for £62million.

The void left by long-serving captain Vincent Kompany was considerable during 2019-20, with a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi's erratic form compounding matters at centre-back.

Wanting Dias to improve things was not too much to ask. However, his impact has been utterly transformative.

An instant mainstay, he has started three more games (26) than any of his team-mates across all competitions. Dias' one substitute outing came with City 1-0 down and facing FA Cup embarrassment at Cheltenham Town last month. They won 3-1.

The Portugal international's 2,298 minutes on the field are 228 – or two and a half games – more than any of his colleagues.

He leads the way in terms of headed clearances (34), while 57 aerials won and 32 interceptions have him second only to Rodri and Joao Cancelo within the City squad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time on the field and position, Dias' 2,241 passes – at an accuracy of 93.4 per cent – are the most in the City squad, while his confidence in carrying the ball out from the back to start attacks underlines his suitability to Guardiola's style.

Dias' 470 carries – instances of him moving with the ball five metres or more – are the second best in the division, while he leads the way in the Premier League in terms of carries shifting the ball up field between five and 10 metres (177).

"He’s not just a player who plays good, he's a player who makes the other guys play good too," Guardiola said.

"It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.

"When that happens, it's difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] un-droppable."

This Dias effect is probably easiest to spot in John Stones, who is similarly one of the first names on Guardiola's team sheet this season, having been frequently passed over despite the sorry state of the defence last time around.

In the 11 Premier League matches Stones and Dias have started together in defence, City have won 10, drawn one and conceded just once – an injury-time consolation for Callum Hudson-Odoi during a 3-1 win at Chelsea.

Such dominant form did not simply come packaged up with Dias' transfer fee, though. During England's autumn and early winter months, Guardiola had another problem.

The team that pilfered 102, 95 and 106 goals in the previous three Premier League were struggling to find the net.

THE ARTIST

If getting hammered by Leicester marks the first pivot point in City's season, December's dour 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford is the second.

"There was no intent there, whether it was on the pitch, or from the managers to win that match," an unimpressed Gary Neville said on Sky Sports afterwards.

"If Jose Mourinho was the manager of either one of those two teams, we'd be killing them now. We'd be saying it's not good enough, it's boring, it's parking the bus."

Along with bringing in Dias, Guardiola tweaked his team structure after the Leicester game. Generally, Rodri would be accompanied by a second holding midfielder and his wingers would be inverted to guard against counter-attacks.

In the nine Premier League matches played after the Leicester game, up to and including the Manchester derby, City won four, drew four and lost one.

Over this period, they had the joint-best defence in the division with five conceded, level with Tottenham despite playing a game more. However, 12 goals scored was joint-ninth in the division alongside Crystal Palace, who managed the haul in eight outings to City's nine.

In terms of minutes per goal, City's 67.5 made them the 11th most prolific team in the top flight, below Newcastle United (65.45).

The creative burden sat largely with Kevin De Bruyne, who claimed five assists during these matches. No other City player supplied more than one.

On the face of it, the following game against West Brom suggested the pattern was set to continue. A 1-1 draw after dominating possession but creating relatively little until a stoppage-time flurry amounted to a dispiriting night's work at a soggy Etihad Stadium.

But Ilkay Gundogan's performance against the Baggies was indicative of the shackles being loosened. The Germany international scored and has not looked back.

From the West Brom match onwards, Gundogan has netted seven goals in 10 appearances – more than any other Premier League player during this time – to swiftly rack up the most prolific season of his professional career.

A look at the playmaker's pitch maps if we split the season in this way shows a deliberate effort from Guardiola to get further up the field a player he credits as having "a special sense of finishing".

Before facing the Baggies, Gundogan made more than 70 per cent of his touches in the middle third of the field, with fewer than 20 per cent in the final third. These figures have now shifted to 50.5 and 41.2 respectively. This has not only yielded an increase in Gundogan's goals return, but his chances created (22) since being granted a more attacking role can only be bettered by De Bruyne (23), although injury means the Belgium star has played three fewer games.

It is to Gundogan's credit that the PFA Players' Player of the Year is not being especially missed right now, while his smooth style wreaking havoc in the small pockets of space that deep-lying defences allow means David Silva's close-season departure is no longer being so keenly felt.

"Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached. Especially in the 2012 season, he was unbelievable and played pretty much like he is playing now," said former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp ahead of this weekend's reunion.

"Then he had, unfortunately, some injuries, really tough injuries, but that's now all sorted. He was always that player.

"When you are smart and experience comes into play as well, then it's another jump in your performance level. I'm not surprised at all."

THE WONDERKID

Actions do not happen independently within Guardiola's playing style of Juego de Posicion, where team structure is paramount.

In other words, Gundogan hasn't just been told to run into the box more often and see what happens. Changes have taken place to shift his position higher up the field.

One of these is a more aggressive approach with wingers.

"I didn't like much the way we were playing. We've come back to where we were in the previous seasons with the wingers wider and higher and come back to our principles," Guardiola explained.

"For many reasons – little rest, a lack of physical condition, the COVID many, many players had – we had to adapt the way we play for the quality of the players we had in that moment in better conditions.

"In the end, I felt wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and have more control in many aspects."

One of the players to thrive more than most within this set-up is Phil Foden.

Guardiola used the boyhood City fan in a variety of attacking positions before leaving him as a frustrated unused substitute at Old Trafford. Since then, every start Foden has made in City's on-going winning streak of nine Premier League matches has been on the left wing.

It marks a departure from the inverted wingers earlier on in the campaign, with the left-footed Foden generally deployed in parallel to Raheem Sterling on the right, the two England stars serving to stretch the area opponents have to defend and open up space for the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva inside them.

Again, starting after the Leicester game and applying the same pre- and post-derby split as we did to Gundogan, Foden's numbers are on the up.

During City's period of consolidation, he created three chances in eight appearances (two starts) at a shade under one every 90 minutes. Since then he has created 18 at an average of 3.2 per game. With him in the side in the Premier League this term, City's shots per game rise average rises from 13.6 to 18.2

Foden's most important contribution during this period was the only goal in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion. He is another player helping to share the goal burden and make light of Sergio Aguero's on-going absence, with nine in all competitions.

Guardiola feels Foden's energy and dribbling ability, along with this goalscoring knack, gives City a vital attacking edge, even though he still views him as a "number eight" in the long term. For now, his right-back very often fills the latter position.

THE WILDCARD

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him," the City boss said of Joao Cancelo last month.

Now it is opponents who find themselves repeatedly baffled by where the Portugal full-back crops up on the field.

Creative use of his wide defenders is nothing new for Guardiola. During his time at Bayern Munich, he shifted the likes of Rafinha, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm inside, with the dual benefit of swarming central areas when in possession and having bodies to thwart the counter if the ball was lost.

Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all operated in a similar fashion at times for Guardiola's City, although always with the primary aim of assisting the holding midfielder. While Cancelo does this to fine effect – another factor in Gundogan being unleashed – he also operates with a broader attacking brief.

Walker and Cancelo's touch maps for this season illustrate how Guardiola has used his senior right-backs differently.

Walker plays a full part in City's build-up from deep but the majority of his touches – 54 per cent – come on the right flank either side of the halfway line. This is the return of a fairly conventional right-back.

Cancelo's numbers are spread around, in part because of the games he has started at left-back. But 187 of his touches (12.5 per cent) have come in attacking central areas between the halfway line and the edge of the opposition penalty area, compared to 97 (7.6 per cent) for Walker.

Despite not always starting at right-back, Cancelo (231) also has slightly more touches than Walker (228) on the right-hand side of the final third, along with 162 in advanced positions down the left flank.

In short, he's everywhere and his value to attack and defence simultaneously is underlined by a high ranking within the City squad across a number of categories.

Cancelo is third among his team-mates in the Premier League this season for passes (1,108) and recoveries (88), joint-second for dribbles attempted (49) and chances created (31), second outright for tackles (32) and leads the way with 24 interceptions.

Some of those close to Guardiola believe the Catalan's innovations with full-backs are his greatest tactical contribution to football. With Cancelo, he is pushing the envelope once more.

THE MENTOR

One of the biggest reasons Guardiola felt comfortable doubling down on his footballing vision during – within the context of his career – a time of crisis can often be found sitting on the other side of a vacant, social-distance enabling dugout seat in animated conversation with the City boss.

Juanma Lillo was appointed as assistant coach at City last June. He and Guardiola go back much further.

When he played for Barcelona, Guardiola was so struck by how impressively Lillo's Real Oviedo played during a 4-2 defeat in September 1996 that he sought him out after the game.

A friendship was formed, and Guardiola closed out his playing days with Dorados de Sinaloa, purely so he could play under Lillo. Alas, there is no Netflix documentary for that period of the Mexican club's history.

Alongside the late Johan Cruyff, Lillo is considered to have had the most significant shaping influence upon Guardiola the coach, which makes his presence as City tried to plot a route away from mid-table earlier this season feel significant.

"It would not have been possible, what we have done so far – which is nothing [in terms of trophies], but being there in the table – without his influence on me," Guardiola said of Lillo last week.

"He knows exactly what I need to hear in the right moment. He sees something that I am not able to see, he has a special sense to read the game that is difficult to find worldwide.

"Especially in the bad moments, he is a guy who makes me feel calm and makes me see the real situation of the team. Juanma's influence during this period has been so, so, so important.

"He's important to me and that is what I need."

Watching the superb wins over Chelsea and at Manchester United in the EFL Cup after the turn of the year was to witness a realisation of the vision Guardiola and Lillo fanatically share.

An array of central midfielders streamed into the space where there was no specialist centre-forward, Cancelo roved with abandon and Dias and Stones launched attacks from in front of their bolted back door. Everything was connected.

In an interview with The Blizzard in 2012, Lillo was asked to qualify his assertion that there is no such thing as attack and defence.

"Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don't have the ball. How can one exist without the other?" he said.

"You can't take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again.

"You can't take an arm off Rafa Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance."

Guardiola hasn't taken to hacking limbs off his players as with Lillo's Frankenstein Nadal, but he believes a key to their success lately has been using their legs less.

"The reason why we played not good was because, when we had the ball, we moved too much and ran too much. Football, when you have the ball almost you have to walk and run in the right moment," he explained, in a succinct summary of his and Lillo's philosophy.

"When we don't have the ball, we have to run like the last ball in your life. With the ball now we are more calm, more passes, everyone is more in the position and that's why we are able to play a little bit better."

Through standing still, City have taken a huge leap forward over recent weeks. If they are able to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003 – a game that launches a sequence of Premier League games against Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United – it will become a little bit harder to see anyone catching them.

Pep Guardiola expressed disappointment with Jurgen Klopp's attempt at pre-match mind games after the Liverpool manager falsely claimed Manchester City had "a two-week break for COVID reasons".

Champions Liverpool host Premier League leaders City on Sunday, where Guardiola's men have the chance to go 10 points clear of Klopp's side with a game in hand if they can claim a first win at Anfield since 2003.

Both men addressed the media on Friday, with Klopp speaking first and suggesting a coronavirus outbreak within the City squad between Christmas and new year actually helped their title bid.

Asked about Guardiola's recently repeated mantra that his team - currently on a 20-match unbeaten run across all competitions - are playing better because they have managed to "run less" in possession, Klopp focused his attention upon the spike in infections that saw City's scheduled December 28 trip to Everton postponed.

"The more you keep the ball, the less you have to run, probably. We didn't have a break," he said.

"I think City had a two-week break for COVID reasons. It's really tough. It's a tough year, season; for some teams, it looks like lesser but, for us, for the reasons you know, it's tough."

In reality, City had a seven-day break between their 2-0 win over Newcastle United on Boxing Day and a January 3 trip to Chelsea, where a squad heavily depleted by a raft of players being forced to self-isolate secured an impressive 3-1 win.

Having started his own briefing later than scheduled, Guardiola opted to respond initially with heavy sarcasm.

"He made a mistake, it was two months off or three months off. Four months we had off. That is why we are in top form right now," he said.

"Jurgen has to see the calendar again. We had COVID, we had one week and we played with 14 players at Stamford Bridge, Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it was three or four weeks.

"Tomorrow when I see Jurgen I'll say to him, 'How many weeks or days were we off?'"

Guardiola famously endured a tempestuous back and fourth with Jose Mourinho when the pair were in charge of Barcelona and Real Madrid a decade ago - an affair he was perhaps referencing when stating he held Klopp, whom he also competed against in the Bundesliga, to higher standards.

"I'm surprised," he said. "I thought Jurgen was not that type of manager like other ones [for whom] it is usual to do it. I didn't expect that comment. From him, I didn't expect it.

"He knows it’s not true, come on! Nobody in the Premier League has had two weeks off, everyone knows. In some situation you do it [mind games] for a purpose, but I did not expect he will do it."

Liverpool have lost their past two home games 1-0 to Burnley and Brighton and Hove Albion.

Nevertheless, Anfield remains something of a final frontier for Guardiola as City boss, having lost four and drawn one of his five visits to the red side of Stanley Park.

"They are always an incredibly tough team and remain a tough squad," he said.

"They know the process, the skills, the routines and methodology they do offensively. No change.

"They are aggressive and will be more aggressive than ever, I'm pretty sure. They'll rest really well after the game against Brighton and they'll recover in these two weeks off and they will be ready."

City remain without Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring), Nathan Ake (muscular) and Sergio Aguero, who has endured a prolonged absence after testing positive for coronavirus. He is expected to return in a few weeks.

Pep Guardiola is not interested in the plight of other Premier League teams after seeing Manchester City once again move clear at the top of the table, declaring: "We have to do our job".  

Goals from Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling saw in-form City record a 2-0 triumph at Burnley on Wednesday, meaning they have now won 13 games on the spin in all competitions.  

Guardiola also saw his side keep a clean sheet for a sixth successive league outing – their joint-longest run without conceding in the competition – as they went three points clear in the title race.  

Manchester United had moved level with their neighbours at the summit 24 hours earlier with a 9-0 thrashing of Southampton, yet the only focus for Guardiola is the next game, which happens to be Liverpool away on Sunday.   

"We have to do our job. It's a big mistake to think about other sides," Guardiola told BBC Sport.  

"When we were 12th we were thinking forget about the Premier League, if we can achieve getting in the Europa League next season.  

"It's not about runs of games, statistics. It's always next game, next game."

Jesus scored for a third successive game when he has been selected in the starting XI, having also hit the winner in the 1-0 triumph over bottom club Sheffield United at the weekend. 

The Brazil international is proving an able deputy for the injured Sergio Aguero, earning praise from Guardiola for his contributions to the cause. 

"There are no doubts about Gabriel," Guardiola said. "We are delighted with Gabriel all the time. 

"The strikers need to score goals. Last game he gave us three points and today he gave us the start. 

"Of course, we need his goals. He knows that but his contribution in many ways is fantastic." 

On the upcoming trip to Anfield, the City boss added: "It is the same points, but against a contender. At the end the aim is to be champion." 

City have won all three of their meetings in all competitions with Burnley this season, doing so by an aggregate score of 10-0.

First-half goals from Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling saw Manchester City ease to a 2-0 win at Burnley.

The Premier League leaders extended their club-record winning run to 13 matches across all competitions, with the result rarely appearing in doubt from the moment Jesus capitalised upon a third-minute error by Nick Pope.

Sterling claimed his 10th of the season seven minutes before the interval, after which point City's football continued to flow but the goals dried up.

Pep Guardiola's side are three points clear at the summit with a game in hand on Manchester United, with champions Liverpool next on their agenda this weekend.

Sterling darted inside from the left to play in Bernardo Silva, whose shot was poorly dealt with by Pope to leave Jesus with a simple leaded finish.

Pope looked to be in trouble again when he charged out of his area to confront Sterling in the 20th minute but the England goalkeeper managed to get a timely foot in.

City had to bide their time as Burnley grew into the contest but a wonderful link-up between Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan allowed the latter to drill across goal for Sterling to convert from close range.

Joao Cancelo fired too close to Pope just before half-time and Burnley's number one sharply thwarted Sterling early in the second period as the visitors looked to conclusively end the argument.

Mahrez thought he had but was fractionally offside when he steered in Jesus' cross.

Burnley finally registered a shot in the 64th minute when Matej Vydra acrobatically volleyed over, but waves of slick City attacks continued to arrive.

Ederson decided to involve himself in the action by clattering through Erik Pieters and provide the strange spectacle of a goalkeeper getting booked for a foul on a left-back.

It was the closest City came to a scare.

Sergio Aguero is still not back in training for Manchester City despite recovering from COVID-19.

Aguero has not featured in the City squad since he was an unused substitute in the 2-0 EFL Cup win at Manchester United on January 6.

He went into isolation on January 10 after being confirmed as a close contact of a person that had tested positive for coronavirus.

The Argentina forward then revealed on January 21 that he had returned a positive test and was experiencing symptoms.

On Sunday Aguero posted on Twitter that he had fully recovered from the virus and was back at the club's gym. 

However, Guardiola said a return to the training pitch is not imminent.

"He [Aguero] is still not training on the field. He started moving yesterday," Guardiola told a media conference ahead of Wednesday's game with Burnley. 

"He will need a few weeks to come back. The important thing is he is negative and he can come back to us."

City have continued to thrive without Aguero, with Guardiola's men having won their last 12 matches in all competitions.

The Premier League leaders are three points ahead of Manchester United and four clear of defending champions Liverpool and have the advantage of a game in hand.

Their trip to Turf Moor precedes a Sunday visit to Anfield to take on Liverpool in a crucial clash, though Guardiola is not thinking about that game or how many wins it will take to regain the title.

"We were a little bit inconsistent earlier in the season," said Guardiola. "We will see how consistent we still are. In some games we have been more comfortable in some games we have fought until the last minute. It cannot be any other way. Burnley is the next one.

"Always I have the feeling that I can lose a game. That's what drives you. Insecurity and fear and being scared that you can lose a game. Everyone is the same.

"Six weeks ago we were not contenders for anything, six weeks later we are. Everything can change so quickly. We could drop points. Only I am concerned about Burnley. That's all.

"I don't think for one second how many games we have to win. If you win, celebrate that night and then the next one. The good teams when they are in the shower they are thinking about the next one."

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