You’d be forgiven for thinking Manchester City were in serious trouble this season – after all, 12 points from seven games represents their worst start since the 2008/09 season when they went on to finish 10th. But this is a season like no other, with the gap of only three points from first to sixth the smallest in the competition’s history after eight games. City remain six points behind leaders Leicester and five behind Liverpool, but with a game in hand it’s not quite as disastrous as it sounds. There are signs of life at City, but maybe not as we know it.
It’s stupendously early to say this but it already feels like a season of two halves for City: before Rúben Dias signed and after Rúben Dias signed.
On September 27th Leicester went to the Etihad and sucker-punched City into submission, scoring five goals from seven shots, with three of them coming from the penalty spot.
In what was the 10,911th match in Premier League history, a team conceded three penalty goals in a single game for the first time.
In what was the 686th game of Pep Guardiola’s managerial career, the Spaniard conceded five goals in a single game for the first time.
All of City’s weaknesses were laid bare in a 51-minute barrage. The club had been trying to sign a new centre-back all summer, and this game was the greatest example of why.
On September 29th Manchester City signed Rúben Dias, and the club are now unbeaten in nine games in all competitions since that Leicester defeat, conceding only four goals. Dias has proven to be the perfect foil to the smooth, calm, precision of Aymeric Laporte. He’s quickly been likened to Vincent Kompany and it’s hard to completely bat that comparison away, with both sharing a real aggression and intensity in their defensive play, and never going 30 seconds without ushering those around them into position. They are the natural leaders that every manager dreams of.
Looking ahead, what’s most important now is that Dias and Laporte are able to share the pitch as much as possible, as that partnership will surely be the backbone of any title challenge. Around them, Kyle Walker and João Cancelo are in the best form of their City careers, and as a four this looks to be the way forward, having started each of the last two league games together.
Manchester City’s Starting Defenders – Premier League 2020/21:
Opposition RB RCB LCB LB Wolves Walker Stones Aké Mendy Leicester Walker García Aké Mendy Leeds Walker Dias Laporte Mendy Arsenal Walker (RB/RCB) Dias Aké (LCB/LB) Cancelo (various) West Ham Walker Dias García Cancelo Sheff Utd Walker Dias Laporte Cancelo Liverpool Walker Dias Laporte Cancelo
City’s defence does appear to have course-corrected, now ranking second-best in the division this season for expected goals against per game (excluding penalties) – 0.8.
The Midfield (and the lack of David Silva)
You can more or less guarantee that unless injured or rested, Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri will start every game for City this season. The issue is the third midfielder and the impossibility of replacing a man like David Silva, whose skillset feels even more unique now it’s missing. This is an oversimplication of Silva’s role, but he made the team tick without having to sacrifice his creativity to do so.
As much as Phil Foden is compared to the Spaniard, the truth is he would probably hardly be compared at all if not for his left-footedness. Foden is much more direct, with every possession feeling dangerous but not necessarily planned. Added to that, his best performances have been as part of a front three.
Bernardo does share a number of similarities – the ball sticks to his feet and he’s press resistant, but nonetheless, he can’t control tempo like Silva and struggles to create goalscoring opportunities when starting as a deeper midfielder, setting up just one shot attempt in five league games this season from that position.
The third option, Ilkay Gündogan, is probably the closest fit. The German controls tempo effortlessly and has genuine range to his passing, whereas Foden and Bernardo seem to play within a shorter radius.
However, there are further complications. It’s notable just how poor City’s record is when Gündogan and Rodri start together. City’s Premier League win percentage since the start of last season is 65%, with a points-per-game record of 2.1. When the two start together, the win percentage drops to 40% and the points-per-game to 1.4.
It is worth noting the quality of the opposition in such matches, with Guardiola clearly displaying a preference for starting the two together in bigger games, perhaps further highlighting how much he values Gündogan’s ability to look after the ball.
In true whack-a-mole fashion, as soon as one problem is fixed, another arises. While the goals have stopped flying in at the defensive end, all of a sudden a side who scored 303 Premier League goals over the previous three seasons can’t find the back of the net. City have scored exactly once in each of their last five Premier League games, their longest run without scoring twice in a match under Guardiola. They scored 27 goals in their opening seven league games last season, compared to just 10 this campaign.
When comparing on a per-game basis against last season, the team’s attacking numbers have cratered. City’s expected goals (xG) figure has almost halved, while they are taking five fewer shots per game.
Manchester City’s Attacking Problems (per game averages):
|Expected Goals (ex. penalties)||2.2||1.1||-1.1|
|Shots on Target||7.0||5.4||-1.6|
|Shots Inside Box||13.4||8.3||-5.1|
|Shots Outside Box||6.2||6.4||0.2|
|Shot Conversion %||13.7%||9.7%||4% drop|
|Touches in the Opp Box||42.6||29.1||-13.5|
|Passes/Crosses into the box||38.4||28.3||-10.1|
|Big Chances Scored||1.5||0.6||-0.9|
|Big Chance Conversion %||41.1%||30.8%||10.3% drop|
When looking at City’s attack on a shot-by-shot basis, there has been a huge change in where the side are shooting from. Last season 69 percent of their shots came from inside the box, with only Sheffield United (76%) and Liverpool (71%) having larger figures. This season that number has dropped to 56 percent, which ranks only 15th highest in the division this season.
We can see the negative effects of City settling for long-range efforts by looking at their average xG per shot attempt. In each of their previous four seasons under Guardiola their xG per shot has ranged between 0.11 and 0.12, the best or joint-best figure in each season. In 2020/21 their xG per shot has dropped to 0.08. While that may not seem much lower on the face of things, only three teams (Man Utd, Fulham and West Brom) have a lower figure this season.
When looking for reasons as to why the large drop-off has occurred, it’s easiest to point towards the regular absences of Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus, two true poachers whose movement naturally creates better opportunities. They’ve both ranked within the top three places for xG per 90 minutes in each of the last four Premier League seasons, but the pair have just four league starts between them this campaign, while they’re yet to share the pitch
Using Opta’s advanced metrics for sequences, we can look a little deeper into City’s struggles in front of goal. Controlled possession is the name of the game for City, pulling you one way and leading you another, toying with your defensive shape until the necessary gap appears.
City’s number of controlled possessions has dipped slightly, averaging 20 sequences of 10+ uninterrupted passes per game this campaign compared to 24 last term. The key issue is that these controlled possessions are no longer leading to dangerous areas or shots at goal.
A Build Up Attack is defined as a sequence of 10+ uninterrupted passes that ends with either a shot or a touch inside the opposition box. While City averaged a league-high 6.6 such attacks per game last season, that figure has dropped to 3.6 this season. It’s still a relatively high number when comparing against league-average, but not remotely close to what they’ve achieved previously.
The drop is more evident when you compare their controlled possessions and Build Up Attacks in percentage form. Last season 27% of their 10+ pass sequences led to a shot or a touch inside the box, but this season that figure is just 18%. It feels like the attack is just treading water at the minute, half-heartedly following the same plan but without the core values that made it work.
City’s attack won’t stay this lifeless forever, but given this season has seen the highest goals-per-game average of any Premier League campaign (3.14), it’s a strange turn of events for the side who have broken all the competition’s scoring records to struggle to find the back of the net.
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