Manchester City’s form looks ominous – but do the numbers back it up? – The Athletic

By Sam LeeFeb 29, 2024

A little bit of sun, brighter evenings, hot cross buns in the shops and Manchester City gearing up to win the Premier League title — sure signs that spring is on the way in England.

March, April and May have typically been magical months for Pep Guardiola and his side. After they beat Bournemouth 1-0 last weekend, the post-match coverage built up a sense of foreboding for the rest of the Premier League: eight wins out of nine for City, back-to-back clean sheets and a ground-out victory held up as evidence of a team ready to go again.

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Erling Haaland’s five goals at Luton on Tuesday in the FA Cup, four of them supplied by Kevin De Bruyne, only add to that feeling.

But performances have told a slightly different story in recent weeks, with City looking short of their best in victories against Everton, Brentford and Bournemouth as well as the draw against Chelsea.

Similar to last season, City are very much in the title race despite not being at their top level. Their March fixture list is sure to test them: they face Manchester United (home), Liverpool (away), Arsenal and Aston Villa (both at home).

Perhaps the main difference this year is that we have a three-team title race; it may be that one of City’s rivals slip up, but it is harder to imagine both doing so. So there is an extra emphasis on Guardiola’s men clicking into gear at the right time, exactly as they did 12 months ago.

Haaland is back among the goals — even if City are yet to catch fire as a team (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Arsenal have scored 25 goals in their past six league games, which is a record. Liverpool conceded three of those in a recent defeat at the Emirates Stadium but in their past six league games they themselves have scored 20. City have scored 11 in the same time, and they have only scored three goals in their last three fixtures — from a total of 71 shots.

The floodgates finally opened against Luton, and if Haaland has recovered his unrivalled scoring form then City might not even need to be at their very best.

“We have to score more,” Guardiola said ahead of the Bournemouth game. “We are creating shots, I think not all on target. And in those positions in the last two games, we should be doing more. But what’s important is how many chances, what is the average. (If you create) as much as we create — unless you concede all the time — you are closer to winning the games.

“To do that, you have to play better, defend better — this is important. I know there is a lot of big data but I don’t pay much attention. The fact is how many shots we create… did we create more than the opponent, concede less than the opponent? This is good analysis to do. After, you can lose. But if we create more and concede less, then we are closer to winning the games.”

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This was Guardiola’s way of saying his team are on the right path — and it is almost exactly what he says when talking about his team’s defensive record, which has not always been brilliant this season. Before the Club World Cup at Christmas, City had kept just five clean sheets in 26 games in all competitions.

“We would love to have clean sheets, but in the end what I want is to win games,” Guardiola said last week. “Never since I arrived was I focused on clean sheets. I don’t say to them, ‘We have to take clean sheets’. If you talk about just clean sheets, they forget to play: they focus just on defending and forget what we have to do.

“What we have to do is play better, better, better, (and) concede few and attack better and create more chances. This is my only target.”

Earlier in the season, after his side had drawn 4-4 at Chelsea and 3-3 at home to Tottenham Hotspur, Guardiola said he was most bothered about the average of shots on target his team were conceding.

As it stands in the Premier League this season, City concede an average of 3.04 shots on target, which is the second-best in the league behind Arsenal (2.5). Last season, City’s average was 2.53.

Since winning the Club World Cup, City’s defence has improved dramatically, adding another six clean sheets in the past 11 games. In these 11 games in all competitions, they have only conceded nine goals.

But there are other quirks about City which undermine Guardiola’s faith in their ability to see out matches, or indeed start them well.

This season, City have conceded six goals from ‘fast breaks’, which is defined by Opta as “an attempt created after the defensive team quickly turns defence into attack, after winning the ball in their own half” (quite simply: a counter-attack). This total is more than City have conceded in any previous season under Guardiola. What’s more, they are ranked 19th in the Premier League for this particular metric.

Goals conceded from fast breaks

Season Conceded Rank % of goals conceded
2016-17 4 17th 10%
2017-18 2 5th 7%
2018-19 0 1st 0%
2019-20 3 5th 9%
2020-21 1 1st= 3%
2021-22 2 7th= 8%
2022-23 3 7th= 9%
2023-24 6 19th 23%

Having faced nine fast breaks in total, City have conceded goals from 66 per cent of them.

City’s fast break struggles

Player Opponent Venue Goal? Minute
Raheem Sterling Chelsea Home Saved 13
Raheem Sterling Chelsea Home Goal 42
Alexander Isak Newcastle Away Goal 34
Anthony Gordon Newcastle Away Goal 37
Alexander Isak Newcastle Away Saved 40 Goal Alexander Isak Newcastle Goal Alexander Isak Newcastle Away Goal Alexander Isak Newcastle Away Goal
Son Heung-min Tottenham Home Goal 6
Bruno Fernandes Manchester United Away Miss 31
Ruben Dias (OG) Wolves Away Goal 13
James Ward-Prowse West Ham Away Goal 36

Guardiola was asked about this a week ago, and while he did not appear to have paid it much attention, he did identify one possible cause: the speed of his own team’s attacks.

“Maybe when we attack a little bit quicker, yeah,” he said. “I remember at Newcastle it happened. I don’t know, I didn’t think about it, honestly.”

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Pushed further, he said: “Of course, I don’t like fast breaks, I don’t like transitions, but sometimes if you want to attack quicker, or sometimes… always I give credit to the opponent as well. It’s not just about us; the opponents are really good at making a transition and they do it or try to do it.”

Several factors are at play here, including, as Guardiola says, how well opposition teams can play a couple of quick passes and set the ball over the top or down the channels for forwards to challenge for. It appears to be something that even the league’s most unfashionable sides are very good at.

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There have been simple mistakes too, such as Kyle Walker defending poorly for two goals at Newcastle in January and against Chelsea recently, or Nathan Ake’s rare mistake at Wolves.

But if there has been one larger factor which has had an effect on City as a whole this season, and why those defenders are coming under scrutiny in the first place, then it is fairly simple to explain: they have more players in their line-up who are more likely to give the ball away and less likely to win it back.

Those players — De Bruyne, Haaland, Jeremy Doku, Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez — also bring many benefits and have scored or created plenty of goals. They are a big part of the reason why City are still in a great position in the title race.

But to fully harness them, Guardiola generally offsets their direct abilities with more patient players, and last season was the perfect example. In the biggest games during the run-in, De Bruyne and Haaland would be surrounded by Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan, playing in front of Rodri.

Against Chelsea recently, Doku, Foden, De Bruyne, Alvarez and Haaland all started in front of Rodri — plenty of firepower, but not much control.

Players such as Grealish and Gundogan are wired differently to Doku and Foden. The former pair are more likely to take more touches and play a more reserved style — which is what Guardiola needs in order to compensate for his more direct players — and they are much more alive to second balls, tracking back and winning duels.

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So while City now have supremely skilled attackers who help them win matches, it is probably in a less sustainable way — because sometimes these attacks can be rushed, the ball lost, and City are now less effective at counter-pressing. It’s a reason why they are conceding more fast breaks than ever.

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Many of those fast breaks have come early in matches, too, and up until Bournemouth last weekend, City had fallen behind in each of their last five away matches in the league.

Fortunately for them, they have become adept at coming back from losing positions — something Guardiola has noted they were never previously skilled at — and they won four of those matches.

City are not as watertight at the back as they were last season (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

They have also conceded a goal from the first shot on target faced 14 times in all competitions this season.

So are they playing well enough to go on their usual run?

With a very direct line-up in the home game against Chelsea, City struggled with the visitors’ fast breaks but still managed to create enough chances for Haaland, who had a bad day at the office. If that pattern were to be replicated in the upcoming big matches but with Haaland playing as he did at Luton, City might not need as much control as they set out to achieve.

Yet for the lack of control in recent league matches and the clutch of draws at the end of last year, City have already won more matches away from home in all competitions this season (14) than last (13). They also have one more point in the league than at this stage last season (59 to 58).

“And the games we dropped points here we deserved to win, most of them. Tottenham, Liverpool and Crystal Palace — we were outstanding all three games, so maybe we miss these points,” Guardiola said.

“But away, for example, in Bournemouth, they were really unlucky. (In the) second half, they (Bournemouth) could (have earned a) draw. The balance of the Premier League always gives you the position that you deserve.”

Time will tell what position City deserve at the end of May.

(Top photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

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Sam Lee is the Manchester City correspondent for The Athletic. The 2020-21 campaign will be his sixth following the club, having previously held other positions with Goal and the BBC, and freelancing in South America. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamLee

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