Manchester City’s recent record against the Big Six is poor – but does it matter? – The Athletic

By Sam Lee6h ago

Manchester City have won two matches against ‘Big Six’ teams this season, both of them against Manchester United.

And while you cannot take those two derby wins for granted, given City did things in those games that they have struggled with in the others, United’s ongoing issues are well known.

This is the ‘Big Six’ in a traditional sense, meaning it includes 11th-placed Chelsea, but if you were to use Aston Villa instead then the point would stand: City lost at Villa in December but have an opportunity to put that right on Wednesday night.

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Then there is Spurs away at some point towards the end of the season, but otherwise the big Premier League games are done, and from those we can draw some conclusions.

For all of Arsenal and Liverpool’s own title-winning credentials, in the last few weeks a lot of focus has been on City and the question of whether they will click in April and May, as they pretty much always do when they need to.

City’s defeat at Aston Villa was arguably their worst display of the season (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Rodri spoke about this the other day, suggesting that ‘all’ they need to do is get to this point with a chance of winning something, and then muscle memory will take over and ensure they will.

“The target for us is to put ourselves into a position where we can fight until the end, and this is something we have been working on and to arrive in this moment,” the Spaniard, excellent against Arsenal on Sunday, said. “Now is the moment that we have to do the last push.”

There is a lot of that push to go and whatever the result against Arsenal on Sunday it would have been too early, maybe too simplistic, to make any sweeping conclusions.

But there has been a general trend across the season for City so far.

At this point, the fact they are heading into April and fighting for another treble, having fought off complacency after winning all three trophies last season, shows how good they are, even if we are asking questions now.

There is nothing really ‘bad’ about City’s season; they are still operating at a very high level. It would be foolish to think the performance against Arsenal is too representative of City’s season, either: it was the first time they have not scored in the league at the Etihad since October 2021, ending a 47-game streak.

And it is easier to focus on that than some very good defending. Arsenal’s forays may have been brief, but given City have struggled defensively at times this season — conceding more counter-attacks, not dealing so well when they concede them — there were definite signs of progress.

This was a big-game performance that was very different from the others, the only common theme was that City did not win.

(Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Against Liverpool before the international break, they escaped from Anfield with a point having been sliced open for much of the second half.

Jurgen Klopp’s side should have been dead and buried in the game at the Etihad in November, but City did not put their chances away and conceded from a surprisingly rare Liverpool attack.

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That was around the time when City battered Spurs but somehow drew 3-3, and kept rallying themselves to get in front against Chelsea only to draw 4-4. The return game in Manchester finished 1-1, with City struggling with Chelsea’s counter-attacks during the first half and ruing Erling Haaland’s finishing in the second.

Against Arsenal in October, City were without Rodri and actually tried to escape without a point, shutting down the game like the Gunners did on Sunday, only for a late deflection to outdo them. They tried the same against Aston Villa in December, the only time they actually played badly, and while a deflection was the difference again, Villa were much the better side.

For comparison, last season, City beat Arsenal twice, Liverpool once, United once, Chelsea twice and Tottenham once.

“The numbers are there but except for Arsenal away, the last games we did really, really good,” Guardiola said on the subject. “At Anfield, having reviewed the game, it was the second half after we conceded when we lost momentum, but even there we had our chances.

“But the games we played against the top five or six, I think Aston Villa was the worst but the rest we performed really, really well. Sometimes the outcome is what it is but I have to analyse the performance, but (those results) compared to last season is a big difference.”

There has been no common thread to these matches, then, other than City not winning. Why?

Most likely because, broadly speaking, they have been using players who are very good in an attacking sense but a bit more likely to lose the ball and not as likely to win it back, meaning the games are not as stable as normal, usually the hallmark of Guardiola’s City.

Those players are still of a high quality, so there is not a huge drop-off in performances and results, but with less stability and some flaky defending added in then more goals are going to be conceded, and the best teams in the league are more likely to exploit that, which probably explains why City have not beaten them.

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If City are not at their best, then what we are seeing is the difference between their usual A+ level and this, which is pretty much ‘just’ an A — meaning they are still fighting for a treble.

Not bad at all, then, and given they have only dropped points in two of their 20 matches against non-Big/Top Six teams this season, maybe they have enough to get over the line without properly clicking anyway.

But despite Sunday’s generally uneventful clash, we are not really any closer to finding out.

GO DEEPER

Manchester City 0 Arsenal 0: Defences on top as title rivals cancel each other out

(Header photo: Michael Regan/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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