A couple of weeks into this season, fresh off a combined 198 points over the past two Premier League campaigns: I wrote the following words: “The natural order of things is a City win; anything else is an aberration.” Well, four months later, there have been plenty of aberrations. Six of ’em, in fact, as City are sporting an 11-2-4 record through 17 league matches. Not only are they 14 points behind first-place Liverpool, but they’re four points back of their opponent this weekend, second-place Leicester City, whose best player (Riyad Mahrez) they purchased a little over a year ago.
After averaging a league-record 2.63 points per match in 2017-18 and then 2.58 points per match, Pep Guardiola and Co. have dropped down to a comparatively pathetic 2.06-point-per-game haul.
So: is this the new normal? Are cats and dogs actually supposed to live with each other? Or are the first 17 games of the season just a finicky branch stuck in the gears, a minor impediment that eventually gets crunched by the inevitability of the Manchester machine?
To answer those questions, let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong.
Who knew? It turns out that even a team with impossible depth and a near-endless well of sovereign-wealth-fund resources can succumb to the frailties of the human body.
The first one came in August, when Leroy Sane tore his ACL in a glorified exhibition game against the team that’s currently in first place. The 23-year-old German started only 21 league games and didn’t even reach 2,000 league minutes last year, but he was absolutely devastating when he played. Among players featured for at least half of their team’s Premier League minutes, Sane was second in the league in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes (0.96) behind his City teammate, Sergio Aguero (0.98).
Speaking of Aguero… he has been out since the end of November with a thigh injury. The 31-year-old Argentine has been as good as ever when he has played, but he’s only started seven league matches. On a per-minute basis, Aguero and Sane were the two most productive attacking players in the league last season; combined, they’ve played 813 league minutes this year. No team — not even one with Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, David Silva, Bernardo Silva… [deep breath] … Kevin De Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus and Phil Foden — can lose that much offensive firepower without experiencing at least a minor drop off.
At the other end of the field, well yeah, about that…
A Lack of Defenders
There were two constants to Man City’s second title in a row in 2018-19: Ederson and Aymeric Laporte. Their keeper played every single minute in the Premier League. He has missed one game due to injury this season, and of course, it came in the team’s toughest fixture of the season — away at Anfield. Perhaps not coincidentally, Liverpool scored with three of their five shots on target en route to a 3-1 victory.
Laporte, meanwhile, played more minutes than any outfield player for City last season, starting 34 matches and breaking the 3,000-minute barrier. He led the team in passes completed into the final-third, per the site FBRef. While he was on the field, City’s goal differential was plus-67, a mark matched by only one other non-keeper in the league: Player of the Year winner Virgil van Dijk. Yet while Liverpool have had van Dijk for all but five league minutes this season, Laporte has played only four games thanks to a knee injury suffered at the end of August. He’ll be out until at least the New Year.
Despite all the injuries across the squad, City’s attack really hasn’t declined. The team is averaging a ridiculous 2.76 goals per match, better than last year’s mark of 2.5 and just slightly below the rate of Centurions (2.79). The bigger issue has been the defense, which has conceded 19 goals. That might not seem like much — it’s tied for the fourth-best mark in the league — but it’s also just four fewer than City allowed all of last season.
By the end of the 2018-19 campaign, Vincent Kompany was Guardiola’s preferred first-choice partner for Laporte, but he’s now player-manager at Anderlecht in Belgium, the club where he began his career. After letting their captain leave, City then decided not to replace him. Their two big summer acquisitions were Rodri, a defensive midfielder, and Joao Cancelo, a full-back. Cancelo has only started four matches and while Rodri has started 13, he’s openly spoken about his struggles with the “dark art” of tactical fouling that Guardiola requires from his defensive midfielders.
The plan, it seems, was for Rodri to take over for the previously ageless Fernandinho, who would become an option as the non-Laporte center-back alongside Nicolas Otamendi and/or John Stones. It was a gamble, both in expecting a new player to seamlessly replace a uniquely important Premier League great and for said Premier League great to seamlessly become an elite center-back, and it hasn’t quite worked out. City are still allowing a league-low number of shots (7.41 per 90 minutes), but the lack of resistance in the middle of the field has made it easier for opponents to turn those limited opportunities into high-quality looks at goal. Last season, per TruMedia data, City allowed 0.119 expected goals per shot, the ninth-lowest number in the league. This year, it’s up to 0.128: the eighth-worst mark in England.
Despite all of the above, the biggest reason that City aren’t higher in the table is this: Soccer is an extremely low-event game that is prone to wild swings of variance over a small stretch of time. Yeah!
Per FBRef, City have the best expected-goal differential in the league and, well, they might as well be in their own league based on the gap. Guardiola’s team is producing an xG differential of plus-1.59 per match, with second-best Liverpool all the way down at plus-0.89. City are leading the league in expected goals for and in expected goals conceded. Hell, their xG differential is actually slightly better than it was in either of the previous two seasons, even with all of the key injuries and a consistently makeshift backline.
At its core, the point of soccer is to create better chances than your opponent. That’s all you can really control and Guardiola’s team is controlling that balance better than they have in any of his previous, record-breaking seasons with the club.
Thought that you saw them get dominated by Manchester United or run off the field by Liverpool? Don’t buy the idea that the underlying quality of the team is as good as it’s ever been? Well, the models and the markets do. FiveThirtyEight’s ranking system rates City as the best team in the world. The betting markets still see City as the front-runners to win the Champions League despite a tough last-16 draw against Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid.
Now City certainly need some reinforcements for the backline and the club is going to have to replace the likes of Aguero, David Silva, Kyle Walker, Otamendi, and presumably Fernandinho at some point over the next few seasons as they all age into their 30s. But as long as Guardiola hangs around and the core of this team remains intact, it should only be a matter of time until we return to equilibrium and City start churning out wins with that familiar, frightening and mechanical ease.