A FAILED ‘DEFENCE’: HOW CITY’S BACK-LINE FAILED TO GUARD IT’S TWO YEAR TITLE REIGN
John Stones reacts towards Nicolas Otamendi after a mistake in defense allows Norwich City to pull off a shocking victory against Manchester City (Getty Images)
Sunday’s shocking defeat to Lyon marked an end to not only a defining era of David Silva at Manchester City but also our disappointing campaign with another failed expedition in Europe and City's two-season hold on the Premier League title ended by Liverpool. And while Liverpool’s performance in the league was nothing short of magnificent, staying at the top of the league for 34 out of 38 Game weeks; Manchester City’s dip in form certainly helped their cause. During the 2019/20 season, Guardiola’s side suffered 9 defeats which are 3 more than their loss tally of the last two seasons combined while conceding 35 goals, their second worst record since Pep joined City in 2016.
Ever since the Spaniard was appointed as the manager of the club, City have become one of the most feared attacking sides in Europe, managing to score more than 100 goals in all competitions in every season since his arrival. But it was his organization of the defense which made City a trophy winning machine. A classic example of his defense leading to the title was in the 2018/19 season. While Liverpool conceded 22 goals as compared to City’s 23, their xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) was 30.0 as compared to 25.9 of Manchester City, suggesting that the Merseyside club conceded fewer goals because of the opposition not taking their chances, implying that City did not concede many chances to the opposition. During City’s extraordinary 14 match winning streak after their loss to Newcastle United last season, the defense conceded only 4 goals and successfully defended five 1-0 victories thus winning games without putting pressure on the attack. This allowed the Sky Blues to win the league over Liverpool even after being 7 points behind in January.
How Aymeric Laporte and Vincent Kompany guided City towards their successful title defense in 2019 (Manchester City Delhi Supporter’s Club Twitter)
However, this season was completely opposite, to say the least. While many pundits predicted the sky blues to become one of the only few sides to win the league for three seasons running with the squad now reinforced after the signings of Rodri, Angelino and Cancelo, a shaky and chaotic back four was one of the main reasons why the ‘fight couldn’t last till the end.’
As Guardiola and Manchester City prepare to set their sights towards a better next season, we analyze where did it go wrong for our defense and how can we re-strengthen for the next campaign.
1. Failure to replace Kompany and not finding a partner for Laporte
This is the most obvious, yet the defining factor in the collapse of City’s defensive unit. When Vincent Kompany decided to call it quits on his 11-year illustrious career at Manchester City, many were expecting the club to find a suitable replacement for the Belgian and to partner Aymeric Laporte at centre-back. However, Guardiola decided against spending on a centre-back, rather focusing on other positions. And while many saw this as a mistake, some did believe that Otamendi and Stones could see out the season if not stamp their authority on the vacant berth having had a decent but unspectacular 2018/19 campaign. Big things could still be expected from the pair, while the Argentine was hands down City’s best defender in the 2017/18 campaign, John Stones was seen as a player earmarked for Guardiola: A young centre-back comfortable on the ball fit for being Pep’s ball playing centre-half.
But we can safely say that this plan backfired. The first time this pairing was tested in the league this season resulted in a 3-2 defeat in the hands of Norwich City, one out of only two times when the pair started together. John Stones has looked unreliable, possessing a moment of a defensive breakdown in critical games for club and country which can’t be compensated by his silky ball movement. At 25, Stones can no longer use his youth as an excuse. Otamendi on the other hand has been a shadow of his 2017/18 heroics, with his numbers dropping from 3.1 Tackles and Interceptions per 90 to 2.1 this term. The Argentine also has 2 errors leading to a goal in the Premier League this season, often putting the burden on the team rather than lifting it.
Centre-back partnership statistics (min. 15 games) showing how Stones-Otamendi partnership is the worst performing pair under Pep Guardiola (The Sun)
They had countless chances in this City team and the defensive issues have continued to give him opportunities to stake a claim. Yet, they have given them a pass, having been dropped for an out of position Rodri and Fernandinho and a young Eric Garcia who has proven to be a shining light in an otherwise sinking ship having conceded only 2 goals in the seven starts that he has made in the League. Thus, Guardiola should aim to sign a partner for Laporte and sell at least one out of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones to make way for Eric Garcia in the team, IF he stays. Otherwise, Harwood-Bellis or Tosin Adarabioyo should be eased into the squad next season.
2. Vulnerability to counter-attacks
Controlling the counter-attack has been a feature of Manchester City's defensive excellence throughout their two title wins. It is this organization that has allowed them to attack in numbers but still prevent the breaks, sustaining moves with a high line without giving up quality chances. Before City went into the match against Wolves at the Etihad, City had not conceded a single Premier League goal from a fast break in their previous 59 games in the competition - by far the longest such run of any team. However, Adama Traore managed to find the net against them in this fashion twice inside a quarter of an hour.
Although City have conceded only one more goal through direct fast-break after this event, with their tally of 3 ranked as the 10th worst team in this aspect (One goal more than their last two seasons combined); their xG /shot conceded in open play at 0.15 is the joint worst in the Premier League meaning City gave the opponent a 15% chance to score when it attacks the Sky Blues on the counter.
On the offence both Sterling and Mahrez cut inside on their stronger foot to shoot, leaving the wide spaces for Mendy and Walker. With both De Bruyne and Silva in the final third of the opposition’s box, only Rodri is guarding the first line of defense during the opposition’s counter-attack. Unlike Fernandinho who jockeys or commits a tactical foul to buy time for the rapid full-backs to join the defense; Rodri acts aggressively in the position by pressing high up and getting by-passed more often than not. This is then exacerbated by Otamendi who often dives into tackles in 1v1 situations and hopes for the best, leaving the opposition through on goal.
Out of position full-backs allow Wolves to easily by-pass Rodri at the midfield
Otamendi commits himself in a 2V2 situation, exposing the defense to a potential 2V1
Otamendi loses his take-on forcing Fernandinho to tackle Jimenez in a 2V1
Jimenez squares the ball to Traore, who easily slots the ball past Ederson
Thus, a system devised by Pep which worked like clockwork in the last few seasons has been knackered by the opposition time and time again due to a combination of new players adjusting to their roles and lack of coordination.
3. No players to carry out the principle of ‘Inverted Full-backs.’
Guardiola’s postulate of Inverted Full-backs was one of the many revelations which turned Manchester City into a serial title-winning team. Under the idea, both the full-backs come towards the middle of the pitch as opposed to their traditional wide position, forming a second line of defense right above the centre-backs. This allows more players in the build-up play while creating spaces up wide for the wingers.
After successfully engineering this module at Bayern Munich, Pep implemented this system at City by spending big on the full-backs bringing Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo to execute this plan. However, both Mendy and Walker were more traditional in their approaches, having been familiar to bombarding from the wide channels to cross. While Walker has successfully adapted to the system with some tweaks, joining the centre-backs more often than the midfield; Mendy has found it hard to settle as an inverted full-back. The Frenchman’s unfortunate injuries since joining allowed Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko to do this job. As both were primarily midfielders who possessed great defensive awareness and versatility, they found it easier to adapt to this role and were instrumental in City’s back-to-back title wins.
Benjamin Mendy, on the other hand, is an offensive full-back by nature. His crossing accuracy of 27% is well above the league average of 18.9% and while he has displayed his 2016/17 version in some instances having registered only 4 assists less than Alexander Arnold's 9 assists (most for a full-back in the league) in less than half the games; his lack of positioning and defensive frailties in this system overshadows it. His 2 errors leading to goals is the joint-worst for an outfield player in the league, directly costing 6 points. The Frenchman’s 1.7 Tackles and Interceptions per game is a far cry from Delph’s 3.5 in 2017/18 and Zinchenko’s 3.8 in 2018/19. The most critical factor is that his overlaps leave Rodri alone in the first line of defense, exposing City to counter-attacks. And while Mendy could get a chance to make overlapping runs down the left flank now that Sane has left, it forces De Bruyne to drop deeper which is a far bigger sacrifice.
Benjamin Mendy’s second defensive error leading to a goal in the Premier League made Liverpool the champions on the same night as Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-1
Joao Cancelo has so far made a case for himself at LB, proving himself to be equally adept at both defense and attack from his displays vs. Watford and Norwich in the league and satisfactory performances in the Champions League. But that does not mean that Mendy should be looked upon. It was unfortunate on his end which sidelined him for two seasons and this season was probably his first full season at the club. With Pep having a history of overturning the failures of many players, maybe Mendy could be the answer for many seasons to come. Just not right now.
Joao Cancelo’s magnificent performance vs Watford (Man City Xtra’s Twitter)
4. Assailability to shots from outside the box
This season Manchester City has conceded 9 goals from outside the area, the joint third-most in the League. However, this comprises nearly 26% goals conceded by the Sky Blues in total making them the worst side in terms of the proportion of goals conceded from outside the box. In stark contrast, City only conceded 2 goals from outside the box (including Townsend’s goal of the season strike) making them the second-best side in this regard. Their save percentage has also massively dropped, from a very healthy 91% to the bizarre 70% (worst percentage in the league this season). Since the shots from outside the area are three times less likely to go in as compares to inside the area, it means that City are conceding the sort of goals that the shouldn’t and at a very disproportionate rate as compared to the league average.
One of the major reasons for this is the absence of Fernandinho in the midfield. The Brazillian has mastered the art of covering City’s back four using his two main assets: Tactical Fouling higher up the pitch to stop the fast breaks of the opposition while keeping them far away from the defense and Pressing the opposition to make it difficult to place their shots. Although Rodri was signed as an able replacement for the 35-year old, he simply can’t replicate Fernandinho’s tactical brilliance. In fact, Manchester City has the highest percentage of facing shots on target from outside the box, clearly indicating that the opposition enjoys the luxury of placing their shots.
While no one pressed Fabinho before his long-range shot, Shelvey was left unmarked when City were defending a set-piece both resulting in goals and dropping points.
While the midfield certainly doesn’t help this case, it is the duty of the goalkeeper to save these types of shots. Both Ederson and Claudio Bravo have the combined worst save percentage in the league at 70%, meaning the sky blues conceded 3 out of every 10 shots faced by the pair from outside the box. While Ederson winning his first of many Golden Gloves is a testament to his outstanding shot-stopping ability, it can’t be denied that the Brazilian still needs to work on some aspects of his game, especially his positioning while facing shots outside the box.
Ederson was completely at fault for Lamela’s goal against City: positioned too far to his left allowing the Argentine to pass the ball into the net with a tame shot. The fixture cost City two points.
Manchester City in total has lost 19 points in these 10 games where they conceded from outside the area. Not only that, 8 points out of these were lost in games that were either drawn (Tottenham and Newcastle) or lost by one goal margin (Wolves and Southampton). Saying that City would’ve challenged for their crown considering they were 18 points behind the eventual winners would be short-sighted but it can’t be denied that had Guardiola’s men been more cautious from these situations, Liverpool would’ve surely felt the pressure like they did last season where they gave away their 7-point lead towards the end of the season.
Calling Manchester City’s Premier League campaign as a major disappointment would be harsh. The side finished their campaign with 102 goals in the league, breaking into the three-digit figures for the second time under Guardiola. Manchester City also became the first team in Premier League history to have five different players score at least 10 goals in a single season, while Kevin De Bruyne etched his name in Premier League history by equaling Thierry Henry’s record of most assists in a single season (20). However, it would not be wrong to say that the failure of the defense to meet its high expectations allowed Liverpool to finish off the title race well before it could be salvaged by City; and also bowing out of the Champions League before the semi-finals for the fourth consecutive time under the reign of Pep Guardiola.
Although putting the blame of the defensive collapse over a few individuals would be harsh, it can’t be denied that the defense needs strengthening in its depth more so due to the many injury concerns City face throughout the season. While most of the onus of the collapse is on the backline, the midfield should also share the blame. Though Rodri had a decent first season as the new no. 6 by helping build attacks from the base, he still has a long way to go before he can fill the void left by Fernandinho whose absence in the midfield was the missing jigsaw piece in City’s title defense. Not just that but the ancillary ‘Free 8’ be it David or Bernardo Silva have also had a downfall in their pressing numbers. Whilst El Mago’s drop in numbers was minimal which could be contributed to his age (17 pressures per game to 14 pressures per game), Bernardo’s staggering drop from 27.5 pressures per game in 18/19 to around 18 pressures per game is a worrying factor which needs to be sorted out as it gives the opposition enough time to create quality chances.
Still, it is not like City is edging towards the doom. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and there were some positives too for City this season. Joao Cancelo has made a strong case for his inclusion in the team and it would be interesting to see how Pep will involve the Portuguese next season over more traditional left backs like Mendy and Zinchenko. Although it might be curtains for Eric Garcia's tenure at City after Guardiola came saying the defender wants to leave the club, the opportunity for Tosin and Harwood Bellis could be sensed who are not only loyal to the badge, but their homegrown quota will make signing players easier; having loaned in Scott Carson for the same reason last season who did not add any value to the squad. And now with the CAS verdict out in the favour of City, it gives them a chance to fix their glaringly obvious problems in the transfer window, with the squad already bolstered after the addition of Ferran Torres and Nathan Ake. One can only imagine the success this team will get after bolstering their defense with Ake and potentially another world-class defender combined with an already incredible attack; the sky is the limit for them.