As Willian struck home a 78th-minute penalty to give Chelsea a 2-1 lead over Manchester City, the red half of Merseyside could celebrate their first league title in over 25 years. This also meant that Manchester City lost their crown and their reign as Premier League champions was over. Liverpool have been sensational this season and have by far been the best team in the country and are perhaps the best team in Europe.
However, the gap between them and Manchester City currently sits at 18 points which is remarkable considering City were able to beat Liverpool by one point for the title last season. Pep Guardiola has had a turbulent season, with the loss of Mikel Arteta his assistant, injuries to key players at key times during the season and the overall lack of cohesion within the team at key times during the season. It is hard to criticise Manchester City too much, as they have obtained 78 points thus far with one game to go and despite being dumped out of the FA Cup by Arsenal, they could still win the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
In the 2017/18 season, they managed to obtain 100 points with 106 goals scored. The 2018/19 saw them obtain 98 points with 95 goals scored. This season, however, the maximum amount of points they could obtain is 83, which is substantially lower than the previous seasons. However, they have scored 97 goals which show that their attacking flair is still present. It is their defensive frailties that have meant they have struggled to maintain title-winning form. They have conceded 35 goals which is still very respectable and they have the highest amount of clean sheets in the division itself. However, at key moments during the season, they have been disappointing and key injuries to Aymeric Laporte and a failure to find a replacement for Vincent Kompany have contributed to their failure to win games. Two losses against Manchester United and two losses against Wolves alongside draws to Crystal Palace and other results that have gone their way have significantly been because of a lack of character in key moments.
This tactical analysis will examine these defensive frailties and how they have contributed to City struggling in keeping up with Liverpool over the course of the season. This scout report will also have a primary analysis on how their defensive issues and tactics in key moments have meant they were unable to maintain their Premier League crown.
The most damming aspect of Manchester City’s defending this season is the amount of simple defensive mistakes they have made in key moments which have as a result cost them key points in key games. When analysing how many defensive mistakes a team has made, it is often hard to find statistics to highlight this. However, one statistic which does show this is the number of errors leading to goals. City have made eight errors leading to goals, which is a higher amount of errors leading to goals in comparison to Norwich, Bournemouth and Watford who all currently sit in the relegation zone. Guardiola’s tactical setup is not to blame for these errors, it is the fault of individual players making ridiculous mistakes at the worst possible time. If we look at Liverpool this season, they have only made five errors leading to goals. Two of these came the other week when they were already confirmed champions as they made two key mistakes in a defeat to Arsenal. This highlights the key difference between the two sides this season, City’s lack and Liverpool’s ability not to make silly mistakes.
To highlight that the making of these mistakes are not Guardiola issues, it is key to look at the players themselves and the errors they have made. Ederson this season has made three errors leading to goals, which is the joint second highest of errors leading to goals in the Premier League. Benjamin Mendy has made two key errors leading to goals, which were both heavily costly and City lost both games that he made these mistakes in. So many games have occurred whereby City have been much the better team, however, one silly mistake leads to goal to the opposition which puts the game into a completely different dimension. If they can have any hope of catching Liverpool next season, cutting these mistakes is vital.
Below is an example of a key error made by City in their 3-2 away loss at Norwich City. We can see both Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones get themselves in a right mess and are unable to play out from the back which Norwich pounced on and score which makes the game 3-1 to Norwich. These defensive mistakes are heavily costly and prove that City needs to solve the issue of their two centre-backs. When watching this goal and analysing how poor the defending and communication was, it is clear that Guardiola will not accept this as something that can continue if they are to catch Liverpool next season.
Another aspect of the mistakes that City have made on a regular rate is based upon their lack of concentration when it comes to defending. Sometimes, when an opposing team scores a goal you put your hands up and admit it was a great goal and there was nothing that could be done to stop it. However, the majority of goals that City have conceded have come from a huge lack of basic defensive concentration which has meant that they are unable to keep goals from going in. When Kompany was around and playing for City, his best quality was that he could smell danger coming from a mile away. He was never the quickest, however, his defensive IQ was so high that he knew exactly the right positions to get into to stop the danger. Laporte is an excellent defender, however, besides him, City does not have what you would define as a proper central defender who knows how to deal with the danger. This, in turn, leads to them conceding goals through a lack of concentration which has been mentioned.
The perfect example of this comes from the 2-0 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford. Both goals came from horrific mistakes by City, however, the first goal scored by Anthony Martial is an example of their huge lack in concentration. Bruno Fernandes has the ball from a free-kick situation and Martial makes a quick run in behind City’s high line which he then scores from. Ederson should do a lot better, however, it is the lack of concentration to stop Martial from getting the ball in this area which is particularly appalling from a City perspective. This mindset of not being able to defend is something that sometimes cannot be coached into certain players, and Guardiola will have to make big decisions to rectify this.
Defending the counter-attack
When teams come up against Manchester City, one of the main ways they attempt to beat them is using the counter-attack to get at their defensive weaknesses. This has especially worked with teams who have pace in forwarding areas and teams that can soak up the pressure well before countering forward quickly on the break. City have lost games this season primarily against teams that used this form of system, Wolves and Manchester United are excellent examples. One main reason for this could be because of the personal change in the defensive midfield role. Rodri was signed from Athletico Madrid and he is a bright prospect with an excellent future ahead of him. However, one of the key occurrences as a result of this was that Fernandinho has been essentially removed from midfield and shifted into the defensive line. Of course, he is still an excellent defender, however, his ability to stop counter-attacks is something that has been heavily missed and it is an aspect of Rodri’s game which he is still learning.
When teams attack City on the break, they were usually met by Fernandinho who would use his footballing IQ and excellent tackling ability to win back the ball. However, now they are met with Rodri who is perhaps not as aggressive. It also means Fernandinho is missed in the Manchester City midfield. He has made 49 tackles this season in comparison with 57 last season. His interception rate has also declined, with 24 this season in comparison to 41 last season. These stats are not suggesting that Fernandinho has become a worse player, however, what they are suggesting that his presence in midfield is being missed in terms of defending counter-attacks. Of course, he has not played as much this season due to injury, however, it is clear to see that by him not playing in midfield City have struggled to defend counter-attacks. He is a much better defensive midfielder than centre-back.
With Fernandinho moving back into the defensive line, it also means without Laporte City have what could be described as an average defence. With his partner often being John Stones or Otamendi when Laporte is injured, it means City lack a proper central defender to deal with counter-attacks. That means that teams with pace can exploit them heavily. We have seen this occurrence on many occasions this season and it is a way that City can be exploited. In terms of solutions, it is clear that a strong centre-back is needed to come in and provide this defensive stability.
City’s structure when the opposition is counter-attacking must also be looked at. When teams are moving forward against them on the break, they often are exploited heavily and a certain shape begins to form. When City defend the counter-attacks it is usually the two centre-backs, the full-backs and the defensive midfielder who come back to defend the break. However, there does not seem to be a structure of defensive organisation when defending against teams who enjoy counter-attacking in this way. The structure often goes out of the window and the defensive unit is left in a state of panic and uncertainty which allows the opposition to score. This again comes down to a lack of leadership in the defensive areas and a lack of understanding between players. Teams have pounced on this season and used the counter-attack as a way to get at City’s poor defensive structure. As will be discussed, this is also a result of them playing with such a high line with players who are unable to do so properly.
As mentioned, another key issue with City when defending the counter-attacks is the role of their defensive line. It is not a stereotype to say that City play with a high line. Often they will be based in and around the halfway line with adjustments depending on the situation. This is so that they can press slightly higher when they don’t have the ball and also so that the central defenders and defensive midfielder can get involved with the build-up play. The point of analysis within this section is not to point the issue with playing a high line, however, to look at how badly they have deployed it this season when defending.
It is almost as if without Laporte the Manchester City defenders are unaware of how to keep a high line and a defensive structure. The issue is partly about space left in behind, which was discussed earlier, however, it is also about the defenders not keeping a solid line. There are times when the City defenders are looking to play offside, however, one of the four defenders will be extremely deep which plays the opposition on. When linking this to counter-attacking, it means teams can play in behind with the knowledge that there will be space due to City’s defensive uncertainties.
This, therefore, could be described as a lack of defensive organisation if anything. When we look at Liverpool’s backline, which is fair to do considering they are the team that have beaten Manchester City to the title, there is always organisation and never a lack of stability. City have been an ocean of defensive instability this season, thus the points gap between the two clubs is so big.
Below is perhaps the best example of City’s lack of defensive line. We can see Norwich looking to play a through ball directly through the City backline. If we look at John Stones, who is number five, we can see him trying to play offside when Kyle Walker is deeper than him. This is an absolute calamity in terms of defending and it highlights the issue of City operating with the high line. No doubt, Guardiola will not be looking to change his defensive structure, so it will therefore be a personal change if anything to prevent this from happening.
Balls in behind
As has been discussed, City have struggled with keeping a solid defensive line which allows other teams to exploit them in behind. This has cost them several points in the league. An aspect which links to this is the factor of through balls being played in behind their defensive line. This is a combination of all things that have been discussed including a lack of concentration, personal and a general misunderstanding of the runs opposing players make in behind.
It is fair to say that City are not blessed with pace in central defence when Laporte is not playing, which opposing teams use to their advantage. What links to this is that the central defenders seem to not communicate with one another as to who is meant to be picking up who when teams look to play through their defensive line. This comes through both aerial balls in behind and balls on the ground. This could also link into the fact that City doesn’t play with a defensive midfielder, Rodri, who is still learning the defensive side of the game.
In terms of solutions to dealing with the through balls, City could adopt many different approaches. The line could be dropped slightly deeper in the bigger games, to prevent there being so much free space. A change in the system in terms of maybe dropping the defensive midfielder into the back to form a back three when defending in certain games to prevent this type of pass. A further problem seems to be that there is often too much space between the two centre backs, which could be resolved by doing this.
Below is an example of a goal City conceded when they lost 3-1 to Liverpool at Anfield which highlights their problems in defending balls in behind. We can see Andrew Robertson on the ball and he can play a magnificent ball into Mohamed Salah who runs onto it and heads home. There are some defensive issues with this goal. Firstly Mohamed Salah makes a run from the left-back onto Fernandinho which he is unaware of which shows a lack of communication. Secondly, there is way too much space in behind City’s defensive line for Mohamed Salah to run into. These issues show why City are constantly unable to defend against balls in behind and why this issue needs addressing.
It is a surprise that teams are playing through City with such ease. When City won their first league title in 2012, it was built on an excellent defensive foundation. Even the past two title victories in 2018 and 2019 respectably have seen City have excellent defensive sides with the likes of Kompany etc. It could be the loss of Kompany himself or teams being able to figure them out better, however, it has very much been the case that City have looked a shadow of themselves in terms of defending.
Teams can play through them so easily and the likes of Stones and Otamendi have in previous years been the bedrock of this City side, however, it is certainly the case now that they are not able to maintain such a defensive structure which has to be put down to their lack of organisation. Throughout this analysis we have looked at examples of City conceding goals when they have lost games, however, there are countless examples of games they have won where they have conceded goals and the attacking players have gotten them out of it.
The City side of this season in terms of their defending replicate Guardiola’s first season in charge, where City looked sensational going forward but where conceding far too many goals to come anywhere near challenging for the title. In the summer of 2017, Guardiola brought in four full-backs and got rid of four full-backs. The current predicament with Covid-19 may mean that spending large amounts of money on players is harder than usual, however, Guardiola will most certainly look to be ruthless in getting rid of players and bringing in the right ones in terms of defensive organisation.
Below is an example of City struggling to deal with the through ball against Tottenham. We can see Son in a lot of space which has been abdicated by the City defence. This allows him to let off a rocket which flies into the bottom corner and puts Spurs 2-0 up. The noticeable thing about the picture is the amount of space that Son has to shoot from as a result of City not closing off at the back. The way that Son can receive the ball with such ease is the primary issue with this goal. Fernandinho cannot close off the space quick enough as Otamendi gets beat far too easily. This is what has cost City the title and Guardiola will be looking to rectify it as soon as possible.