Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Manchester City could hardly have started any better. With six successive wins to start the season, including a win in the Manchester derby, City found themselves at the top of the table. However, a loss to Spurs ignited a recession into bad habits and to scenes City fans had become all too accustomed to after last season. Frustrating draws against Everton and Middlesbrough alongside unconvincing wins had made our weaknesses clear for all to see; missing countless chances to win games while conceding for fun from counter attacks. This was to be exploited by Chelsea and Leicester later on in the season.
When it comes to defending at Manchester City, it almost always feels personal. There’s a tendency to scapegoat players – John Stones could testify to this – instead of analysing the defensive structure surrounding the players. That is not to say that individual errors haven’t played there part, they certainly have, but unfortunately that’s not the only way City are conceding. Ultimately, it is an issue of structure for City defensively. Of course Pep’s possession-based game requires City to be expansive but there is also a need for structure, especially when clearing the ball.
The issue of spacing and structure is evident within two minutes of the match against Leicester, and our structure here can be quite simply described as pathetic. To provide context, Kolarov clears the ball up to Kelechi who loses a header to Huth. The ball drops to Mahrez, and then he has a 3v3 opportunity to exploit. He plays it to Slimani who plays a simple through ball to Vardy who is in on goal. A simple header from a clearance managed to bypass our whole midfield and then it becomes a numbers game, and Leicester’s whole game is based around transitions. Leicester have proven throughout the season that they struggle to break down sides that are compact and don’t concede spaces in transitions so for this to be the case for City within two minutes is startling.
Guardiola mentioned second balls in his press conference as an area where City need to improve and he is definitely right, but once again the spacing in defense is horrible. Gundogan and Silva were both standing near Andy King before the throw in but subsequently move towards the ball, making that four City players defending one Leicester player. Meanwhile, King stands wide open at the top of the box. Albeit, it was perhaps lucky to fall to Slimani and I’m not sure many expected King to put it in the top corner, it is an easily avoided goal regardless. If Gundogan and Silva had held their initial positions King doesn’t receive the ball and certainly does not get a shot away.
One of the keys in defending is understanding phases of the match and knowing how to defend them accordingly, this is an area the City players need serious improvement of.
Kolarov advances up the pitch and loses the ball and where City go wrong is with their decision to drop off. Kelechi covers the backpass, which is often as instructed for strikers, but pressing Huth here would have been the better choice. In general though, City’s pressing has reduced in recent weeks, despite it being successful earlier in the season. This was a high risk turn-over, with Kolarov miles out of position. Mahrez and Vardy both take up high positions and a Huth diagonal across the field to Mahrez who plays it into Vardy ends the game twenty minutes in. If Huth had been pressed, instead of being allowed to advance and pick out a pass, they either win the ball in an advanced area or force a turn over in possession.
Clearly more time needs to be spent on defending in training but it will have to be fit in-between shooting practice, because that too has been a glaring issue for City all year. While Aguero has ten goals this season, he has shown his tendency to go missing in the bigger matches over the last couple of years. While he can get the numbers over the course of a season, it was De Bruyne who was the player to step up when needed for City last year and he has done so again this year. While two goals may be low for his standards, his eight assists and thirty-five key passes more than make up for that. Outside of the two aforementioned, there is nowhere near enough firepower up front. Sterling has four goals and three assists, which is an improvement considering he only had six goals and two assists throughout last season. However, we should still be expecting more from him and those around him. Jesus Navas has no goals or assists in ten matches; for a winger, that is disgusting and inexcusable. His only quality is his pace and work rate and that is something Leroy Sané matches every game anyways. While Sane is still very raw, he certainly deserves playing time over Navas.
The list of under performers does not end there though, and I feel David Silva has to be mentioned. For a player in his position, three goals and zero assists is nowhere near the level he should be performing at. There is no denying his quality and importance in the side, but he needs to be producing more. Gundogan hit a purple patch in terms of goals but his shooting technique is flawed and he can’t be relied on as a regular scorer. Iheanacho has five goals and three assists in the League and in Europe, which is a good return for a young, squad player .
Gabriel Jesus will soon be a City player, which is a huge boost to City’s front line. While the adjustment to the Premier League will undoubtedly have an effect, if Jesus can replicate his performances over the past year for Palmeiras and Brazil then he’ll be a great addition. Yaya Toure could still have a role in Manchester City’s season. His two goals against Crystal Palace showed he can still offer goals. Toure should take up a role similar to that of Frank Lampard’s a couple years ago at City. Lampard proved to be a great impact sub and won a couple of games for City, Yaya could surely do the same.
Pep is stubborn and will undoubtedly stick to his system, as he should. However, that is not to say he should not make altercations, particularly defensively. City need to be expansive and free flowing in possessions but some spatial and defensive discipline is dearly needed. With that, a return to pressing would be well received. The intensity in City’s game has decreased in recent weeks, something that needs to improve.