Pep Guardiola has problems to solve. Late November is upon us and the bottom half of the Premier League table still contains Manchester City. Armed with a new contract, there will be no walking away from the issues, these are his to solve. The concern is that old failings have not been addressed and new weaknesses are emerging in a once flawless team.
The 2-0 defeat to Tottenham was the first time that Manchester City have failed to score in a Premier League game this season, but it was coming. The old fluency has been lacking. The previous five games had yielded only five goals – one in each – and it was a real struggle against Spurs. This is a team that is used to facing deep defences. It does not show.
“It is just that fear factor as well,” former Manchester City defender Micah Richards told Sky Sports. “Over the last few seasons, City have had Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling. Now I look at Ferran Torres, Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus, it has not got the same oomph if you ask me. They are top players but they are missing that cutting edge.”
Perhaps the problem is that they found themselves chasing this game from the outset. Heung-Min Son’s goal inside five minutes set it up for Jose Mourinho. A repeat of that mistake as City became increasingly desperate in their search for an equaliser allowed substitute Giovani Lo Celso to double the advantage in the second half. Game over.
There were many aspects of the opening goal that will trouble Guardiola. Ederson made the finish easier than it needed to be. Joao Cancelo failed to track the run. Aymeric Laporte was sucked towards the ball by the sort of Harry Kane run that City should have been expecting and the decision of Ruben Dias to make a similar movement put himself out of the game.
But it was the lack of pressing ahead of the defence that left Tanguy Ndombele with time to pick out the pass. Kevin De Bruyne did not stop the free-kick, and while Jesus and Bernardo Silva attempted to cut out the passing angles, Rodri did not close down quickly enough. What protection was the midfielder providing in allowing Ndombele such space?
“Rodri is a very good player but he does not stop enough attacks for me,” said Richards. “He really doesn’t. Sometimes you are going to leave yourself exposed with the way that City play but Fernandinho used to mop up everything. I do not think that Rodri has quite grasped that defensive role. The possession he has got but the defensive role needs a bit of work.”
That was evident for the second goal too as Rodri laboured in pursuit of man-of-the-match Kane, who found space between the lines throughout. There have been many features of Guardiola’s success at City from the wonderful wing play to the wizardry of those twin eights in midfield and the presence of a world-class striker. But it was their work without the ball that laid the platform for all the headline-grabbing moments that followed.
At their best, City sustained attacks and they prevented breakaways with ruthless efficiency by fair means or foul. Opposition managers would look longingly at the vacant space behind Guardiola’s defence in the hope that their quickest players could find a way to penetrate. But try as they might it never seemed to happen. City never allowed it to happen.
“It is in the transition when City give the ball away that they are not winning the ball back as quickly as they used to,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “Teams are getting a bit more confidence, they can just pop it through them. It is little passages of play like this that Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were stopping a couple of years ago.”
That is why City conceded only 50 goals across their two title wins under Guardiola, averaging 99 points in those two seasons. It is why they not only won the most games but also kept the most clean sheets and faced the fewest shots across those two seasons.
Many of the underlying numbers remain strong. City still faced the fewest shots last season even if the number did rise. Most expected-goals models rated them as having the best defence as well as the best attack even as Liverpool cruised to the Premier League title.
But delve deep into the more advanced metrics supplied by Opta and the evidence is there that City are not playing with quite as much intensity as they once did. The pressing has dropped off just a little. Opponents are finding it slightly more straightforward to play their way through them. The clues are there and the consequences for Guardiola are real.
Opposition passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) factors in the passes made by the opposition in their own defensive third and the middle third of the pitch, and the defensive actions of the team out of possession in the opposition final and middle third of the pitch.