Manchester City: Lethal Attackers but Defence is the Backbone to Their Success



Image Credit: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

Written by: StatsBomb

Manchester City’s attack has thrilled this season, but their defensive resilience has contributed just as much towards winning 21 of their opening 24 fixtures to open up a commanding 12 point lead over the chasing pack.

While the four goals allowed at Liverpool mean they do not have the best defensive record in the league any more--that accolade goes to Man Utd and Chelsea for now with 16 a-piece compared to City’s 18-- both straightforward metrics and advanced ones paint an extremely positive picture for Pep Guardiola’s men.

If we compare Manchester City’s season to the last five full seasons, they rank first in a swathe of statistical categories--and often by large margins. Let’s take a look at shot volume: City allow the opposition an average of just 6.6 shots per game, nearly a whole shot ahead of the next team on the list, their own 2016-17 side.

Expected goals (or xG) are a metric derived from shots that define a value for the chances a team creates in a game. While shot volumes in themselves give a decent idea of the balance of opportunities in a game, xG adds in the important input of shot location. If we look again across the season, City’s expected goals allowed, powered by those very few shots, are lower than any team in the last five seasons (0.64 xG per game).

It feels like City have played the same game time and again. Their attack racks up the shots while their defence limits them. This race chart from last weekend’s game against Newcastle shows us a very typical 2017-18 City display and how the match progressed, while valuing those chances:

The majority of City’s wins this season have followed a similar format, limiting the opposition every bit as much as dominating in attack.

City won this game 3-1 but their defensive quality can be seen clearly. Between the 2nd minute and the Newcastle goal they didn’t allow a single shot, while the only two decent value chances they allowed all game (the goal and the last chance logged in the match) were while they were two goals ahead. It’s tough to beat a team that doesn’t give you a sniff until they are comfortably ahead.

We can even see that despite conceding four against Liverpool, City’s defence did not allow easy opportunities, rather that it was more a case that Liverpool benefiting from great finishing; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain drove at the defence and finished from distance, Salah swept the ball home from range after Ederson’s error while Sadio Mane’s finish was electric. On another day, perhaps these chances don’t go in? The cumulative value of all of Liverpool’s opportunities was less than one expected goal, as was the value of City’s attempts.

Both teams benefited from great finishing in this game, but City will be more concerned that Liverpool shut down their attack than penetrated their defence.

What are City doing that enables them to shut down the opposition so effectively?

Firstly, they don’t let the opposition have the ball. Their 71% rate of possession is the highest across the last five Premier League seasons and feeds into other metrics that show how frugal City are in and around their own goal. On average in each game they allow just 1.5 opposition “deep” pass completions and only one completed pass inside the box, both metrics that again rank best in the last five years.

This City team is also effective in how heavily they press the opposition and where and when they do it. The average height up the pitch in which they attempt their defensive actions (49.1 metres from their own goal) and the passes they allow the opposition to make per defensive action they commit to (5.06) are both first ranked metrics again. As is the resulting 69% pass completion rate their opponents register. It’s a potent mix of pressing, disrupting and squeezing the opposition and the groundwork laid in Guardiola’s first season, alongside key personnel moves such as the acquisition of speedy reactive players such as Kyle Walker and goalkeeper Ederson has been decisive.

Do they have a defensive weakness?

If we look at the past two seasons, we see that they have conceded a number of goals via throughballs. This tallies with the risk or reward strategy of a high line in defence, meaning that when the opposition does manage to get a pass through and beat any offside trap, they may well find themselves with a high value chance on goal. The trouble is, having allowed 19 such shots across 62 Premier League games, waiting for a once-every-three-games opportunity or strategising to make those kind of plays may not bear quick dividends.

These high value opportunities have also contributed to the one moderate value on the main defensive chart: the average value of the shots they allow. That said, as long as City are limiting the volume of shots effectively, they will probably benefit most in the long run. After all, you scarcely create goals without a preceding shot, and as we have seen, City are historically great at limiting that.

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