Manchester City Are England's Best Team. So What's Their Problem?

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Tottenham visited Manchester City yesterday in a hugely anticipated match. City have been unreal at home this season, and most teams go into Etihad Stadium playing defensively, hoping for a draw. Spurs instead decided to meet City head on, and played an attacking, free-flowing style. After 12 seconds, Spurs were down a goal. By the end of the match, City had won, 6-0.

Let's share a moment of silence for Tottenham Hotspur, and then move on. Every year, good teams will get punished once or twice. They had a bad day at the office while City, a much better team, had a really good day. There shouldn't be any need to panic, because Spurs have been largely impenetrable defensively all year. And ultimately, we already knew Spurs are wasteful on offense, and not creative or potent enough with the ball to score at a title-winning clip. Let's move on.


If Tottenham's loss is best met with a shrug, then the best way to react to City's victory is probably to scratch your head. Because what they showed yesterday is what we've known for a couple of years now. When City play well, they are far and away the best team in England. They just don't play well often enough.

On paper, they're far better than any other team in England, and only rivaled in the world by FC Bayern, Barça, and Real Madrid. Center back Vincent Kompany, when healthy, is arguably the best in the league. Midfielder Yaya Touré is the best box-to-box midfielder in the league, and his partner Fernandinho is the perfect defensive compliment. Touré and Fernandinho are integral to City's success, because they're fighting the midfield battle, outnumbered, and not getting overrun. In fact, they're thriving. Touré has already recorded five goals and two assists in 12 matches, and Fernandinho's in the top 15 of the Premier League in both tackles and interceptions per game. He's breaking up play.


Then there's the partnership of "Kun" Agüero and Álvaro Negredo. Agüero has long been recognized as one of the top forwards in the sport, and he's been going absolutely nuts this season. He's scored 10 goals and had another four assists in just 11 appearances, and is on par with Luis Suárez in terms of his ability to rain hell on opposing defenses with his dribbling and passing, and to find space in the box for goals. Negredo, a poacher, has scored another five and chipped in on two more. The two are arguably the most dangerous tandem in the league.

And that's why you kinda have to scratch your head. City are currently in fourth place, six points behind first-place Arsenal. They've lost four times already. They lost to last-place Sunderland two weeks ago. They've lost to Premier League newly-promoted Cardiff City, as well as Aston Villa and Chelsea. Who are these guys?

On the surface, Manchester City look like a team that really, really hates to travel. All four losses, and their lone draw to Stoke, have all come on the road. At home, City are perfect, and then some. They're 6-0 at Etihad Stadium, and have scored more goals there (26) than any other team has in total. As if it mattered, they've also conceded just two goals at home.

But away, they're only 1-1-4. They've only scored eight while conceding 10. All but four clubs have amassed more points on the road. You could chalk it up to nerves, but City's owners have spent over half a billion pounds buying the world's top players since 2007, ostensibly so that things like "nerves" aren't a problem.


And in any case, a piece published by the BBC counterintuitively points to City statistically playing as well or even better on the road. Their passing, possession, shots, and shots against in away matches are all on par with their home stats. The only difference is efficiency on both ends of the pitch. At home, they've scored 26 goals from 79 total shots. Nearly a third of everything they strike is going in. Away though, they've only scored 8 of 77. Ten percent is impressive—good enough for fourth in the league—but it's not unimpeachable. Meanwhile, teams have only scored 2 of 53 shots at Etihad Stadium, but have converted 10 of 56 when hosting City.

The only things you can really point to are blind luck or mental lapses, which at a certain point can be indistinguishable. You need luck to win matches, and at home, City have had it. Away, though, they've had some hilariously bad breaks.

Sunderland beat City two weeks ago, 1-0, after Wes Brown dropped a ball in behind the City defense in the direction of Phillip Bardsley, who was being marked by James Milner. Milner seemed comfortable enough, and then he tripped, and Bardsley walked it in. Nothing you can really do.

Against Chelsea a month ago, City fought back from 1-0 down, and seemed to have a draw until the 90th minute. City center back Matija Nastasić and keeper Joe Hart had a communication breakdown, and the defender headed the ball past the onrushing keeper and into the path of Chelsea striker Fernando Torres. Joe Hart isn't the greatest keeper in the world, and has been benched since, but this was just a fluke.


These unlucky moments or lapses in concentration have cost City points. Two draws turned to losses against Sunderland and Chelsea, while Cardiff City and Aston Villa came from behind to win late.

The question, then, is whether this is really a case of bad luck, or if there's something flawed about City's players. After all, this is a team now notorious for mollywhopping some of the league's best, then dropping points to the league's worst. This is vital, because if it's all just misfortune, City should be favorites to win the Premier League. When they're good, they're just too good. But if there's actually something intangible but still there when it comes to their chronic brainfarts, it gets more complicated for the Citizens. The long season is forgiving of road woes, but only to an extent. Luck or nerves? The answer will likely decide the Premier League title race.


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