Every story about the Premier League, and really European soccer as a whole, has to start off with just how weird the circumstances are. The shortened preseason, the glut of matches in a reduced window of time, the injuries, the positive tests, no crowds, all of it has combined for some truly goofy outcomes. Hell, even Bayern Munich didn’t win yesterday, so you know we’re all mad here.
Still, there is something jarring, no matter the caveats, about seeing Manchester City in the bottom half of the table with the season a quarter gone. Though they have a game in hand, even winning that would only see City up to sixth, level with Aston Villa.
“Level with Aston Villa” is not what Abu Dhabi had in mind for their mountain of millions in cash, and it’s not what they had in mind when they handed manager Pep Guardiola a contract extension this week.
What’s more striking than City’s league position was in clear relief yesterday as they emo-kid’d to a 2-0 defeat against Tottenham. And again, the excuses of a truly unique and punishing season are right there to be grabbed. It was after an international break, so City had only had a training session or two together, where some players had played with their countries two or even three games. But Tottenham had all the same things to claim.
This wasn’t the first match in which City looked so punchless. This is the same squad that would score four or five or six on a team without needing a shower or a cool-down after in previous seasons. They rained chances down upon just about every team. For most opponents, avoiding embarrassment was considered something of a victory.
Not anymore. While City had 22 shots to Spurs’ four, only five of them were on target. And it never felt like the big bad wolf was about to blow Tottenham’s house down. It felt like the wolf was passed out on the curb, occasionally waving an arm to assure passers-by he wasn’t dead.
And such has been the story for City all season. Their previous game saw City put on a true swashbuckling extravaganza against Liverpool for 45 minutes. And then the second half just squeezed out like a Play-Doh extruder. That’s about as lively as they’ve looked. Most of their matches have been an interpretation of a trip to the DMV.
And it’s not as if City are missing a bucketful of chances that they would normally bury, and could simply blame Sergio Aguero’s injury absence for. In only one match this season, in both the Premier League and Champions League, have City created two expected-goals or more. They did that 34 times last season in 47 matches last year in the two competitions.
Across the board, their players individually aren’t creating as much either. Kevin De Bruyne, one of Europe’s best passers and creators, averaged 0.79 non-penalty goals and assists expected per 90 minutes (measuring how many goals and assists a player “should” have gotten based on where a shot was taken from). That’s down to 0.55 this term. Raheem Sterling, one of the more destructive wide-players on the continent, has seen a 50 percent drop in his xNPG+A per 90. Riyad Mahrez has seen an even greater reduction. Gabriel Jesus, Aguero’s main deputy, also has been half as dangerous. Down the list it goes.
As a result, City’s overall creation is cratering. Last season, they were joint-leaders, along with Liverpool and Arsenal, in expected goals per shot, i.e. they were creating the best looks in the league. Given that they also created just about the most shots as well, that’s a parade of prime chances. This season they’re third-worst in that category. They’re not averaging anywhere near the shots-on-target, or overall shots as they did. They can’t claim they’ve been unlucky either through wayward finishing or devilish goalkeeping against them. They’re just not asking nearly as much of opponents’ defenses.
Where City might point to Aguero’s absence is that they still get the ball into the dangerous areas as much as they used to, still among the best at passes into the penalty area and other measures. It’s just that nothing happens when they get it there, which Aguero’s clever movement and deft touch might fix, at least partly.
Guardiola might point to City’s newfound defensive solidarity, which is true. While City could be a total Python-sketch defensively last year, they’ve been miserly this season. Yesterday’s loss was the first game in 10 where they’ve given up more than one goal, since Leicester skulled them hard to the tune of 5-2. Still, in that stretch the only team that’s known for being truly dangerous is Liverpool and arguably Leeds, so their defensive prowess could be linked to strength of schedule.
The compressed fixture list could play a part, or something going stale could be a factor too. Guardiola has been at City longer than he was at Bayern Munich or Barcelona, and he left both jobs when he felt like there was no more to do and before anything like this could set in. And yet he’s opted for an extended stay in Manchester. Is this what he was trying to avoid before? Beyond the numbers, there’s just a bounce missing from City. In previous seasons, it felt like City could conjure up “the City goal” whenever they wanted. Every fan can picture it. Ball goes out wide, midfielder runs between center-back and fullback, gets the pass from the wide-man, runs to the byline, cuts the ball back to a forward for a tap-in. It felt scripted. There’s been none of that assurance or control so far this season.
There’s still plenty of time for City and Guardiola to find it. But the frequency of matches isn’t going to let up. Did Guardiola know something in Barcelona and Munich that he simply ignored in Manchester?