Man City: Why does Pep Guardiola’s squad feel slightly weaker in Premier League title defence compared to recent seasons? | Football News


Second in the table with 45 points from 21 games is by no means a bad season. But such are the standards Manchester City have set in recent years, it can be seen as a worry.

Pep Guardiola’s side are eight points worse off than last season’s total after 21 games. In fact, this is their third-lowest points tally at this stage of the season under the Spanish manager – the two campaigns where they ended up with fewer points saw them fail to win the league.

The recent context of City’s season is not much better. Three consecutive away defeats in all competitions – the first time that has happened since Guardiola’s first season in October 2016. They have also failed to win three out of their last six Premier League games.

If they are to catch Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, City need to start getting a move on.



“Something isn’t right at Man City,” said Gary Neville during Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Tottenham. “It just feels a little bit strange at the moment.”

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Gary Neville admits he’s not as sure about Manchester City’s title challenge following events and performances at the club over the last fortnight

That comment was in relation to the swift departure of once-influential defender Joao Cancelo on loan to Bayern Munich, alongside the open space Spurs were granted – and the mystery of why City are now struggling to get the ball to Erling Haaland.

So how has the Premier League’s most consistent team in recent years become unreliable on the pitch, all of a sudden?

What is happening with Haaland?

Erling Haaland failed to register a shot or touch in the penalty box at Tottenham

Haaland has perhaps the most credit in the bank out of any current top-flight player after 25 goals in 20 Premier League matches so far this season.

But the last few weeks have led to some worrying signs for the Norwegian forward as City approach a vital part of their season.

Haaland’s blank against Spurs means he has just two goals in his last eight away matches in all competitions – and he is without a goal in his four league matches away at ‘big six’ clubs.

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Sky Sports takes a closer look at how Manchester City are making use of striker Erling Haaland and how evidence from the defeat against Tottenham suggests they could be doing more

Yet a disappointing outing at Tottenham brought about the worst statistics of the lot. Zero shots, zero touches in the penalty box – the first time he has registered both those stats in the Premier League.

City’s inability to get the ball to their star striker has been a concern in recent weeks. His four lowest game totals for being targeted by a team-mate following an off-the-ball run have come in his last four league games.

It is not through a lack of trying on the striker’s part – Haaland has made the second-highest number of off-the-ball runs in the Premier League this season. But, of those, he has only been targeted 29 per cent of the time.

It is the third-lowest tally out of the top 10 players for total runs in the league this season. Compare that figure of 29 per cent to Miguel Almiron – the second highest goalscorer in the same category – who has been targeted 41 per cent of the time by his Newcastle team-mates when he is on the move.

“I think he’s been let down in that game today,” said Neville after the defeat to Tottenham – where Haaland looked for the ball in dangerous positions five times but failed to get it.

“If Guardiola and the City staff are watching that game back, they must be saying: ‘your first point of call is working out where Erling is’. The amount of runs he makes and gets ignored is incredible.”

Fellow Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher added: “He looks a bit despondent when he makes that run and doesn’t get it – but they are a team that always make that extra pass Manchester City. If you play that ball he’s in, they’ve got the quality.

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The Super Sunday panel discuss Erling Haaland’s performance against Tottenham, with Jamie Carragher suggesting the Manchester City striker may have chosen the wrong club to join to bring out the best of him

“You see him shaking his head, there’s a bit of frustration. Man City aren’t going to completely change, but the team and the individual need to adapt to each other.”

It is an issue Guardiola has raised before – but cannot seem to find the solution to at the moment.

“We have to find him a little bit more, yes,” said Guardiola after the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United. “He has to get the balls delivered as much as possible,” he said a week later after he scored a hat-trick against Wolves.

Another concern for City is that the team’s shared contribution to goals is down compared to previous seasons.

Guardiola’s side have scored 53 Premier League goals so far – exactly the same figure after 21 games last season – but a big difference is how much the goals have been spread around the team.


Haaland has scored 47 per cent of the team’s Premier League goals this season. No player had more than 13 per cent of the share last season.

On top of that, City had 16 different goalscorers after 21 games. This season, they have only 10.

And with Haaland as a team-mate, the only City player who has more goals this season compared to this stage last term is Phil Foden, who has been absent for the club’s last four matches.

A lot has been made of City finally using a centre-forward after several seasons without a regular No 9 – could it be that Haaland, unarguably one of the top strikers in the world – is actually harming City’s overall game?

City lacking in wider areas

Guardiola’s City have carried on many aspects of their game from their previous successful seasons. The tempo and speed of their passing is identical, from a statistical point of view, to last season – while their similar Passing Permitted per Defensive Action (PPDA) figures imply their press is working at its usual levels.

But one area where City are slightly weaker compared to previous seasons is in the wide areas – particularly the front three.

This season, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish have been the go-to figures on the right and left respectively, following the summer departures of Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling.

Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish have been Pep Guardiola's key men so far this season
Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish have been Pep Guardiola’s key men so far this season

City have been prolific in the wider areas since Guardiola arrived at the club in the summer of 2016. Crosses would often have been low and towards the ‘cutback zone’ – which became a trademark move in the team’s tactics.

But this season, the lesser impact of Mahrez and Grealish in the wider zones have been clear to see. Compared to Sterling’s campaign at City last season, Grealish’s take-on attempted and completed numbers are significantly down – as are Mahrez’s dribbling and crossing numbers from the previous season.

Jesus and Sterling both benefited from balls played in behind defences, a move Mahrez and Grealish have only benefited from in small batches this season.


“They have lost something with Sterling and Jesus,” said Neville at the weekend. “The two wide players, they did make those diagonal penetrative runs in between full-back and centre-back.

“Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez can stay wide so they have lost a bit of goal threat.”

A defence in transition

City’s defence and their ability to shut out opponents has normally been the efficient starting point that sends them onto victory. But City have looked not only uneasy at the back – but also very open in midfield this season.

“The amount of times they got counter-attacked on today and got broken through, the amount of space they gave up in midfield – that doesn’t happen,” said Neville after the loss at Spurs.

“They were having to charge back on their own goal – and that’s because they are just not right. It is a real worry – because it undermines your performance when you got counter-attacked against. And then City’s back four were unable to deal with it either.”

City were susceptible to the counter-attack at Tottenham
City were susceptible to the counter-attack at Tottenham

Guardiola’s side have shipped 21 goals in 21 games this season. Only twice have City conceded more than 20 goals after 21 games since Guardiola took over – the Spaniard’s first season in 2016-17 and in the 2019-20 campaign. Both times saw the title move away from the Etihad Stadium.

Part of the reasoning why City have looked more uneasy at the back is due to a relatively extensive overhaul of the backline this season.

John Stones and Ruben Dias have both had month-long injuries, while Aymeric Laporte began this term in recovery from knee surgery.

Meanwhile, there has also been Manuel Akanji’s arrival, Cancelo’s drop in form which led to his departure, the emergence of Rico Lewis and a greater trust in Nathan Ake – who has already made more Premier League appearances this season than in his previous two City campaigns.


And Guardiola’s regular changing of his backline is a necessity, in the manager’s mind.

“I would love to have the same back four but they cannot handle it. The players we have cannot handle every three days of being fit, other teams might be able to, but we can’t,” Guardiola said in October.

“Nathan can’t, Ruben last season, Aymeric came back from a big injury so it’s important for us everyone can play and everyone can perform well. We need to be ready to fight until the end, otherwise it will be so difficult.”

It could explain why City have conceded more goals per game, allowed more shots and a higher Expected Goals Against tally against them, plus given up four times as many points from winning positions compared to last term.


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