Guardiola lost control of the counter-attack in Manchester City's defeat to Manchester United and it's costing his team
Monday 9 December 2019 14:11, UK
Manchester City are the top scorers in the Premier League this season but the reigning champions find themselves all but out of the title race. Four defeats in 16 games have left them 14 points adrift of leaders Liverpool. Their defensive record has undermined them.
Pep Guardiola has always built his success on defensive excellence. Endless possession coupled with a relentless ability to sustain attacks and snuff out counters. It was a concern during his first season with Manchester City but he perfected the balance in his second.
Kyle Walker pointed out on Saturday all he had ever known since joining the club in the summer of 2017 was success and it was easy to appreciate his point. It was not just the trophies but the manner in which they had been won. City conceded only 23 Premier League goals last season, just 27 the season before, and it owed little to luck.
Opta's expected-goals models indicates Manchester City had the best defence last season, the season before and even, perhaps surprisingly, the season before that. Guardiola's first campaign was a challenge at times when they were occasionally punished badly, but the underlying numbers were still strong. That is no longer the case.
So far this season, City have only the fourth best defence based on this model. They have conceded 19 actual goals, almost twice as many as Leicester. Guardiola has never had so few points at this stage of a league season and he has never conceded as many goals. Much of that can be explained by City's difficulty in containing the opposition counter-attack.
The degree to which they had mastered this aspect of their game can hardly be overstated. Whether by fair means or foul, City's ability to prevent teams from breaking quickly against them was remarkable. They did not concede a single Premier League goal on the counter-attack last season and there was little sign of the problems to come on the opening day.
Manuel Pellegrini could hardly hide his frustration with his former club after West Ham's 5-0 defeat at the London Stadium back in August. It was not just that his current side had been thrashed. They had been rendered impotent, unable to mount attacks of their own.
"Every time we tried to arrive in their box they committed fouls, 13 to our five," explained Pellegrini. "I think we were a little bit innocent. We must be intelligent to know when to use tactical fouling. If you review the game today, the reason we didn't create too many chances was because all of our offensive ways of attacking resulted in a foul."
That was part of it but it was not the whole reason. Aymeric Laporte was in position at the back, while Rodri impressed on debut. Everything seemed to suggest a seamless transition.
What has followed has revealed vulnerabilities that few had anticipated. The defeat to Norwich could be dismissed as an aberration, the reverse against Liverpool at Anfield hardly a shock at the best of times. But it's City's two home defeats that highlight the change.
The first was against Wolves in October when Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho struggled to contain Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore, losing 2-0 when they might have let in more.
The easy conclusion to draw at the time was that the individuals were to blame. To assume that Laporte or Vincent Kompany would not have allowed it to happen. Perhaps that is true. They could have done better. But Guardiola knew at the time the issues were systemic.
"It has happened because we were not solid in our build up," he explained. "It is not defensively related. They were quite good. They suffered because we lost the possession in front of them in positions we cannot lose it. No central defenders in the world can sustain these type of balls that we lose. It is not about that. They were good."
Guardiola started with a different defensive partnership against Manchester United but the same problems were apparent up against a counter-attacking team. United did not have much of the ball but when they did they tore into City. By the time Marcus Rashford and Daniel James were running at the back line - which was often - it was already too late.
Having conceded two goals on the counter-attack against Wolves, something that had not happened once in the previous 59 Premier League matches, Manchester City surrendered multiple chances on the break against Manchester United too. Again, according to Opta's statistics on fast breaks, this did not happen once last season.
Much of the focus has been on the 34-year-old Fernandinho in defence but it is his absence in midfield rather than his presence in the back line that is undermining Guardiola's game plan. The coach bristles at those accusations of tactical fouling but whether it's a perfectly executed tackle or a subtle shirt pull, the Brazilian simply would not let attacks get this far.
Rodri is an elegant replacement whose awareness improved under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid but his defensive instincts are still being honed and, though the younger man, he does not possess the energy of Fernandinho. Against United, he was far too passive in the build-up to Anthony Martial's goal, allowing himself to be dragged out of position.
It is possible the problems lie even further up the pitch too. A lack of urgency without the ball is allowing opponents to play through the press more than before. David Silva's form is becoming a concern, particularly without the ball. The statistics show he is recovering possession far less often than in any of his previous nine seasons at the club.
When Silva and Manchester City are in full flow with the ball they can make it look easy, but the same is true of them without the ball. Just as Guardiola's teams attack together, so too they must defend together. The system relies on everyone thinking and moving as one. It can be difficult to perfect and, it seems, it can be easy for it to go wrong too.
Can it be solved? Laporte's return will make a difference and if that allows Fernandinho to return to midfield, whether it is alongside Rodri as part of a double pivot or instead of him, that should bring greater control. Perhaps a regular run in the team for Phil Foden could bring some much needed intensity to City in the middle third of the pitch.
Even if Guardiola does find the solution, it is likely to come too late to salvage this Premier League title defence. But there are other trophies still to play for and that long awaited Champions League triumph is still within their capabilities. If they are to manage that, however, what's clear is they must first find a way to manage the counter-attack.