Guardiola was exposed in his first season, but he’s built a juggernaut for his second.
Pep Guardiola is many things: an innovator, polyglot, bald man, author, Peter Crouch admirer, and a serial winner, but he had never been accused of being naïve. That was, at least, until last season, when the former Barcelona player and manager apparently thought he could waltz into the Premier League, play his tactics, and win.
It was a classic in the genre of “I know better” hubris being flattened by a cold-blooded institution. The Premier League is seemingly designed to make the demi-gods of the footballing consciousness look like normal dudes. Every week, something on the pitch prompts a muted flicker in the back of your mind to posit deranged questions like ”Did Big Sam genuinely actually ‘out-tactic’ Jose Mourinho?” and “Maybe Tony Pulis isn’t so bad?”
The scary thing, though, is that even with all the well documented errors Guardiola made along the way, and we’ll get to those, he almost did waltz into the Premier League and win. City finished third, which, while below their ambitions, was hardly a failure. According to STATS, City would have handily won the league on expected goals (aggregated shot positions and shot positions conceded). Their expected goal difference of +46 exceed that of Tottenham (+33), the next best team by 13 goals. Based on their shot positions, they should have scored the most goals and conceded the second least.
Ultimately, though, Manchester City were hamstrung by poor finishing, abysmal goalkeeping, and the senior citizens they played at fullback.
The chief offenders in the final third were Agüero, Sterling, and David Silva. All three of these players underperformed their xG total by at least one goal. To win the title, you need red hot players that are both genuinely on fire and lucky. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son, Eden Hazard, and Diego Costa, for instance, all outperformed their xG total by three or more goals. Kane led the pack with nine goals more than expected. City having three of their largest contributors underperform their projections (and Kevin de Bruyne hit the woodwork a league leading nine[!] times) would constitute the difference between title contention and sliding into the top 4.
Regarding Sterling and Silva, it’s easy to see why they underperform their projections. Their play styles and slight frames lead them to wriggle through space to get to good positions, but they generally only have the strength and finishing ability to get off a tame effort on goal. Agüero, on the other hand, may be a larger issue. The little Argentine is getting older and the combination of pace and power that fueled him are starting to let him down. Muscle injuries take their toll on a player and he doesn’t seem to have the same quality in front of goal that he once did.
With City needing an out-and-out goalscorer, it’s easy to see why Pep turned to Gabriel Jesus when the youngster arrived in January. Out of all the City attackers, Jesus was the most clinical, only underperforming his expected goal total by .22. This graph of finishing positions from Statsbomb tells much of the story:
Image Credit: Statsbomb
This shows the distribution of shot attempts by the expected goals that those shots will yield. Instead of wasting possession with pot shots like Agüero and De Bruyne, Jesus uses his dribbling and excellent first touch to get himself into genuinely good positions to score. It’s this kind of ruthless efficiency that was missing from City for the bulk of the season and he could well depose Agüero again if Pep isn’t pleased with his performances.
While the finishing in the final third wasn’t what it needed to be, City’s ability to stop other opponents from finishing was borderline criminal. Claudio Bravo genuinely put in the worst ever performance by a goalkeeper at a top club. Look at how many fewer saves he and Caballero made versus expected. The lack of shot stopping alone constituted a 15 goal swing from City to Arsenal and Tottenham.
Image Credit: STATS
But it wasn’t just Bravo’s shot stopping that was below par. For a keeper that was signed to play out from the back, he made a litany of hysterical errors with his feet and in controlling his area that would be appropriately backed by “yakety sax”. The man (who was genuinely good once) has a techno-backed Fail Compilation after playing half a season of Premier League football.
Playing Bravo meant that you not only had a goalkeeper that was consistently giving up scoring opportunities to the opposition–– something that feels insane to even write, mind you––but that couldn’t stop the shots when they came.
Luckily for City, new signing Ederson has no such issue stopping shots. The man spent last year at Benfica making reflex save pornography.
Unfortunately, some of the same questions posed by Bravo will not be fully answered by Ederson. The young Brazilian is genuinely a little dodgy. He’s a keeper that prefers to punch, often clatters into defenders, and is a bit quick off his line. He is a goalkeeper in the mold of Manuel Neuer, not Petr Cech. But he doesn’t have Neuer’s technique, timing, and ability to come out of his goal yet, and should make a handful of high profile errors this season. Guardiola is betting that the tempo gained by his aggressiveness and control of area will be a worthwhile trade off for the mistakes.
He’s also the only goalkeeper to goal kick the ball to the other penalty area in recent memory.
Yep, that’s an 80+ yard assist through the air. And lest you think that sort of kicking won’t translate to the Premier League for some reason, he did it again against Tottenham in preseason.
Ederson will both be an action hero and an absolute mad man. As long as Guardiola gets more of the former than the latter, he’ll be a fantastic signing.
But the biggest fault of Guardiola last season was his tactics at the back. He instructed relics of yore Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, and Gael Clichy to squeeze into the midfield when in possession and demanded that they constrict and expand with the flow of play. This was a major component of his tactical system, but, with dying legs, these players quite simply were the wrong fit for what Guardiola wanted to do. They routinely got caught upfield in attacking scenarios and Otamendi, Stones, and Kompany were exposed to a wealth of one-on-one situations at the back. You might be able to get away with that against the bottom feeders in Spain and Germany, but it will be abused by Premier League attackers like Andre Gray that have made a career out of feasting on positional mistakes.
In their stead, Guardiola has brought in Kyle Walker, Danilo, and Benjamin Mendy, three players that are essentially Goldilocks versions of the same player. They are tall for the position, athletic, fast, and skilled. Mendy, for my money, is the best and the platonic form of this style of fullback; he’s the little bear’s porridge of the group. Mendy is a blur of muscle and pace on the pitch, but he pairs it with tenacity, intelligence, and excellent technique. He’s the type of player that Pep loves, seemingly popping up wherever a player is needed.
Image Credit: Sky Sports News
As noted by Statsbomb, City did not allow many shots from good positions, but they did allow the highest ratio of shots-on-target vs. off-target in the league. And those shots-on-target yielded the highest amount of goals-per-shot in the league. Which is to say they didn’t give up a lot of shots, but the ones that they did give up were easy chances that were met with little resistance by Bravo and Caballero. With Ederson, Benjamin Mendy, Danilo, and Kyle Walker parachuting in to save the day, City should be an absolute juggernaut next season. They have yet to add a third clinical finisher, but the difference at the back should be incredible. We didn’t even get a chance to talk about the little dynamo that is Bernardo Silva, that’s how good this team is. Barring an injury crisis, look for Manchester City to win the league by 10+ points in 2017/18.
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