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The evolution of Manchester City

Given their massive expenditures since they were taken over in 2008, most expected City to finally be challenging for the title this season.

In light of the recent transfer window, Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) predicted with 99 % certainty that City would finish among top 3, and following their impressive start of the campaign, Zach Slaton (@the_number_game) give City a 94 % chance of lifting the trophy in May

City’s performances this season are there for everyone to be seen; after 13 games they have won 11 and lost none. On the way they have averaged 3,3 goals per game and are on route of smashing Chelsea’s Premier League record of goals scored in one season.

The question remains however; in what areas have City improved the most under the guidance of Roberto Mancini? How do they compare to who most believe to be their biggest rival this year; Manchester United?

A model for comparing team performance

For our evaluation, we will apply a model (See picture) explaining which on-field activities are influencing overall team performance. We have built the model based on analysis of Opta data. To learn more about the model and the process of developing it, please click here.

The model is especially well suited for explaining differences in attacking performance, and what it takes to create chances from open play. The five factors linked to chances created from open play actually explain as much as 92% of the difference between teams.

The benefit of applying such a model is that it allows us to compare the teams on a limited set of dimensions, which are all proven to be of significant importance for their league performance.

Why are Manchester City currently outperforming Man United?

Although a few will raise their eyebrows over the amount of goals we have estimated City to score, they are on route to smash Chelsea’s record of 103 goals in a season (but still eight goals off Peterborough’s Fourth Division record of 134 goals in 1960-61).

According to Zach Slaton, we can expect a slight decrease in goals per match at the end of the season, but since we are unable to predict the future, we assume that City continue at the same rate for the rest of the season.

As the table above illustrates, City have increased the number of chances created from open play with 49 % compared to last year. According to our model, this has mainly been done by significantly increasing the amount of through balls and successful passes in the final third. Combined with a 48 % increase in conversion rate, these numbers give us a good picture of their dominance so far.

Man United’s figures make an interesting read. Although being down 19 % compared to their successful campaign in 2009/10, they are creating equally as many chances from open play as last season.

This can also be illustrated by our five variables; although increasing the number of successful passes in the final third, Man United are finding it more difficult to penetrate the opposition’s defense than previous years. Instead, they have improved the accuracy of long balls and seem to rely more on individual brilliance to get the opposition out of balance.

United supporters might be pointing at the retired Paul Scholes, but given that for the past two seasons, he only accounted for 4.5 % of the chances created from open play (and only created one chance from set-play), the phenomenon seems to be more complex than the absence of one single player.

Even so, it is difficult for us to support the claims that this year’s United is significantly worse than previous season. They create fewer chances and allow oppositions more opportunities than previously. Still, due to a significant increase in own effectiveness, combined with a dramatic decrease in opposition’s effectiveness, they are on course for a better goal difference compared to last season.

Will David Beckham be right?

Despite their promising start of the campaign, David Beckham recently refused to acknowledge City’s ambitions and claimed they “had no chance lifting the title come May”.

As we have seen, while their Manchester rivals are playing more or less at the same level as last year, City have improved dramatically in most areas. But just how dominating has City been this season?

               *2011/2012 is estimated based on performances after 13 games

Applying our model to compare the attacking performances of the two teams, Manchester City is on course of scoring 43% more goals than Manchester United. To understand why, we must look at both chances created from set play and from open play.

As discussed in a previous post, Opta’s data are unable to explain the on-field activities driving chances created from set play. Still, the 54% difference between the teams goes some way in explaining why they this season are outperforming their rivals. This season’s version of City is actually marginally better than United’s team of 09/10.

City create 21% more chances than United from open play, which with their current conversion rates is estimated to provide City with 30 more goals over a season. The main drivers behind the difference are City managing a 59% better accuracy of their byline crosses, and an astonishing 176% more through balls.

The two teams’ defensive records are more or less at the same level, and what separates them are mainly their offensive records. Though United are, surprisingly, conceding 13 % more chances than the league average the past two seasons, their extremely low defensive conversion rate is what keeps them afloat defensively.  For David Beckham to be right, it is likely that Manchester United need to at least go some way of cancelling out City’s advantage of far more through balls. It is going to be interesting to see if Ferguson will use the upcoming transfer window to make the team more capable of penetrating opposition’s defenses.

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