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Manchester City’s Defence Could Hamper Their Title Challenge

“Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball…” – Xabi Alonso

If I had not mentioned that the above statement was from Xabi, readers can easily get confused and assume that these are Xabi’s former manager – Pep Guardiola’s views. They are pretty similar, although the midfielder definitely put his views out more lucidly.

After the loss to Leicester City, Pep Guardiola also said something to the effect that he does not train Manchester City players in tackling. But that match and the game against Chelsea notwithstanding, has this lack of tackling training held Man City back in any way? That is what we will investigate in this post.

Yes, City Put in Fewer Tackles Than Their Peers

If we order the Premier League table as per the number of tackles, Middlesbrough is top (as of GW 18) with 365 tackles. Manchester City is 13th in the table with just 292, while Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all have tackles between 322 and 327. On a per 90 minute basis, City put in 16.3 tackles, while Liverpool put in 19.1, Chelsea 18.2, and Arsenal 17.9.

City’s peers also have a higher rate of success in tackling. Indeed, the question that led to Guardiola mentioning tackling training (lack of it), was about the fact that Man City had not won a single tackle in the first 35 minutes of the game versus Leicester. City’s tackle success rate is 69%, which is pretty close but still lesser than 70-73% of their peers. Now the higher number of tackles they put in, and a slightly better success  rate means that these teams win the ball from an opponent 2-3 times more than City. For example, Liverpool win 13.9 tackles, compared to City’s 11.3. Not extremely huge, but 2-3 more opportunities for the Reds to take the ball forward, compared to City.

City’s Other Defensive Actions Also Subdued

Manchester City do not just lag their peers in tackles. In terms of other defensive actions such as blocks and interceptions too, they are quite behind the other teams in the league. Manchester City have put in the fewest blocks so far at 28, but then most of their peers have also put in very few blocks. Liverpool are next best at 34 and Chelsea and Arsenal have put in 42 and 43 respectively. All of them are quite far away from 111 and 109 put in by Hull and Burnley respectively. These numbers kind of make sense because blocking is a desperate and reactive defensive action, more suited to teams that play on the back foot.

In terms of interceptions, Man City have put in 244 in total and are 15th in the league, which is topped by West Ham at 345. Among City’s peers, only Man Utd and Arsenal have high numbers – 337 and 329 respectively. Chelsea has 270 interceptions and Liverpool has 188. This combined with the high tackling means that Liverpool’s defense is more proactive in trying to get the ball, but they are not as good in intercepting passes. But for City, the worry is that they seem to be mediocre in both.

In terms of clearances as well, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have fewer clearances than City, who are again 15th with 469 clearances, while Burnley and Man Utd top the league with 640 and 600 clearances. This again tells us that City’s peers (other than Utd), end up with fewer desperate situations that needs hoofing the ball away. Almost 2-3 such fewer desperate situations means that they give fewer opportunities to the opposition. Although in the case of Liverpool, despite giving away the fewest shots, their defense has been quite poor – especially earlier in the first half of the season.

But City do have a slight problem – proactively, they get hold of the ball 2-3 times fewer than their peers and they also give away 2-3 more dangerous opportunities to the opposition. Perhaps their mediocre number in defense are the reason that despite having a great start to the season and being title favorites, they have one fewer clean sheet than Liverpool, whose defense has been much derided throughout the first half of the season.

If They Don’t Defend, How do They Get the Points?

Pep at helm definitely meant that City’s game was going to be about control and possession. Indeed, City has the league highest possession rate of 65%, incidentally followed by Liverpool at 63%. They also have the highest pass success rate at 85%. So it seems that Pep is training them to keep the ball and pass it well but not so much on how to get it back. Essentially, that has been his philosophy at Barcelona and Bayern as well. But the only problem is that in the Premier League, other teams (with equally gifted players) try harder to get the ball from his team, disrupting their passing rhythm more often. This, as he has recently found out, means costly losses and draws.

In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that if City had a less gifted attack, with a similar defensive effort, they would be out of the top four by now. And that would have led even Pep to change his training methods.

Prashant Patel
Prashant Patel
Business analysis is my day trade. Analyzing football is my passion.
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