In January, the 2020/21 season was set to be the most exciting Premier League title race in recent history with only 10 points separating the top 10 teams. Just a month and a half later, Manchester City has blown everyone out of the water by winning their last 13 league games in a row and now a massive 10 points separate 1st from 2nd. Pep Guardiola has completely revamped the way his side play football and the Cityzens have rediscovered their form that won them two back-to-back titles in 2017/18 and 2018/19.
This Manchester City 3.0 have continued to dazzle in front of the goal while also completely shoring up their defence and are well on their way to win their 3rd league title in four years. Today we take a look at what is fuelling City’s title charge and how Pep Guardiola has changed his side’s fortunes.
1. Resurgence of John Stones
John Stones has played in 15 Premier League games this season, winning 14 and drawing the other. In those 15 games, City has kept 12 clean-sheets, conceded only 3 goals and scored 38. Just last summer, Stones was being offered to the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal with his City career stagnating due to injuries and lack of form. Now only 6 months later he is one of the first names on the team-sheet and is in line for a contract extension. Stones has also become the leader of the City defence, barking instructions to team-mates and ensuring they keep their shape. Stones is also integral to the way City play considering he is the best passer in the team and has the highest pass completion rate in the league with 94.4%.
2. Water-tight defence
Last season, after a knee injury to Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City capitulated defensively. They looked vulnerable on the counter-attack and left huge open spaces that could be exploited. This season thanks to the arrival of Ruben Dias, the resurgence of John Stones and a change in the system, they are almost impenetrable. They have conceded only 15 goals this season, and only 4 in their last 17 league games. At this rate, City is expected to concede only 22 goals all season which would make them the third tightest defence in the history of the league behind Arsenal’s 97/98 and Chelsea 04/05 teams.
As you can see from the image above, Guardiola has changed his system to offer more defensive solidity. Instead of building up with the two centre-backs, the left-back (Zinchenko) tucks inside and the right-back (Cancelo) drops into midfield to allow City to build-up using a 3-2 shape. This offers more stability while building up attacks, reduces the space for the opposition to exploit and also allows enough bodies to recover the ball if the attack breaks down. This change in shape has been one of the key ingredients behind City’s defensive superiority in recent weeks.
3. Gundogan the Goal-Scorer
At the start of the season who would have thought that 25 games into the Premier League season Manchester City’s top goal-scorer would be Ilkay Gundogan. The German international has averaged 3 goals a season throughout his career and has never managed more than 6 in a campaign before this one. This season he already has 11 league goals and has become City’s de facto talisman in the absence of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, David Silva and on occasion Kevin De Bruyne. Gundogan has mastered the craft of the late run into the box, finding those tiny pockets of space in the penalty area where he drifts away from defenders and then takes a shot on goal.
In this position here, Gundogan notices the space is in behind the defence so looks to make a run behind Holding and Tierney.
However, as the defence drops off and Mahrez cuts inside, Gundogan drifts away from his markers and finds a pocket of space in the crowded penalty box. Mahrez decides to shoot in this instance but it is a good indicator of the clever movement that Gundogan possesses which has served him well in recent weeks.
4. Cancelo the Creator
One of the key ingredients behind Manchester City’s recent run of form has been the form of Joao Cancelo. As demonstrated earlier, Cancelo does not act like a normal full-back that hugs the touchline. Instead, he drops into centre-midfield as City build out from the back and acts as their quarterback, spreading and distributing the play from deep. In fact, Cancelo has been Manchester City’s second most creative weapon thanks to this tactical shift. The Portuguese ranks 2nd amongst the City squad for key passes and passes into the penalty area and ranks first in the squad for progressive passes and crosses into the penalty box.
Guardiola also gives Cancelo the freedom to roam into attacking midfield as the play develops, and be the extra body in midfield to give City the numerical advantage in attack. This is reflected in the statistics, Cancelo has 595 touches in the attacking third of the pitch, the third most in the City squad.
This City side has broken records this season, and they are doing it by playing their own brand of football. They have the best squad in Europe and are boosted by the likes of Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne returning from injury. In this current form, they look almost impossible to beat, and it wouldn’t be crazy to think that they could win four titles (Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup) by the end of the season.
[Image Credit: Manchester City]