Guardiola’s City not all just attack and possession – they defend well too

Week 27 has come and gone and Man City have no less of a grip on 1st place than before. They are looking to set all kinds of records if they continue on this pace and when you read the reports all that the punditocracy can talk about is how good they are going forward. They are the best attacking team I have ever seen play football.

Matchday 27 against Leicester City, the team who won the Premier League just two years ago, Man City started without six of their first team players: Mendy, Jesus, Delph, Sane, Stones, and Silva. And they still scored five goals.

But what was most impressive against Leicester City wasn’t that they scored five goals, it’s that they kept Leicester to just two shots! Vardy scored one but Leicester really never threatened Man City. It was a combination of possession, Man City dominated 70-30, but Leicester have been in those kinds of games before and are experts at getting out on the counter and getting shots.

That defensive acumen is what made me predict that they would win the League this year. That was before any summer spending. City didn’t just control possession, they killed off their opponent’s chances to score when they did win the ball back.

Here, possession is just passing. Ok? And City average 727 passes per game. That’s a lot. But Arsenal are 2nd in the League this year in possession/passing and they average 635 passes per game. 66.5% possession for City, 58.8% for Arsenal. But what’s incredible about City is that they have allowed the fewest Big Chances against, just 23. While Arsenal have more than double that number with 48 Big Chances allowed.

City is on the way to break a record for goals scored but they have also conceded the fewest goals, the fewest shots, the fewest big chances, and the fewest shots in prime. That’s why they are walking away with this Premier League title.

Here is the data for the League through week 27 (click to embiggen). I’ve sorted it by Big Chances allowed (big chances that the other team took).

Arsenal still create plenty but as you can see they are nearly as terrible at defending as Crystal Palace, Swansea, and Bournemouth.

As for conversion numbers (click to embiggen):

Arsenal are the 6th worst team in the League in defensive conversion rates. Let’s say that 10% is the baseline* – Burnley and Man U are massively overperforming; Watford, Huddersfield, and Liverpool are underperforming; and then Arsenal are in the sort of second tier of underperformers. It might not seem like much but if Arsenal were just average in defense they would drop from 36 goals conceded to 29. That’s just 7 goals and again doesn’t seem like much but that’s a draw against Stoke, maybe a win over Watford, Bournemouth, and Swansea.

Arsenal’s inflated defensive conversion rates are almost certainly a product of the fact that Arsenal have conceded so many big chances and that Arsenal have the League leading sloppiest defense – conceding 11 goals off 24 errors. Cech leads all players in goals off errors with 4, Bellerin leads all defenders with errors with 4 (only 1 goal conceded), and Granit Xhaka is third in the League in errors (3) but is joint leader of the League in goals from errors with 2.

A 180 degree turnaround in defending is needed to get Arsenal back into the top four. It’s possible (anything is possible!) because typically a lot of teams head into these last 10 games of the season fairly certain of their place in the League and they tend to take their foot off the gas a bit. The problem is that this season seems a bit different because any of the teams from 10th place Bournemouth to 16th place Huddersfield could slip into the relegation zone.

Arsenal didn’t buy any players to address the problems with defense; Arsene Wenger could change Arsenal’s shape and approach to games and maybe make Arsenal more defensive but that seems highly unlikely and difficult to do with 10 games left. So, my prediction for the next five matches is more of the same from Arsenal – sloppy defending, leading to many big chances conceded, leading to frustration and a 6th place finish.

But the difference between Arsenal’s possession and defending and Man City’s possession and defending does show that it’s not all about possession for Pep – he is also getting his team to defend together as a unit, to kill off counters, and preventing the opposition any real chances at goal.


*10% is kind of stats nerd shorthand for average scoring rates. It varies from season to season but typically hangs out around 0.095-0.1.

Sources: Opta for the raw data and my database for everything else


  1. Will repeat it (from last post)… I am more worried about our defence than I am about the midfield. Cech is done, Mustafi isn’t good enough and sadly will never be, and Koscielny is in decline. Bellerin is susceptible to pressing in his own half, and your numbers on errors don’t surprise me.

    City don’t have any weaknesses, and their EPL form is ridiculous. Still, I think they can be got at. Both Arsenal and Newscastle were asking them questions until they got assistance from match officials. But that doesn’t take away from the fact hat they’re an awesome and dominating team, and one of the best ever to grace the EPL.

    Best attacking team you’ve seen? Hey, these things are subjective, but Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Ronaldinho et al beg to disagree.

    1. Yeah, I kinda sorta agree about the relative seriousness of our defense and midfield problems. For a long time it was about the deep midfield, but recently our best defensive players have so declined (other than Nacho, though he had a subpar season last year, it should be remembered) that that’s gotta be where we invest the majority of resources in the summer.

      Huge investment in a thoroughbred keeper and one thoroughbred CB are crucial, I think, plus cheaper purchases for backups (at least) at both fullback positions.

      Why I might still disagree is that I suspect deep midfield is the single most important area of the pitch to get right, if you want to be consistently good at the elite level. So, e.g., given the choice in the summer between buying a top class youngish CB, or a top class youngish “elegant beast” at DM, I’d still probably take the latter, with the hope/expectation that doing so would also greatly improve our backline.

      But I agree that, when you look at the return to form of Ramsey and Jack, the arrival of Micki (and the potential to eventually turn him into another Cazorla), the potential of, not just AMN, but other youngsters like Willock and the Jeff (who’s been held back by injuries but could still come good), plus the fact that Elneny and Xhaka are far from being *entirely* useless, and we look much better equipped in that area than in defense, where our best players are all old, and I’d argue that none of the youngsters look as likely to become top class players as do their midfield counterparts.

      1. Or maybe I should put that as a question:
        Personally, I think I’d rather spend big to bring in, e.g., Oblak and Fabinho, and then get someone like Evans on the relative cheap to partner either Kos or Mustafi and provide leadership and composure (I rate him but know many don’t; if not, insert your preferred equivalent here), rather than skimping on either keeper or DM position in favor of a super expensive CB (though if we hadn’t sold Chesney, this question would be academic!)–but what do others think?

      2. (Incidentally, this problem exposes the foolishness of Wenger’s conservatism in the transfer market over the last 6 years or so (e.g. summer of 2015); sure we’ve spent a good chunk of cash bringing quite a few players in, but they’ve rarely been really expensive purchases of absolutely top, top drawer talent that immediately displaces good with great in our first 11 (e.g. the reluctance to buy a world class DM in 2015/16 because we had “unearthed” Coquelin). The problem is that, in his reluctance to be ruthless with parts of his squad/team that were good but not quite good enough to compete for the PL/CL, we wasted the best years, not just of Ozil and Sanchez, but also of a very solid backline: the Per/Kos partnership really was excellent in its prime, better than the sum of its parts, and with Cech/Chesney in goal, Nacho and Sagna/young Bellerin at fullbacks, that was good enough to challenge for the PL (as the stats from those years would suggest). Yeah, it was hardly Baresi-Maldini-Costacurta good, but it was very solid, and any weaknesses were more about our style leaving us defensively exposed than about glaring individual errors. But we didn’t upgrade in central midfield or at center forward, and now, even as we’ve finally addressed (some of) those problems, our whole backline is now old and shambolic. Moral of the story: you gotta spend while the spending’s good!)

      3. I agree with all those points. Particularly the one about deep misfield being arguably the single most important position.

        But the biggest crisis right now is our back 5, for the reasons given. I think that Jack put it well (although I don’t share his grump about AMN)

    2. Pedant alert, but Ronaldinho was never pert of any club’s offensive output worth mentioning, as great a player as he was . Top five ever for me.

      The Barca years after Pep got rid of him were truly something special though, but when we are talking about the best attacking team based on numbers alone
      ( which can’t be subjective ), it has to be Mourinho’s RM of 2011-12.
      100 points won, 121 goals scored, 89 gd.

      When we are talking posible trophies won , goals scored , points won and goals conceded, City might yet make it the best ever and considering it’s the PL they are doing it in , I would have to agree with Tim on this one.

      1. “Possible” trophies won? What on earth is that? Prem yes, no one’s gonna catch them. But you can at least wait for May before crowning them champions of Europe?

        1. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. No one is crowning them champions of Europe.
          I gave the example of RM for the most offense oriented output in a single season but their record breaking season suffered because of their single law liga title that year.

          If City can win more than the PL title , and posibly the domestic treble, then even without the CL their season will have been way more successful than that of 2011-12 RM , should they fail to amass 100 points and 121 goals.
          That’s all.

          1. If.

            Let’s await the winning of the trophies before awarding them to them.

            I know you heart Pep big time, but still…

          2. “I know you heart Pep big time, but still…”

            Yet It was you who gave examples of Pep’s better achievements than his current City squad ( albeit without actually giving any credit to him , and all the credit to his Barca players),
            whilst I ( the self admitted Guardiola fan) gave Mourinho and his RM squad their dues.
            Even though I can’t stomach the guy.

  2. Pep learned in the Bundesliga how to structure a possession game so that his teams were less susceptible to counter-attacks which is the bane of most possession-first teams. The feature where he brings his fullbacks in to the centre and not pushing down the flanks was developed at Bayern.

    It is amazing what manager who is willing to learn and adapt can do. Wonder where we can get one of those?

    We’re a mess defensively. Should never have sold Szcesny. Bellerin is probably off this summer to Barcelona. Mustafi is definitely gone, he wanted out last summer. Koscielny will probably play in the World Cup and be crocked until October if not longer. Holding and Chambers get no game time and no coaching. Monreal is on the wrong side of 30. Mertesacker an established good pro is retiring. And we have no defensive midfielder on the roster aside from the mysterious AMN that everyone pours their unfounded hopes into because we haven’t seen enough of him yet in the middle to know if he can or cannot do the job.

    And 3 at the back or 4 at the back?

    Holy f**k it’s going to get ugly before it gets better.

  3. Pep understands that good transition defense starts when a team has the ball by not overcommitting and pushing too many players into the attacking third. Keeping the fullbacks deep and tucked in is one way he maintains balance. He’ll also push both fullbacks high and wide but keep two central midfielders deeper. The point is that he’s cognizant of keeping enough players deep such that there aren’t massive spaces opposition players can run into and exploit His players understand that they must rotate and maintain balance of formation as other players push forward. And he gets his players to counterpress immediately and aggressively following a loss of possession. Regaining possession immediately is the ultimate reward of counter pressing but even if you don’t win the ball back you can delay a counter attack, thereby allowing your team to regain defensive shape. Two fairly simple tenets of modern football which Wenger seems unable to grasp.

  4. Fernandinho is City’s most underrated player and a linchpin of their midfield.
    He gives KDB and Gundogan the freedom to roam about and create.

    Rangy , hard nose when need be but tachnical enough and extremely versital.

    Can you imagine Pogba, Ramsey or Xhaka play a CB position ?

    I know I’m alone on this one around here, but Fernandinho and Walker are City’s best defenders even though Otamendi is having a stellar season.

    If I’m playing left wing in the PL , Walker is the stuff of nightmares for me.

  5. buying players isn’t always the answer. the question is what does wenger ask of the players he has? also, do they understand what he wants and how he wants it?

    when most of the u.s. based contingent here were kids, there was a show that came on during saturday morning cartoons called ‘school house rock’. the motto for the show was ‘knowledge is power’. the arsenal players don’t seem to have the knowledge that would empower them to do what wenger wants. they seem rudderless and without direction. if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter who wenger buys.

    whenever arsenal have played with consistency, it’s been when the player in the 6 position has been mature enough to provide leadership and direction on the pitch. gilberto to flamini to arteta to cazorla. whenever those players were fit and playing, arsenal looked like a contender. without them, arsenal struggled with consistency. people highlight gilberto being a wall, flamini’s energy, or cazorla’s brilliance with the ball but it was their intelligence and direction that gave arsenal solidarity. to highlight the contribution of fernandinho is appropriate because those city defenders are not that good. equally appropriate is the fact that pep also played in the 6 spot and, as a coach, always provides clear direction to his team without micro-managing them.

  6. Oh btw, for all those writing off Lacazette and calling him a “French Jermaine Defoe”, Arseblog has this corrective.

    Get well soon, pal. And forget the Spurs misses. You’ll be needed. Hopefully it’s not 6 weeks in Arsenal weeks.

  7. $h*ty are very good, obviously, but Leicester was without Kante and Drinkwater, who now reside and Chelsea, and Morgan was out-Leicester are not the same team as when they won the EPL.
    $h*ty have also spent close to 1 billion dollars, yes that much, which is in direct relation to EPL position at the end of the year.
    Mustafi needs another partner who is physical and fast, he is not on the German national side for nothing. Cech needs to be replaced, we had him, his name was Szcz, and need a true DM in the mold of a guy who Tom said “Fernandinho is City’s most underrated player”
    Also, I believe AMN has a spot somewhere in the starting lineup.
    Do not anoint $h*ty the greatest ever just yet….

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