https://www.sportinglife.com – By Jake Osgathorpe
Manchester City’s 4-1 thrashing of champions Liverpool saw them take a stranglehold on the Premier League title race, while also clinching a 14th straight win in all competitions, tying the record for an English top-flight club.
It matched the achievement of only two sides since the inception of the game – Preston’s all-conquering team of 1891/92, and the Arsenal side of 1987/88.
We didn’t quite have to wait 95 years for Pep Guardiola’s men to equal the feat of George Graham’s equally miserly Gunners team, but it’s hard to imagine that in the next 34 a group of players will have a greater opportunity to eclipse it.
An FA Cup fifth-round trip to Sky Bet Championship club Swansea provides Manchester City with that very opportunity.
To have won 14 straight games during a season of unprecedented fixture congestion and unpredictable external circumstances, a campaign characterised by inconsistency and madcap results, is truly phenomenal.
So how have they done it?
How good is Man City’s defence?
While Manchester City have scored 37 times in their 14-game winning streak – an average of 2.64 goals per game – it has undoubtedly been their defensive improvements that have led to this stellar run of form.
During the record equalling run, City have conceded just four goals, keeping a staggering 10 clean sheets.
Let’s not forget that through eight league games this season, the Pep doubters were out in full force, as City languished in the bottom half of the table after winning just three matches, collecting only 12 points.
Since then, they have been incredible, and the improvement coincided with the pairing of Ruben Dias and John Stones at centre-back.
To be fair to Aymeric Laporte, who has been displaced by Stones, City were defending well at the start of the campaign but being unfortunate with results.
In those opening eight games, they won the expected goals (xG) battle in six of them. In fact, the only teams to have beaten them on that basis so far this term have been Leicester and Leeds.
Those early season numbers suggested a good run of form was on its way, but this level of dominance couldn’t have been foreseen.
City allowed an average of 1.28 expected goals against (xGA) across their opening eight league games.
They have allowed a simply staggering 0.53 since.
They have more than halved their defensive process, with almost every other top-flight club allowing at least twice as much xGA per game.
Since Infogol started collecting Premier League xG data in 2014/15, the best season-long defensive process was posted by Guardiola’s Manchester City side of 2018/19, who allowed 0.70 xGA per game.
That puts into perspective the levels this current team are producing at the moment – better than any team over the last six-and-a-half seasons.
Only Chelsea (a stoppage-time consolation goal) and Liverpool (a penalty) have breached this City defence during their 10-game winning run in the Premier League, and only two non-penalty big chances (35%+) have been given up in that period, an issue that plagued them last campaign.
Despite posting the best defensive process in 2019/20 (1.05 xGA per game), City allowed 37 non-pen big chances, an average of 0.98 per game.
This season they have allowed just nine at an average of 0.41.
Last term, 13% of the chances City conceded had an xG value of 0.35 or greater. It’s now 6%.
They are making Ederson’s life a whole lot easier.
How have City coped without De Bruyne?
Manchester City’s defence is undoubtedly the driving force behind their incredible form, and it has allowed their early-season attacking issues to be resolved by easing the pressure on forward players.
In the opening eight games, they were creating chances at rate lower than we had ever seen from a Pep Guardiola team.
City averaged just 1.59 expected goals for (xGF) per game. In their worst attacking season under Pep (2016/17) they still managed 2.14.
Last term, when finishing a distant second to Liverpool, they averaged 2.67 xGF, so the drop off was alarmingly sharp.
However, since their defeat at Tottenham, City have gone from strength to strength in attack, seeing an upward curve in their rolling xGF total.
They’ve averaged 2.31 xGF per game in their last 14 league games, levels we expect to see from a Guardiola side.
The number of chances they are creating on a game-by-game basis has increased as the season has progressed and, unsurprisingly, so has the number of goals they have scored.
In their 10-game winning run in the league they have hit 25 goals. In the 12 games prior, they scored just 18.
They are getting better in attack, even without the talismanic Kevin De Bruyne, who is currently missing, and Sergio Aguero, who they are more accustomed to being without as he has barely featured over the past 18 months.
Taking De Bruyne out of any team would have an impact, but it hasn’t hindered City despite the Belgian averaging a league high 1.01 expected goal involvements (xGI) per 95 minutes (xGI = xG + xA).
Bruno Fernandes (0.95) is his closest challenger, and so the absence of such an important player would likely cripple any team – see Liverpool minus Virgil van Dijk – but Pep has found a way.
He seems to have settled on a solution, and accepted that Aguero cannot be relied upon, by moving away from playing an out-and-out striker.
Opting for the ‘false nine’ approach, one he used to such great effect at Barcelona, has made City more unpredictable than ever in attack.
How do Man City compare to previous years?
Manchester City are on the brink of a sensational, record-breaking achievement, and based on the underlying numbers they could be on track to be Pep’s Guardiola best team since his appointment in 2016.
Their expected goal difference (xGD) per game across their 10-match winning streak in the league stands at +1.77.
The 18/19 title winners – pushed all the way by Liverpool – posted an xGD of +1.70, the highest we have ever seen in a full Premier League season since Infogol started collecting data.
That just puts into perspective the levels this current City team are playing at.
Guardiola has already changed the landscape of English football in five years at the Etihad, breaking Premier League record upon Premier League record.
Biggest title winning margin, most points, most away points, most wins in a season, most away wins in a season, most consecutive league wins, most goals scored and best goal difference – quite the honours board.
City are 90 minutes from something that what would surely top all of those.
And they only have to beat Swansea…