Liverpool? No: Why Man City’s Defence Was Better Last Season

Liverpool? No: Why Man City’s Defence Was Better Last Season

Last season, Liverpool were defensively very
impressive. They conceded 22 goals, the fewest in the Premier League, and one less than Manchester
City’s 23. Superficially, with the outstanding Virgil van Dijk at its heart, Alisson at its
base, and two rapidly improving full-backs on the flanks, defence was an area in which
Liverpool could claim to be City’s superior. Expected goals tell a slightly different story,
though. While Manchester City did concede one more goal, their xGA figure was 25.9 compared
to Liverpool’s 30.0. In other words, Liverpool conceded fewer goals
because their goalkeeping performance was superior, or because the opposition’s shooting
was wayward. But purely in terms of not conceding chances, City were better. Their extraordinary
run of just three goals conceded in their final 13 games of last season essentially
won them the league, a spell that included five 1-0 victories.
There are various reasons for City’s defensive record. The most obvious component is their
focus upon possession play – they averaged 64% of the ball last season, 4% more than
any other side. The Spanish obsession with possession is evidently a good defensive tactic.
The performance of the national side during their three international triumphs in 2008,
2010 and 2012 was exceptional – in 10 knockout games, they kept 10 clean sheets.
Guardiola’s coaching philosophy is different; his sides are less cautious. City are excellent
at preventing the opposition from passing the ball into their third of the pitch. On
average, their opponents played fewer than 50 passes per game that ended up in City’s
third of the pitch, the lowest figure in the top flight.
How they rank compared to their top-flight opponents is shown in the bar chart below: That doesn’t quite tell the whole story,
though, because Guardiola’s emphasis upon possession play means City are, in theory,
vulnerable to two types of attack. First, counter-attacks: because City push
so many players into attack, they leave space behind them for opponents to exploit. Second,
set-pieces: because the side is packed with small, creative players, City can find themselves
overpowered when defending dead ball situations. But Guardiola has focused heavily upon making
his side secure in these situations. His experience in Germany altered his coaching
philosophy significantly. During his year-long sabbatical in New York before taking charge
of Bayern, Guardiola spent his time watching the Bundesliga, scouting future opponents
and getting to grips with the nature of the division. His main takeaway was simple: German
sides, compared to Spanish sides, were lightning-quick on the counter-attack. Almost every side could
break from one end to the other within a few seconds, and therefore Guardiola would have
to format his side in a different manner to Barcelona, where his full-backs would relentlessly
scamper forward on the overlap. In response, Guardiola developed his innovative
system of bringing his full-backs inside into narrow positions, becoming temporary central
midfielders when Bayern had possession. It helped, of course, that Philipp Lahm and David
Alaba were technically excellent and had risen through Bayern’s academy as midfielders.
While initial analysis focused upon how their positioning liberated other players – the
midfielders could push higher up the pitch – its greatest benefit was in terms of defensive
transitions. When Bayern lost possession, Guardiola’s back four were close together
in a solid, narrow block, and could re-form the defensive line quickly.
In Manchester, Guardiola has attempted to replicate that approach. Hampered in his first
year by an imbalanced squad, he has now successfully replicated the strategy – albeit with a subtle
change. Benjamin Mendy has often been injured and his most common deputies, Fabian Delph
and Oleksandr Zinchenko, are both natural central midfielders. On the other side, Kyle
Walker lacks the ball-playing skills to play that role. Therefore, whereas at Bayern the
full-backs drifted inside, meaning the side looked like 2-3-2-3, Walker has been used
as a third centre-back rather than a third central midfielder, and the system is 3-2-2-3:
three defenders, and two players shielding them.
(Here’s an example from the 3-1 victory at Southampton in December. This is the usual
way City formed the 3-2 structure last season, with Zinchenko drifting inside from left-back
alongside Fernandinho. That leaves three defenders – Danilo, who was deputising for Walker,
plus Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte.) Because of that solid base, City didn’t
concede a single goal in a counter-attacking situation last season.
If City’s defensive structure in possession can be described as a way of guarding against
opposition attacks, their pressing can be considered an attempt to proactively stop
them. Guardiola has made pressing a central part of his philosophy since his Barcelona
days, and while the identity of various managers – particularly Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio
Pochettino – is more entwined with the tactic, Guardiola still remains the pre-eminent authority
on retrieving the ball in advanced positions. City won possession in the opposition third
on 203 occasions last season, more than any other Premier League side. Their opener against
Fulham in March, scored by Bernardo Silva, was a good example of their proactive pressing,
and how players position themselves intelligently to intercept passes.
When centre-back Maxime Le Marchand passed right to Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Fulham’s right-sided
defender had two obvious passing options – to the central midfielders, Andre-Frank Anguissa
and Tom Cairney. David Silva immediately pressured Fosu-Mensah,
while also cutting off the passing angle into Anguissa. With that option not available,
Fosu-Mensah tried the more ambitious ball, into Cairney. But De Bruyne had pushed up
the pitch, racing to intercept. He found Sergio Aguero, who played the ball onto Bernardo
Silva, racing down the right, who scored. It’s worth emphasising that the two players
who applied pressure and forced the turnover, Silva and De Bruyne, are City’s two creative
midfielders, the type of players traditionally allowed freedom from defensive tasks. Under
Guardiola, however, they are among the hardest-working players in the side.
However, City’s pressing is different from that of Liverpool. Klopp’s pressing is designed
to ensure that the opposition concede possession inside their own third, therefore creating
goalscoring chances. Liverpool want to trick the opposition into playing risky passes inside
their own third. Although City are happy enough to intercept
the ball in advanced positions, they’re more focused on pressing so intensely that
the opposition don’t even try to play their way out, and instead hoof hopeful passes downfield.
For Klopp this isn’t useful, because it denies Liverpool the chance to counter-press
and create a chance. For Guardiola it’s fine, because it allows City to build possession
from deep again. He expects intensity from his attackers. In
the 3-1 victory over Manchester United last August, Riyad Mahrez failed to make a recovery
run after possession was lost and received a prolonged telling-off from Fernandinho.
Almost immediately, Guardiola substituted the Algerian. An intriguing statistic from
last season’s Premier League is that, while City attempted the fewest tackles in the division,
they had the highest tackle success rate. It characterises a key distinction: City’s
defensive patterns aren’t quite as demonstrative, but their function is more efficient.

100 Replies to “Liverpool? No: Why Man City’s Defence Was Better Last Season”

  1. We are delighted to be working with The Athletic. And now, the best way you can support Tifo is to support The Athletic! It's £2.49 per month after a 30 day free trial (that's with 50% off an annual subscription) for the work of some of the best and most experienced journalists in the industry. We're all subscribed here, and it's genuinely brilliant. Intimate access to local clubs, brilliant, big stories. Please sign up here:

  2. Pep Guardiola is so underrated. He receives such dumb criticism and stupid takes from idiot fans and pundits. Usually those fans and pundits are related to teams he's destroyed into oblivion.

  3. Fuckin i dont even care y i gave it the 70th dislike but man city defence was better! Oh no no no no no never ever!?!!!

  4. That Man City defense turns into complete bottle jobs though when they play in the UCL , especially Aymeric Laporte !

  5. This is silly, you could easily make the point that city didn't even need to defend with how they dominated possession, and that liverpool had a better defence because they needed to defend more than city, even though liverpool were forced to defend more than city because they aren't able to control games as well as city, and yet they still conceded less goals than city, and also van dijk is far superior to any of cities defenders, so it seems pretty clear to me that liverpool had the better defence last season.

  6. So this video proves what I've been saying for months now. Alisson was much, much more important than Van Dijk for Liverpool last season

  7. In addition to that, Man City have made great use of the tactical foul under Guardiola. If the opposition manages to remain resilient against City's pressing and get their way into the opposition half, players like Fernandinho have proven to foul intelligently.

  8. Good from Cox and Lee as per, but they deliberately missed one of the most important points — the tactical fouls. Such a dumb omission

  9. One thing was left out – how agressive is City in press.

    When you just look for stats, it seems like CIty is one of cleanest teams in EPL, but that is wrong.

    You have to keep in mind, that Pep side has 64% average possesion, far the best in EPL. And, as we all know, players do not comitt fouls, when they have ball, only when they try to recover ball all fouls are happend, fouls in possesion are super rare.

    And when we give a City opponent their 36% match time, and split that by nuber of average fauls, turns out no side in EPL is so hasty to fould their opponents. More, the 3th player with most avereage fouls per game is Sterling, an offencive player.

    Guardiola is about press high and recover, but has no problem with foul high, and use tactical fouls as an advantege. And that also a part, why City is so good with stopping counter attacks.

  10. That´s why João Cancelo went to City. I Guess Guardiola knows that Benfica academy playes suit is playing style. Grimaldo is the next (La masia player but grow a lot here).

  11. I don't agree. They had 80 % the ball cos the opposition is scared to go at them. That is their defense. They never had alot balls in their pen area. Liverpool's defense was tested alot more often cos they are not based on possession footy like City.

  12. Liverpool and City have the best 11 but if you look at city's bench it's frightening. People say sir Alex was the best prem manager but pep can win 10 titles in a row without doubt. It may happen

  13. If you look closely city do not defend much as the ball is always stuck up top. Hence they don't really need an out and out defender.

  14. Having the highest tackle success rate kinda contradicts the notion (from, shall we say, certain people) that City always foul

  15. I think people say Liverpool’s defense was better in terms of just the back 4 but yeah City defend better as a team and also they have the ball more meaning teams get much fewer chances to string a few passes together

  16. City defence is shit compared to Liverpool but they commit a lot of tactical fouls to stop counter and it is matter of time they are exposed to yellow n red cards.

  17. “liverpool conceeded fewer goals because their goalkeeping performance was superior or because the opposition’s shooting was wayward “
    lost all interest in the rest of the video

  18. Here it is folks; this is why Sane doesn't get the playing time some think he deserves. He does NOT press hard enough to maintain our system. If he changes, he will stay, if he doesn't, then he moves on. It won't be a big loss for City.

  19. " Hampered by an imbalanced side." Poor Pep. 😛

    Maybe I'm cynical, but now UEFA has let them buy as much as they want, break all sorts of recruitment rules, and what we see is a side where players that cost 50mil pounds don't even play.

  20. Unfortunately, this video simply fails to makes its case. There is no meat to the argument that MC is better at defense than Liverpool. It is still a very informative video, going over how MC defends and even how it is different than Klopp's side. But different is not better, without an actual reasoned argument.

    And I think it is worth considering that Guardiola's defense itself has more trouble weathering the press than Liverpool or Tottenham or Chelsea. When they are forced to play long under pressure they usually just lose the ball. Yes, few sides are good enough to press MC, but you only have to achieve this some of the time to throw a wrench in Pepe's game plan.

  21. Laport last season was so underrated, with all the spotlight on VVD Laporte has really gone under the radar, he was always calm on the ball strong into a tackle, rarely made mistakes and scored some really important goals for city.

  22. LOL bullshit video. You wanna know why City are "defensively" good? Check the number of fouls they're allowed to commit. Every time opposition gets the ball, they simply foul them and therefore break their momentum. Refs don't punish fouls in your own half, ever. I'd say it's cheating, but it's really not, it's a loophole in the system.

  23. getting creative players to contribute defensively in such a big way is crucial to success
    not only are the'luxury players' weened out, but passing are identified lanes quickly and they know where the options are to close them off, sometimes even before the player has a chance to make their mind up
    the rare times opposition sides got the ball, they were immediately forced into difficult or non-threatening passes because of this

  24. Would love to see a video about their tactical fouling

    Where do most of their tackles occur? Are they effective in stopping the dangerous counter attacks?

  25. What you guys didn't mention as well was that to kill the counter attack, Man City also tactically foul opponents subtly to also not be carded.

  26. @Tifo What i don’t get with expected goals is If a team adds new players( which most teams will always do generally ) how do they work out expected goals when considering new players coming into the team and their effect?

    If they are using a players stats (which I presume they are) from a different team is all well and good but that doesn’t really mean a huge amount as their stats will be different depending on many factors- teams style of play, teammates, quality of teams playing
    In etc etc etc

  27. If I understand it correctly, Expected goals and expected goals against is calculated by dividing the pitch up into areas and counting out over 'X' matches how many goals/shots there are from that area.

    It seems to me that if those are the metrics, or some more nuanced version of those, you would expect the best defences to exceed XGa, by default, since the dataset includes numbers from the worst defences around and everything between.

    Thats also true of XG, that is: for every shot by Harry Kane or Sergio Aguero that is counted towards the dataset there are 10 shots by Moussa Sissoko or Marouane Fellaini from the same area to bring down the average.

    So I would expect the best defence to be the one that outperforms XGa the most, I.E. be the best at denying the opponent In situations where a average defence will concede.

    Just as Harry Kane will by default be an outlier in the data and should always exceed the XG for his chances

  28. It's not even a stretch to say that if City players were given a yellow card every time they committed a yellow-worthy foul to prevent the counter attack of their opponent that Liverpool would have won the league.

  29. -Titles video 'Why Man City’s Defence Was Better Last Season'
    -Gives one single (narrow) stat where city edge it
    -Ignores everything else
    -Makes 8 minute analysis off of just that.
    Sure, pal, sure.

  30. Pep has built a working machine in Manchester and their pressing without a ball is really impressive as well as their recovery of ball. They are the most entertaining side in Europe to watch.

  31. All of Tifos videos are quality, love binge watching them, would love to see more videos analysing tactics for the bottom ten of the PL or championship

  32. I don't really agree with this, in terms of better defence it's Liverpool, city didn't concede soo many not because of a great defence I mean their defence is good but it's not Liverpool quality, city have a way of demoralising the opponents and making them feel like they are worthless soo much soo that a team is only motivated for a few seconds after that they are not really trying they are already getting butchered…. You can see this when city plays big teams or top six teams.

  33. Hello
    I have a question, how can you deal with a team that is pressing you high for example I saw Arsenal struggling to build up as Burnley were really pressing them in their area.
    I hope you will reply

  34. So despite conceding more goals City still beats Liverpool defensively?
    In that case despite having more points, City did not win the league, maybe Spurs or Liverpool did.

  35. Tactical fouls were 90% of how they stopped chances. Look at the two most important games they played. LFC Game Kompany tactical fouls Salah. Does it again for Madison against Leicester.

    Those are the two best examples but have seen David Silva get 3-4 against (iirc) Leicester and that is Fernandinho's best skill.

    They try to press but if they break out or are too late they make sure they foul.

  36. No mention of city's fouling in the opposition half, definitely part of the tactics to avoid being counter attacked, has it been omitted because it's already been discussed to death or do you think it's not that important to what they do?

  37. in-depth statistics as you usually entertain us with, Tifo. To heard City's defensive capabilities with better successfull rate ahead of Liverpool leading to a huge difference in winning EPL title simply gets me a surprise.

  38. I mean, the goalkeeper IS part of the defence, so why should Alisson's performances be excluded when discussing number of goals conceded.
    Sure there's more risk, but a last minute save is the same as winning the ball before the opposition gets to shoot if both situations are successful. This season I still think Liverpool were superior defensively, but only just. In the long run however, that could very well change.

  39. Any upcoming videos on Everton in the near future? There transfer business was interesting. Loved the vid ?.
    Also, they have had 10 clean sheets in there last 13 games, looks like the consistency has increased for them.

  40. this was, as usual, great and informative. I think a video on the difference/change/adaption of Barca's attack and dominance since the departures of Iniesta and Xavi would be great. Especially, considering how Barca relies more and more on Messi's brilliance; SAF did say that the reason for Barca's dominance earlier was their midfield and not just Messi.

  41. city is too good and so is liverpool I think both need transfer bans and some sanction I am a liverpool fan n all but its changing the meta football I mean tell me how can team lose with 97 points I think there is a thing too good liverpool and city are too good I mean I love liverpool but I loved liverpool not for perfection I loved them because I had emotional attachment I don't see football anymore because o this fact if liverpool won the championship league 3 years ago I would have died o an heart attack but this it too fucking bad

  42. This Video is literally illerevant because in Football the Stats and the end Result counts not if one was better or not its litterly irrelevant.

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