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October 25, 2018

Guardiola's Manchester City are Breaking the Premier League

By Mike Goodman

We need to talk about just how good Manchester City are. For years, the selling point of the Premier League has been its relative unpredictability. It was hard to know what was going to happen. Each individual season might not have been competitive, but year to year there were always changes. Over the past decade the league has had four different winners. That might not seem diverse, but it’s more varied than most of Europe’s top leagues. That dynamic is gone.

Manchester City won the league last year with 100 points, 19 points clear of the field. This season they’re even better. It’s hard to make clear through numbers exactly how much better they are than everybody else. But let’s start here. Everything they did last year, they’re better at this year. Their expected goals are up from 2.13 to 2.97. Their expected goals conceded are down from 0.66 to 0.51. They’ve gone from taking 17.92 shots per game to taking 22.56. If you were to insist on finding a fly in the ointment it would be that they now allow 6.44 shots per game, up from 6.37. That’s a very small fly.

Their defensive activity has become even more concentrated on pinning opponents not just in their own third, but in their own 18-yard box. They’ve gone from this seemingly perfect defensive pressure map.

To this seemingly impossible one.

On an individual player level the numbers are similarly hard to believe. Pep Guardiola has turned City into an unstoppable fire breathing juggernaut which generates great chances at a rate that’s simply impossible to understand. Players feed off each other and build statistical profiles that you can’t find in the rest of the soccer world.

In the Premier League this season, among players who have logged at least 500 minutes, there are a grand total of seven players who have an expected goals per 90 rate higher than 0.30 and an expected goals assisted rate of over 0.20. Three of those players play for Manchester City. Of the other four two play for Liverpool, Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Eden Hazard appears unsurprisingly for Chelsea, and the only true surprise on the list is Callum Wilson of Bournemouth.

But it’s Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, and the ageless David Silva that really stand out. It’s boring to talk about Silva, I guess. He’s old, he’s been doing this forever. But, I mean, come on.

Sergio Aguero is here to score goals, assist goals, and chew bubble gum. And he’s all out of bubble gum.

Also, Raheem Sterling. It may not be clear that he’s the best attacking player in the Premier League, but it’s definitely not clear that he isn’t.

And these are just the more pure attackers. A quarter of the league’s 20 leading deep progressors of the ball play for City. Fernandinho and Kyle Walker are fourth and fifth in the league with 10.74 and 10.61 deep progressions per 90. Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and, remarkably, David Silva, who seems to do everything, are also in the top 20 in the league.

Scarier still City have done all this while missing maybe their best creative midfielder in Kevin de Bruyne. No outfield player played more minutes than Kevin De Bruyne last season. He led the team in expected assists per 90, open play key passes, open plays passes into the penalty box and was second behind Vincent Kompany in unpressured long balls and trailed only Fernandinho in deep progressions. He was the engine that made City tick last year, both bringing the ball into the final third and creating for his teammates once the ball was there. He’s barely contributed so far this season.

This team is also more versatile than its ever been. As Guardiola continues to customize his squad and mold players into what he wants them to be we’ve seen players develop into more customized roles. Both John Stones and Laporte are now not only deployed as center backs but also as the kind of hybrid half center back, half fullback that Guardiola likes to use to blur the lines between a back three and back four. Stones is additionally slowly but surely being worked into shape as a possible defensive midfield option.

The emergence of Bernardo Silva in year two gives Guardiola yet more options across the front five. Silva can play both on the wing and internally, and combines an ability to score goals with an endless defensive motor. The addition of Riyad Mahrez means that at the very least Sterling can move around the front of the formation and Guardiola has plenty of options on the right wing. With so much depth in attack Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus have ended up being incredibly productive substitutes with game changing ability, rather than regular starters. It’s an unfair amount of depth.

There’s no clever analysis here to bring it home with. There’s no counter-intuitive take to suggest things might change. Manchester City are an unbelievably strong team. They’re the best side the Premier League has seen, possibly ever. They’re currently the best team in Europe. It’s hard to see any way that changes. Guardiola is currently flirting with completely breaking the game of football. The Premier League has a new best team. And for as long as Guardiola stays there, and he has endless resources behind him, it will remain that way. The unpredictability of the Premier League is gone. It’s Guardiola’s league now, everybody else is just hanging on.

Article by Mike Goodman