Manchester City are two games from making history. Beat Manchester United in Saturday’s FA Cup final and Inter Milan in the Champions League final a week later, and they will go down as one of the greatest teams of all time. Those two wins will see them join an elite list of treble-winning clubs. It would probably be the peak of Pep Guardiola’s managerial career – an even greater achievement than the treble he won with Barcelona in 2008-09.
There are plenty of neutrals who will want to see this sensational City side get the recognition they deserve, and go down in history as the 10th team of all time to win the treble. Fair enough.
But then there will also be a good number who will want to see something other than a Manchester City procession in both games. Given how easily they ended Arsenal’s Premier League title chase with a ruthless run of 12 straight wins, before battering Real Madrid in their Champions League semi-final, you’d be a brave person to bet against them sweeping their next two opponents aside.
Is there any chance for United or Inter? Is there any hope of a couple of good games for the neutral? In all honesty, quite possibly not. However, City have shown on a few occasions this season that they aren’t completely infallible.
Here, we’ve taken a look at the lessons that can be learned from other teams who have recently got a result against City to give United and Inter fans – as well as those neutrals hoping for some entertainment – something to cling onto.
Low Block and Counter
Tottenham have had a great deal of success against City in recent seasons, and although former manager Antonio Conte balked at the suggestion that his team used “counterattacks?!?” to beat them at the Etihad in February 2022, it wasn’t exactly as if his team took the game to City. Even the video evidence he provided didn’t entirely disprove Guardiola’s implication that Spurs weren’t interested in playing much football.
But sitting back, letting City have the ball and trying to stop them from getting into dangerous areas by crowding the penalty area is one potential route to success against them, even if it is much, much easier said than done. Many teams have tried and failed to do it before, and there is no guarantee that it will work.
This season, though, Brentford recorded what was the most unlikely result against City according to our supercomputer, which gave City a 80.7% likelihood of winning the game. Thomas Frank set his team up to soak up City pressure and hit them on the break, with their open-play sequences starting an average distance of just 30.8m from their own goal – the second-lowest by any team against City this season and the lowest that Brentford recorded. The only team who played any deeper against City than Brentford was Crystal Palace, who did so at the Etihad and although they lost, they did go 2-0 up before succumbing to a 4-2 defeat.
Brentford went long more or less all game. They didn’t string together a single open-play sequence of 10 or more passes, making use of Ivan Toney’s aerial presence to beat the City press.
Letting City dominate the ball and territory is a very risky game indeed, but it is one that can, if you’re very lucky, bring results. Only Milan (13) have had more shots from counter-attacks in this season’s Champions League than Inter (12), while in the Premier League in 2022-23, United scored more counter-attacking goals (nine) than any other team. Catching City on the break might be their most likely route to goal.
Pick Your Moments to Press
City mistakes in possession are rare, but they have so much of the ball that the odd one is inevitable, and in order to beat them, you have to take advantage. Nobody is mad enough to press City high up the pitch for a full 90 minutes, but when teams press intelligently against them, they sometimes have some joy.
When Tottenham beat City at home in February 2023, they didn’t press City high up the pitch consistently, but they did pick their moments to press wisely. Spurs recorded 14 pressed sequences – defined as a sequence starting in the opposition’s defensive third where the opposition has three or fewer passes, and the sequence ends in their own half – which was their seventh-highest tally in any Premier League game this season. Speaking of taking advantage when City make a mistake, Spurs only managed one shot following a high turnover in that game: Harry Kane’s 15th-minute effort, which brought the only goal of the game in what turned out to be 1-0 win.
There could also be a hint of hope for City’s upcoming opponents in their sloppy passing in games since the title was wrapped, which could potentially hint at dropping concentration levels. Brighton decided to take the game to City last week, with the highest average starting distance of their open-play sequences from their own goal (47.7m) of any team against City this season. They also recorded the most high turnovers (15) and the highest expected goals (2.37) by any team against City in the Premier League this season, and City were arguably lucky to escape with a point.
Brentford then saw the success Brighton had had, and a few days later managed the second-highest start distance from their own goal by any team against City this season (47.5m), the second-most high turnovers (14), and the lowest PPDA (8.9). They went one better than Brighton and picked up a 1-0 win on the final day of the season.
There was less pressure on City in those games as the title was already won, but their upcoming opponents will have to hope that those performances show a slight drop in City’s usually flawless standards with the ball.
Hope For a Drop-off in Intensity
One reason that is often given for Paris Saint-Germain’s struggles in Europe is that they win the Ligue 1 title so early that they find it is difficult to maintain their usual intensity domestically, and then that drop in quality filters through to their European fixtures. There might be a glimmer of hope for Inter and United in that City have appeared to lack their usual intensity in their three games since the Premier League title was won.
They never really had to get out of second gear to beat Chelsea at home, and yet they nearly gifted their opponents a route into the game with some uncharacteristically sloppy passes in midfield. City committed more errors leading to an opposition shot against Chelsea (two) than they had in any Premier League match all season. It isn’t exactly a huge quantity of chances, but either of City’s upcoming final opponents would jump at the chance of benefitting from two such errors.
In the two matches since – the aforementioned games against Brighton and Brentford – City recorded their second- and third-lowest pass success rates in their own half all season, giving the ball away when under pressure surprisingly often. The only game in which they recorded a lower passing accuracy in their own half was in the win at Arsenal in February; a game in which they struggled on the ball, were often forced long and they very easily could have lost.
Set-pieces are probably the only time when City are reduced to mere equals with their opponents, which will be part of the reason they work so hard to avoid those situations. They conceded only 97 corners in the Premier League all season, which was 39 fewer than any other team. Again, it’s about taking your chances against them.
The fact that 28% of their expected goals conceded came from set-pieces this season – the second-highest in the Premier League behind Crystal Palace (31%) – shows just how important they could be for either Inter or United. A third of the goals City conceded in the Premier League in 2022-23 came from set-pieces (11 of 33), and those include a handful from the second or third phase after a set-piece, when the opposition’s centre-backs have stayed forward, such as Rob Holding’s goal for Arsenal at the Etihad and Ethan Pinnock’s winner for Brentford last weekend. Even if City half-clear the first ball in, it’s important to try and make the most of having them back inside their own third.
At corners, City tend to squeeze up after the ball first comes in to try and catch opponents offside – much like they do in open play – which can leave a potential opening for opponents at the back post. They load the space near the front post with bigger players to aim to win the first ball, but if they lose the first contact, they can be left vulnerable at the back post. Kaoru Mitoma’s eventually-disallowed goal for Brighton last week showed as much.
Kelechi Iheanacho also scored a goal for Leicester after winning a loose ball in this space, while Leeds’ Pascal Struijk and Palace’s Joachim Andersen both scored headers against City direct from a corner into the gap left at the back post.
Clearly, Pep has his reasons not to leave a player on the back post, and there will be plenty of occasions that this tactic pays off. But that said, there have also been a few occasions when leaving the back-post space empty has been exposed as a weakness, and that may be something for United or Inter to target.
Hope They Have an Off Day
Arguably just as important as a coherent game plan, a fully-fit team and, well, everything that could possibly go right for your own team going right, you also need City to be way off their best. That might mean Erling Haaland not taking every chance that falls his way, or John Stones not quite playing like a modern-day Franz Beckenbauer, or Kyle Walker tripping over his laces as he runs back to make a clearance. Or any other number of equally unlikely things, really.
But they have had off days before and, despite what their form as they chased down Arsenal suggested, they will have off days again. Whether they do so in either of their next two games is another matter entirely, and in truth, that might be what decides whether they win the treble or not.