After their 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa, Manchester City’s Premier League title chances have fallen even further according to the Opta supercomputer. We look at how far, and why.
Up is down, east is west, everyone wears hats on their feet and hamburgers eat people. That’s how it feels to be in a world where Manchester City are the Premier League’s current crisis club, but here we are.
Fair enough, “crisis” is quite a strong word to use about a run that has only included one defeat in four games against difficult opponents, but in what is already promising to be one of the great Premier League title races, this period could be significant.
Man City’s 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa on Wednesday made it four games without a win for Pep Guardiola’s defending champions in the league, having previously drawn with Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. It is their longest run without a league victory under Guardiola since March-April 2017 (also four games).
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss did not seem too concerned after the dramatic 3-3 home draw with Spurs, saying in his pre-Villa news conference: “My feeling today is we’re going to win the Premier League… If we play at the levels that we showed against Liverpool and Tottenham, we’re going to win it again. People don’t believe it already after three draws but we feel we’re going to do it again, knowing that it is not easy because no team has [won four titles in a row in England’s top flight] yet.”
He wasn’t quite as defiant after the loss to Unai Emery’s impressive Villa side, though, saying: “As a manager, I have to find the way to lift them again and find the way to win games. Now, we’re struggling a bit.”
City certainly did struggle in the Midlands, with an uncharacteristically ineffective showing. The visitors attempted just two shots, both of which came in the 11th minute from Erling Haaland, who was denied twice by World Cup-winning goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. It is the fewest shots a Guardiola team has ever attempted in a game in Europe’s big-five leagues.
On top of that, the 22 shots attempted by Villa was the joint-most faced by a Guardiola team in his 535 games as a manager, and the most since his Barcelona side faced the same number away to Atlético Madrid in March 2009.
“But Opta Analyst, what does the almighty supercomputer have to say about all this?”
We heard you and were also curious, so we fired it up to check.
At the start of the season, City were understandably heavy favourites to retain their crown. They went into the campaign with a 90.2% chance according to the Opta supercomputer, which rose to 91.3% after the first four games following a flawless start, while title rivals dropped early points.
Back-to-back defeats to Wolves and Arsenal saw their probability drop to 73.4% after eight games, but wins over Brighton, Manchester United and a 6-1 thrashing of Bournemouth before the 4-4 draw at Chelsea took it back up to 84.3% prior to hosting Liverpool.
Now, after collecting just three points in four games while Arsenal, Liverpool and Villa have overtaken them in the table, City find themselves with their lowest probability of the season of retaining their title. As of 8 December, the Opta supercomputer gives them a 44.7% chance.
That still makes them pretty strong favourites, it must be said, lifting the Premier League trophy 18.3% more often than Arsenal in the 10,000 supercomputer simulations, but the chasing pack are creeping up on them.
Arsenal now have a 26.4% likelihood after Declan Rice’s 97th-minute winner in the 4-3 victory at Luton Town on Tuesday, while Liverpool are just behind them on 26.2% following their 2-0 win at Sheffield United. Villa have just a 2.2% chance, primarily due to history being taken into account by the supercomputer, but Emery’s in-form side are showing they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Is this just a bump in the road for Manchester City, or something more concerning for them that can give their rivals further hope?
Kevin De Bruyne missing through injury since the opening game of the season has been a huge blow, but the elephant in the room as far as Wednesday’s defeat goes has to be the absence of Rodri.
The Spain midfielder has missed three Premier League games this season through suspension, which just so happen to be the only three games City have lost (vs Wolves, Arsenal and Aston Villa).
In fact, looking at their record with and without Rodri since the start of the 2022-23 season in all competitions, City have a win percentage of 72% with him (53 from 74 games), which drops to 50% without (five from 10). More notable though is that they have lost five of their 10 games without him in the team, which is just one shy of the six losses in 74 games with him.
It would be silly to call City a one-man team, but in Rodri they clearly have someone who makes a significant difference to their effectiveness, and his availability will be absolutely crucial if Guardiola’s men are to become the first team in English top-flight history to win four consecutive titles.
The losses to Arsenal and Villa saw City attempt just four and two shots respectively, two of the three fewest from a Guardiola team in Europe’s big five leagues. The fourth fewest was the five attempts against Manchester United in January, meaning three of the four have happened in this calendar year. The Arsenal and Villa defeats also saw them record their lowest number of passes in games this season (521 and 520 respectively).
Of course, Man City have also won a treble in this calendar year. If there are any underlying issues with the team, they’ve been masking it quite well by winning almost every trophy going.
Another record Aston Villa set against a Guardiola team, in the Premier League anyway, was the 13 times they won possession in City’s final third at Villa Park. Since Guardiola arrived in England in 2016, City had not lost the ball in their defensive third more than 11 times in a match, their 1-0 defeat at Brentford on the final day of last season when Rodri was again absent. Joint-third most with 10 was the game prior to that, a 1-1 draw at Brighton in which Rodri played as a centre-back.
It also must be remembered how much talent Man City lost over the summer. Ilkay Gündogan and Riyad Mahrez played crucial roles in last season’s treble success, making a combined 101 appearances, scoring 26 goals and recording 19 assists between them, while Cole Palmer has shown his usefulness at Chelsea already, arguably in an area where City are now missing something.
New players have arrived, with Jérémy Doku in particular impressive already, but injuries haven’t helped Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacić, while Josko Gvardiol still looks like he’s getting to grips with what is being asked of him.
Perhaps teams are starting to become braver against City. They are conceding more shots per game than any recent Premier League season; after the Villa defeat, City are facing an average of 8.5 shots per game, more than any other campaign with Guardiola as manager.
Their expected goals (xG) against per game is also up there with Guardiola’s less successful seasons in England. After 15 games, City are averaging 0.97 xG against in the Premier League, their most since the 2019-20 season (0.99), the last time they didn’t win the title.
A surprising lack of squad depth has been exposed in recent weeks, with City’s bench often looking more like a nursery than an arsenal of options for Guardiola to turn to. Oscar Bobb is a very talented young player, and not just a hairstyle choice for attending a movie awards ceremony, but the Norway international has also somewhat unfairly become the poster boy for City’s lack of experienced options off the bench.
Guardiola made just two substitutes against Chelsea, none against Liverpool, four against Spurs and three against Villa. Being able to regularly change and rotate players is what allowed City to manage their way through three competitions so well last season, but questions will be asked about how much petrol is in the tank this time if the manager doesn’t feel he can utilise his bench as much as possible.
Now sitting in fourth on 30 points through 15 games, only three times in their previous 12 campaigns have City had fewer points at this stage (29 points in 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2020-21). It must be mentioned, though, that they went on to win the title in two of those three seasons.
None of this is to suggest City are doomed. Far from it; they have a good opportunity to dust themselves off and put some more wins together over the busy Christmas period. Their four Premier League games before the turn of the year see them face teams currently in the bottom seven, coming up against Luton (A), Crystal Palace (H), Everton (A) and Sheffield United (H). They will have the distraction of the FIFA Club World Cup in between, though, and will be hoping their rivals haven’t opened up too much of a lead by the time they come back from Saudi Arabia.
As Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp put it on Wednesday night: “If somebody would write City off, that would be the biggest joke in the history of football.”
They remain big favourites for the title, and many would believe you if you said they will go on to win 15 games or more in a row from this point.
Manchester City’s rivals will be sensing blood right now, though, and it could make for one of the best title races we have seen in years.
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