“It’s a strange one, it really is a strange one,” Andy Gray told Richard Keys in the beIN Sports studio on Saturday night, and he was right.
Roll the clock back three years and Manchester City had the best defence in the Premier League, conceding just 27 goals during the title-winning 2017-18 season. The following year, Pep Guardiola’s champions successfully defended their crown against a resurgent Liverpool without sacrificing one inch of ground on their core attacking principles and their goals conceded column fell to 23.
Those title-winning campaigns did not only produce the two highest points totals of the Premier League up to that point, but a combined goal difference of +151. City’s 2017-19 champions achieved a level of dominance rarely - perhaps never - seen before in English football, in all aspects of the game.
And this despite “not training tackles”, as Guardiola famously admitted during his first season in Manchester to much incredulity.
Why, then, did that goals conceded column jump up to 35 last season? How is it that City conceded the fewest shots of any top-flight team last term but those shots were, on average, the best quality shots that any team conceded in the league? And why, after just three games at the start of a new campaign, have City already conceded seven times - almost a third of the way to their 2018-19 total?
It is, as Gray says, a strange one. Both he and Keys suggested that the problem is City’s back four itself. “Maybe he’s a coach who just loves to coach positive football and maybe he has another coach who does the back four,” Gray wondered. “I would be surprised if he works an awful lot with the back four defensively.”
And, as you will have seen across social media by now, Keys had a solution. “It can’t be that hard,” he protested. “He can go and watch Roy Hodgson work or he could bring Sam Allardyce in on a temporary basis. Any of these guys have shaped teams defensively, haven’t they?”
Guardiola and Allardyce working together is a genuinely fascinating proposition - a Barclays buddy comedy, with Pep outlining the finer points of juego de posicion across a table in his high-end Catalan restaurant as Sam tells the camarero to bring over another pint of wine - but what Keys’ suggestion misses is that City’s defence is not about the defenders. It is about the team.
It is about pressing from the front and through the midfield, channelling the opposition into areas of the pitch where City have a numerical superiority. It is about cutting off passing lanes, anticipating where each pass will be played and turning the ball over if possible to spring counter-attacks. It is about the player in ‘the Fernandinho role’ - whether that’s still Fernandinho or not - bridging the gap between the back four and the rest of the midfield, ensuring opponents have no space to exploit.
In short, defending is the job of the collective rather than any one part or any one individual.
This was illustrated well by one of Guardiola’s answers during his post-match press conference after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Elland Road. The City manager was invited to explain what makes a contest against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds so difficult and why - for only the fourth time in the league since his arrival at City four years ago - his side had seen less of the ball than their opponents.
Guardiola is not usually one to single out individuals but he name-checked two of his players and located City’s problems at precisely the opposite end of the pitch to Keys and Gray.
“We struggled a little bit to make the first pressing,” he said. “When they had [the ball with] the ‘keeper we were good, but when they had [it with] a central defender, we were a little bit ‘back’ because of the quality of Riyad [Mahrez] and Ferran [Torres]. We struggled a little bit in this way. They did really well but the intensity is not, for example, like when we have Gabriel [Jesus] playing in this position.”
In other words, Guardiola felt that City’s struggles to contain Leeds stemmed from his wingers failing to close down Bielsa’s central defenders when they were in possession. This allowed Leeds to build attacks from the back more easily, putting more pressure on City’s midfield and back four. City have a defined way of playing out of possession, a plan in which every player shares some responsibility, and if one part of it fails then it can prove to be fatal.
Would appointing a defensive coach who has a more rigid interpretation of how to attack and defend to work alongside Guardiola fix that? What would this hybrid team even look like? If it combined a low-lying defence with a high-pressing attack, it would vacate acres of space in the middle of the pitch that opponents like Leeds would be more than happy to exploit. The more traditional methods of coaches like Allardyce and Hodgson cannot simply be stitched onto entirely different systems without there being significant side-effects.
It is all quite similar to Jurgen Klopp and Roy Keane’s argument on Monday Night Football last week, when Klopp fumed at Keane describing Liverpool as sloppy in their 3-1 win over Arsenal. Keane was right that Liverpool’s relentless pressing put them at risk if Arsenal managed to break through, as they did for Alexandre Lacazette’s goal. But that risk which Keane identified as ‘sloppiness’ is an inherent part of Klopp’s system and key reason behind Liverpool’s transformation under his management.
That is the delicate balance that managers like Klopp and Guardiola need to strike. Though City were in perfect equilibrium during the two title-winning campaigns, the scales have tipped. It is not just the back four but the whole of City’s strategy out of possession which has faltered since the start of last season. Guardiola’s job is to rediscover that balance and restore City to their very best, but while adding an Allardyce defence to a Guardiola attack may sound simple, solutions rarely come so easy.
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