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Manchester City vs. Chelsea, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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When an unstoppable attacking force meets and unbelievable attacking force...

Liverpool FC v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

The Season So Far

Coming off the back of a historic domestic treble, won in awesome fashion after an epochal, absolutely necessary winning streak, few would have predicted that the wheels would have come off Manchester City’s season before the English winter really bites. They were seen as infallible: a perfectly configured winning machine, with the best manager ever at the helm and more money than any other club at their disposal, should they need it — and yet, here we are.

All it has taken is a few long-term injuries — Leroy Sané, Aymeric Laporte, Ederson — and a few sub-par performances — vs Tottenham, Norwich, Wolves and Liverpool — to leave Pep Guardiola and his champions looking like high-class also-rans. Their central defence was horrifically exposed by Norwich, now favourites to finish bottom, and Wolves, who hadn’t looked anywhere near their best this season until they arrived at the Etihad Stadium. If Liverpool win against Crystal Palace on Saturday and Chelsea take something from the Etihad, that really will be curtains for Man City’s title defence, a mere 13 games in.

That’s not to say they’ve been genuinely bad. That’s just not possible. They’ve beaten Watford 8-0 and Brighton 4-0 at home, smashed West Ham 5-0 away and humiliated Atalanta 5-1 in the Champions League. Raheem Sterling has 14 goals in 16 Man City appearances, Sergio Agüero has 13 in 14 and Kevin De Bruyne looks a good bet to break the record for most assists in a Premier League season.

This is still, on its day, the best football team in the world. They’ve just missed a few beats so far, and when the direct competition is flawless that’s all it takes for glory to slip away.

The Season Ahead

It’s no secret that the priority at the Etihad this season is winning the Champions League. It’s the one trophy Man City’s lavish project needs in order to be deemed an unqualified success, and it’s somehow eight years since Guardiola lifted the European Cup for the last time.

As Guardiola’s many detractors on Twitter are all too keen to point out, this is despite having the biggest transfer budgets around for most of the decade, and with domestic success pretty much taken for granted during his time at Bayern Munich. It’s not quite true to say Guardiola needs another Champions League in order to quell doubts about his genius, but the motivation to win one and win it now must be immense.

Even apart from Guardiola, players like Agüero, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne have been among the world’s best in their position for years, and yet club football’s biggest trophy has thus far eluded them. Given their talent and the ambition that comes along with such gifts, they too must be desperate to right that wrong. If it does transpire that a domestic title defence is beyond them so soon in the season, every available resource will be focused on bringing the European Cup to the Etihad.

Tactics

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Strengths

No team has scored more goals in the Premier League this season than Manchester City’s 35, and they’ve actually underperformed against their xG (37.58). No team has averaged more possession (61.1%) or a higher pass completion figure (88.5%). No team has had more shots per game (21.5), more shots on target per game (7.2) or more dribbles per game (13.9). No team has created more chances in open play, from throughballs, from crosses or from set pieces.

Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling are third and fifth respectively in the goalscorers charts, and second and fourth in the Expected Goals chart. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are first and second in the assists chart, and De Bruyne, Sterling and Riyad Mahrez are first, second and fourth in the Expected Assists chart.

On most days, this is an unstoppable attacking force. Indeed, according to Understat’s Expected Points feature, City should be four points clear of Liverpool at the top, not nine behind.

Weaknesses

However, the reality is that Man City are nine points behind the leaders and few are surprised. Their first game of the season saw Spurs take a point from the Etihad without ever playing well; Norwich’s victory owed a lot to good luck in the form of City’s glaring errors at both ends of the pitch, but was nonetheless deserved; Wolves thoroughly outplayed City and could have been out of sight long before they actually were; Liverpool rolled with the punches and asked for more, whereas City hit the mat the first time Liverpool landed a blow.

Of course, with players like Leroy Sané, Aymeric Laporte and Ederson out with long-term injuries, City are far below their best. John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi look shot of confidence and prone to mistakes. Claudio Bravo is not good enough for this team, and Benjamin Mendy isn’t adult enough. The fact that Vincent Kompany wasn’t replaced now looks like a horrific mistake. Fernandinho, David Silva and Agüero have finally started to show their age.

Their worst performance of the season, at home to Wolves, saw City tossing cross after cross after cross into the box, totally out of ideas and totally exposed on the break. If Chelsea can exasperate them the way Wolves did — and it wasn’t the most difficult plan to execute — they can leave Guardiola and company similarly devastated.

Expected XIs

City’s XI will surely pick itself given the number of players out injured or suspended. Bernardo Silva’s absence will be keenly felt as he serves a suspension for his infamous Mendy tweet, but Mahrez is hardly a subpar winger and it isn’t hard to imagine him destroying Emerson or Marcos Alonso. Fernandinho could well be used at the back, but he simply hasn’t looked comfortable there at any point this season and Otamendi and Stones should be picked.

As for Chelsea, Christian Pulisic is the man in form but also the man carrying an injury niggle, so he may have to make do with a place on the bench.

Prediction

Man City are the best team in the world, but every other week they’re playing well below themselves. Chelsea are an unbelievable attacking force with a defence that has given up a stupid amount of shots on goal against quality opposition. 6-5 City?