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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Manchester City look unstoppable – but here’s why they might not win the Premier League

It has the feel of a foregone conclusion.

Manchester City have won nine games in a row in all competitions, and their last five in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is back from injury and already looking like his old, imperious self, and Erling Haaland has returned, too.

Pep Guardiola’s side could return to the top of the table for the first time since November if they beat Everton on Saturday lunchtime, and many will expect them to be there again at the end of May.

But is it so nailed down? We asked The Athletic’s experts to come up with plausible reasons City may fall short in their pursuit of a fourth straight title… (even if they probably won’t).

City have a curious quirk in defence

It is very difficult to pick a fault with Manchester City, but there is one curious quirk that has cropped up this season. Not once, not five times, but there have been 12 occasions in all competitions where City have conceded from their first shot on target.

It happened again on Monday evening. After 20 minutes, a long ball from Brentford’s Mark Flekken saw Ivan Toney pin Nathan Ake to allow Neal Maupay to run through on goal unchallenged to slot past Ederson.

Neal Maupay exploited a defensive glitch by City (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

City dominate possession and just about every other metric in every game they play. They concede the fewest shots of any Premier League side, just eight per 90 minutes — that is a good thing.

However, the shots that they do concede are of higher quality than the average team, with an xG per shot (the average quality of a given shot) conceded of 0.12 being among the highest of any side this season. For context, Arsenal have the lowest xG per shot conceded (0.08) as well as the second-lowest volume of shots faced per 90 — a combination that adds credence to the argument that Mikel Arteta’s men have the strongest defence in the league.

For City, those numbers make that curious quirk a little less… well, curious. When opponents do catch them on the break or, in the case of Brentford, play direct against them, they can give up some high-quality chances.

It might be clutching at straws a little bit, but if more sides can continue to punish some of City’s generosity at times, it could make the title race a little more interesting.

Mark Carey and Thom Harris

Liverpool’s squad depth is better

Liverpool had a poor weekend — it happens — but the last month has shown them to be a compelling challenger to City this season.

Jurgen Klopp has plenty of options, particularly in attack. Until the Arsenal defeat, Liverpool barely broke stride with Mohamed Salah away at the Africa Cup of Nations and a forward line that can also call upon Diogo Jota, Darwin Nunez, Luis Diaz and Cody Gakpo has returned a combined 36 league goals this season.

Manchester City have their own firepower returning to action, of course, but Liverpool have improving options from front to back. There are the progressive youngsters, such as Curtis Jones, and this season’s unforeseen bonuses, Jarell Quansah and Conor Bradley. Then there are the fit-again veterans, including Andy Robertson and Thiago, returning for the second half of the season.

Liverpool stumbled away to Arsenal but, even with several key personnel missing, they are ticking along at 2.2 points per game with room for improvement. City will have to be very good to overcome those numbers.

Phil Buckingham

Arsenal no longer fear City

Unlike last season, when defeat to Manchester City was automatically built into every points permutation, Arsenal will believe they can win their match at the Etihad on March 31.

Arteta had lost all eight Premier League meetings against Guardiola’s side before this season. An aggregate score of 22-3 over four years — 7-2 across the two fixtures last season — leaves scar tissue.

Arsenal beat Manchester City earlier this season (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

If you don’t believe you can directly beat your biggest rival, that creates an inferiority complex. It is why, despite leading the league for so long last season, the visit to the Etihad last April felt like a slow march towards oblivion.

Arsenal have not looked in awe of City this season and the psychology of beating them twice this season (granted, one was on penalties in the Community Shield) should not be underestimated. It’s a six-pointer that is firmly in play.

Not being as fun to watch may also play into their favour. Teams whose main foundation is their defensive strength are better suited to lasting the pace than those who can burn and fade.

Every game in the run-in last season felt destined to include drama. This season, they may be less sexy but they are also less emotionally unstable.

Declan Rice helps with that, as does William Saliba being in defence rather than Rob Holding. Saliba’s weekend gaffe aside, the calm his presence brings compared to Holding — who started at City last season and who has failed to play a league minute for Crystal Palace this season — is a pretty stark difference.

Jordan Campbell

A trip to Anfield (and the Klopp factor)

Let’s not forget that Liverpool are still masters of their own destiny — despite the defeat to Arsenal that ended their 15-match unbeaten league run.

Yes, City will go a point clear if they win their game in hand but Guardiola’s side have to travel to Anfield on Sunday, March 10.

Jurgen Klopp’s decision to step down at the end of the season should galvanise and inspire Liverpool during the run-in as they seek to end this remarkable era on a high.

They will certainly be riding a wave of emotion when they entertain City next month but they will also have history on their side.

An Anfield bearpit awaits Manchester City next month (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

City’s record at Anfield is appalling. They have won just twice in their last 36 league and cup visits. They haven’t triumphed at Anfield in front of supporters since 2003 when Nicolas Anelka scored twice in a 2-1 victory.

Guardiola’s only win at Anfield during his City tenure was behind closed doors during the pandemic in 2021. With the fans present, he has managed two draws and five defeats.

Beat City, and Liverpool will have the perfect platform to give Klopp the dream farewell he craves.

James Pearce

Arteta’s watertight defence

Arsenal have the tightest defence in the Premier League this season.

They have the joint-most clean sheets in the league (eight) but have also conceded the lowest xG this term both as a total (17.8) and per 90 minutes (0.90).

The only thing holding them back has been themselves, as they rank joint-second-highest in the league for errors leading to goals (five) – a trend that goes back to last season’s title challenge.

This has stopped Arsenal from getting results they have merited, as seen by the fact they also have the highest xG difference in the league (26.8). For context, City are next highest with 22.

Such a stubborn defence being their foundation is encouraging, even if they also need to stop conceding needless goals. That should become more doable with the return of Takehiro Tomiyasu, giving Arteta a more defensive option at full-back if needed.

There is little room for error. Last season, Arsenal lost six games and drew six games. This term, they have already lost four and drawn four.

Art de Roche

Winning four in a row is really hard

Is it too glib to write “City won’t win the title because a lot of football fans don’t want it to happen and sometimes the football gods listen to the silliest prayers”?

Opta’s supercomputer gives Guardiola’s side a 66.2 per cent side of winning the title. The returns of De Bruyne and Haaland restore them to full potency. Liverpool fans will tell you how difficult and demoralising it can be when chasing a City side that simply does not stop.

Only a fool would bet against City winning their fourth Premier League title in four years but for City to earn that unprecedented ‘fourpeat’, they will have to play at an unprecedented level. There is a reason a run of four successive titles has never been achieved — it’s really, really difficult.

As my more intelligent and serious colleagues have explained, City have minor tactical flaws that can be exploited, and both Liverpool and Arsenal are capable of bloodying City’s nose in a one-on-one match-up.

Most people agree that Guardiola’s men still have another gear to reach. But there’s no guarantee that said gear will be enough.

Things only become inevitable when all interested parties treat it that way. City may be beginning to have their ominous glow back, but there’s still a lot of football to be played between now and May 19.

Carl Anka

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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