Pep Guardiola said he didn’t want a “second of sadness” from his Manchester City side after Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Liverpool, but he also acknowledged his side had “missed an opportunity” to take a four-point lead in the title race. And that was surely as it was. xG models vary, but all had City as the victor, some by as much as 0.9 goals. And that is part of the oddity of this City: that dominance speaks of their extreme quality, but the failure to take advantage also hints at vulnerability.
All of this, of course, should be prefaced by saying that City are a great side. So too are Liverpool. These are not just exceptional teams in the context of 2021-22 but in historical terms. City will win the league if they win their final seven games of the season, something that seems entirely possible – after all, they won twice that number in a row at the end of the 2018-19 season to hold Liverpool off. If they do win those seven, they will finish on 95 points. Only four teams in league history have ever got more than that – Liverpool and City twice each in the past four years.
That inevitably adds a sense of the absurd to any talk of weakness. These are not flaws in a way football history has ever previously understood them. These are teams breaking records that have stood for well over a century. (And yes, it is reasonable to point out that, geniuses as Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp are, and brilliant as these players are, the financial structures that have facilitated that level of domination are unhealthy, even if it’s probable that the points tallies of champions will fall back by five or 10 points when they are gone). But still, until there is perfection, there will be quibbles.
City have not had the lower xG in the league since the penultimate game of last season when, with the league won and the Champions League final approaching, they lost 3-2 to Brighton. That is preposterous. That’s 32 league games in a row in which they have been (according to the algorithms) the better side, albeit a handful of them by narrow margins. The rest of the division should perhaps be grateful that they have dropped as many as 19 points in that run – five draws and three defeats. But the obvious question is, why do they drop points at all?
After results that have not quite gone his way, Guardiola often blames issues in the two boxes – a lapse of concentration from a defender, a goalkeeping error, a moment of brilliance from an opponent at one end; a failure to take chances at the other. Missing opportunities, in particular, is a curiously psychological phenomenon – something that is, for now, beyond the scope of algorithms, although modern research does at least accept that confidence is a factor. Miss a string of chances and the self-fulfilling conviction grows that this could be one of those days: for Guardiola’s experience of that see, among others, Barcelona v Internazionale in 2010, Chelsea v Barcelona and Barcelona v Chelsea in 2012, Bayern v Atlético in 2016.
When Raheem Sterling hit that early chance into Alisson’s body, it was possible already to see a narrative unfolding of City profligacy. As it turned out, Kevin De Bruyne put City ahead within 40 seconds and so the significance of the incident was diminished. Gabriel Jesus restored City’s lead with an astonishing finish, but there was also a moment in the second half when he, having cut into the right side of the box and with a teammate on the six-yard line and two more arriving, he dragged his effort into the side netting. Both Sterling and Jesus can at times lack a clinical edge.
And yet Guardiola picked them for what was probably the biggest league game of the season. Both had vital roles to play, making runs in behind Liverpool’s high line, pressing their defence. Sterling made 12 pressures in the final third, more than anybody else in the game apart from Jordan Henderson (and given City had 55% of possession, Liverpool inevitably made more attempts to regain it). Jesus’s role in trying to disrupt Andy Robertson was slightly different; only Bernardo Silva and Trent Alexander-Arnold attempted more tackles.
They are players Guardiola trusts to fulfill his tactical instructions. To say that City need a striker, that they should convert more of their chances, is to miss the point that with an orthodox striker they may not create so many chances because they would not have such control.
And control is critical because, like any side that plays with a high line, City are susceptible to balls played in behind them. Liverpool’s two goals were the result of moments of individual excellence – the first a crossfield pass from Thiago and then, after the initial clearance and Robertson’s cross, an astonishingly deft cushioned pull-back from Alexander-Arnold; and the second from Mohamed Salah’s perfect through-ball. To an extent, there’s not much an opponent can do against that – and yet those are the type of goals City tend to concede, the sort of incidents that keep costing Guardiola in the Champions League.
It’s too easy to say that City would have won with better finishers because better finishers might not have generated the structures that created those chances, and might have allowed Liverpool more chances. The balance is key, and when it has come to a choice Guardiola has always prioritized the wider structure over ruthlessness in the box.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism