Eye on England: Something is seriously wrong at Manchester City

Every Monday, BetaSoccer’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the weekend that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”

MANCHESTER – It seemed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clutching at straws when he claimed on Friday that his is still the “bigger club” in Manchester.

The Glazers have used Manchester United as a personal ATM for much of the 21st century, allowing domestic prominence in the city to be largely subsumed by Manchester City’s lavish nerve center in Beswick. Success had left Old Trafford and taken a short, one-way journey across town.

For 90 minutes on Saturday, though, United did indeed play like the bigger team in a 2-1 win at the Etihad Stadium. City outpassed United – this, after all, is Pep Guardiola’s throng – and created more chances, but they operated more in hope than design. United had purpose; they worked quickly to bypass City’s attack and midfield before infiltrating the huge gaps in the hosts’ backline with crisp, vertical passes. The reigning champions hit the target with just 22% of their shots compared to 64% of United’s efforts.

The derby wasn’t an outlier, either. Something is wrong at City. The rearguard has been picked apart by critics almost as much as it has by opponents – John Stones is a maudlin version of the ambitious, ball-playing defender he was meant to become; Nicolas Otamendi is erratic and unreliable; Angelino was surprisingly signed despite his questionable ability and professionalism – but it’s the level of predictability in the attack that is a genuine surprise.

There were certainly familiar methods in City’s play during the previous two title-winning seasons. Leroy Sane cutting a ball back from the byline was a common precursor to a goal, but there was variety in how they got there: a dink over the top, an individual evading a few pairs of outstretched legs, or decisive, fast passing.

Now, everything is slower. There is an inevitability and bluntness to the attack.

Increasingly, teams defend narrowly against City, which lessens the likelihood of those trademark byline cutbacks and forces them wide, where the resulting crosses are seldom met by one of City’s vertically challenged forwards. And the more they are confused by the lack of inroads through the middle, the more they swing in those desperate, fruitless crosses.

City’s crossing:

Match City crosses Result
vs. Southampton 62 Won 2-1
vs. Manchester United 49 Lost 2-1
@ Norwich 46 Lost 3-2
@ Newcastle 38 Drew 2-2
vs. Wolves 36 Lost 2-0
vs. Tottenham 31 Drew 2-2
@ Liverpool 29 Lost 3-1
@ Crystal Palace 29 Won 2-0
@ Burnley 28 Won 4-1
vs. Aston Villa 23 Won 3-0
vs. Watford 23 Won 8-0
vs. Chelsea 19 Won 2-1
@ Everton 13 Won 3-1
vs. Brighton 13 Won 4-0
@ Bournemouth 10 Won 3-1
@ West Ham 6 Won 5-0

David Silva was already wearing with age, and now, he, like many of his teammates, is lacking confidence. Against United, his bewitching subtlety erred into hesitancy. Raheem Sterling and Angelino are an awkward duet on the left, Kyle Walker’s runs often fall way short of the byline, and left-footed right-wingers Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez are also averse to that route while they habitually shift onto their stronger trotters. Kevin De Bruyne has his work cut out in single-handedly enlivening the unbalanced and stiff attacking ensemble.

City were visibly frustrated during United’s visit but, rather than try to find the antidote for their failings, blamed external factors such as refereeing and David De Gea’s time-wasting. Guardiola’s craftsmen couldn’t blame their tools when they had already fallen out the back of the van.

The match was a contrast between the two clubs. It’s difficult to see which direction City are headed, with their half-hearted press and stuttering attacks. The future for United, on the other hand, has looked increasingly clear in recent weeks with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Daniel James, and Anthony Martial spearheading a youthful attack, and 22-year-old Aaron Wan-Bissaka being imperious at right-back.

In Saturday’s clash, the discernible big-club playing identity belonged to United.

Further thoughts

Alex Livesey / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Slam Dunc

He’s just what Goodison Park needed. Following 18 months of Marco Silva brooding on the touchline, interim boss Duncan Ferguson’s tie bounced around his ears while he jubilantly acknowledged each of Everton’s three goals on Saturday against Chelsea. The locals lapped it up.

Ferguson was a combative striker, one who seemed to delight in performing the dark arts as much as he did scoring – a brawnier Diego Costa, if you like. Evertonians loved him. And the weekend’s 3-1 win was very much in Ferguson’s image as his team completed 36 challenges – under Silva, this season’s average tackles per match was 18.5 – and two-goal striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin used his 6-foot-2 frame in a manner which harked back to his temporary gaffer’s playing pomp.

The three points were earned more through graft than tactical acumen, but it was a promising start in management for one of the Premier League’s great villains.

Eightlifting

The number eight is thus far a theme of Leicester City’s season. The Foxes have won eight consecutive top-flight outings following Sunday’s 4-1 rout of Aston Villa; Jamie Vardy is on an eight-game scoring streak, putting him three matches adrift of his own record from 2015; and there are eight points between Brendan Rodgers’ men and table-topping Liverpool.

Still, nobody seems to consider Leicester as realistic candidates for the title.

“I don’t think anybody expects us to be anywhere near the top,” Rodgers said following the outing in Birmingham, according to Alex Bysouth of BBC Sport.

He added: “After Manchester United won at Manchester City, a caption came up after the game about how far Manchester City are away from Liverpool.”

In many ways, the 2019-20 campaign is similar to Leicester’s victorious 2015-16 season. With the exception of Liverpool, the Premier League’s “big six” appear to be in transition or simply heading in the wrong direction altogether, and the Foxes are taking advantage with their lofty standing.

Fissure forming in the Championship

West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United are pulling away in the Championship’s automatic promotion places. It will be a remarkable achievement for both teams if they reach the Premier League.

Slaven Bilic inherited an aging squad and a bloated wage bill in the offseason, but wise loan swoops (Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana) and bargain buys (Charlie Austin and the excellent Romaine Sawyers) are firing West Brom’s promotion push. Marcelo Bielsa, meanwhile, has spent a pittance during his tenure and had to sell big names last summer, but the youth-team products left behind and band of loanees brought in are keen devotees to the eccentric Argentine’s imaginative tactics.

Top half:

# Team Played Goal difference Points
1 West Brom 20 +21 45
2 Leeds 20 +20 43
3 Fulham 20 +11 35
4 Bristol City 20 +5 35
5 Nottingham Forest 19 +10 33
6 Sheffield Wednesday 20 +9 32
7 Preston 20 +6 31
8 Cardiff 20 +3 31
9 Brentford 20 +14 30
10 Blackburn 20 0 30
11 Swansea 20 0 30
12 Hull 20 +5 29
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