In this piece I will take a look at what makes Manchester City such a good defensive team by looking at the types of recoveries that they make. Comparing games that they have dominated and those they have ‘struggled’ in (used very loosely) suggests there’s a reason why they have looked less clinical in some games, and can identify a potential chink in the City armour.
We all know that City are one of the greatest teams at keeping hold of possession. Pep Guardiola has brought with him and adapted his style of play from Barcelona and Bayern Munich with great success. They are beautiful to watch, passing the ball around the pitch with such patience, precision and ease that it makes you think you could do it watching from the couch. What’s not immediately obvious is the defensive prowess of teams under Guardiola and how they manage this, despite not even training tackling (!).
“I am not a coach for the tackles so I don’t train the tackles.” – Guardiola, Dec 2016
To score a goal, you need to have the ball, and when playing against Manchester City you don’t get the ball for long. This means that you need to make every time you do have the ball count, if you are wasteful then you might not see it again for a while. The problem is that as good as they are in possession, once Manchester City lose the ball they are arguably even better, making it extremely difficult for opposition teams to take advantage.
They have played 14 games this season and only twice have they made less recoveries than their opponents. Considering City are so good with the ball, you may hope that they are at their weakest when they don’t have it. This shows that they are just as good, if not better than most at getting the ball back.
Not only are City at least as good as everyone else at recovering the ball in general, in terms of where they recover the ball, they are by far better than most. Out of 724 total recoveries made so far this season, 231 were made in the opponent’s half (~32%). Whereas only 112/628 recoveries were conceded in City’s half (~18%). This means that City are recovering the ball higher up the pitch more often than against them, which is important since there is less distance to goal and usually fewer defenders the higher up the pitch you win the ball back. Even more astounding is the fact that the minimum number of times City have recovered a ball in the opponent’s half is 11, which was away to Arsenal in the first game of the season. Every game they make at least 11 recoveries in the opponent’s half, the most so far was against Fulham at home (shock) where they made 25 recoveries in Fulham’s half.
Whilst only on four occasions have their opponents recovered possession in the City half more than 11 times. These games were the three away games against fellow top 6 members (Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs) and their only defeat, at home to Lyon in the opening Champions League game.
Out of the 14 games City have played, these four were among those where they looked the least clinical version of themselves. They beat Arsenal 2-0 however arguably should have won by more. The 0-0 draw against Liverpool looked like a game with two teams who didn’t want to lose cancelling each other out, hardly any chances were created in that game. They won 1-0 against Spurs in another game where arguably City should’ve score more. In their 1-2 loss to Lyon with Guardiola in the stands, they met a clinical Lyon side and couldn’t create a big chance all game. In each of these games City didn’t look at their best, and in each of them, their opponents recovered the ball in City’s half as much as City recovered the ball in their half (63 v 54). In the other 10 games, City recovered the ball in the opposition half 168 times and conceded recoveries only 58. That’s only four more than the four least clinical games City had.
Not only does recovering the ball high up the pitch prevent the opposition from getting anywhere near your goal and therefore no chance to score, it also instantly puts you on the front foot and creates better scoring opportunities for your own team. We know that City are such a good team with the ball, however this suggests that many of their great chances probably also come from winning the ball back from teams high up the pitch. It may seem obvious and easier said than done, but if you are able to prevent City from doing this to you or if you are able to recover the ball high up the pitch against them then that looks the best way to disrupt them. Limiting the number of times they recover the ball in your half gives you the chance to move the ball further towards their goal and prevents them from exploiting your defensive transitions.
The players with the most recoveries per start for Manchester City seem to be the players who have played the most this season. This suggests that it’s something Guardiola keeps an eye on and favours in his players. I have counted the number of times a player has made 5+ recoveries in a game compared to how many starts that player has had. The top 3 are Mendy (8 times/9 starts), Fernandinho (12/14) and Laporte (10/14). The games which Mendy missed, Delph (3/4) and Zinchenko (1/1) covered for him and appears to be a recovery gold mine at City’s left side.
Credit to @StatsZone for the graphics and recovery numbers.