Manchester City: Early Season Defending Becoming a Concern

NORWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City reacts prior to the Premier League match between Norwich City and Manchester City at Carrow Road on September 14, 2019 in Norwich, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
NORWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City reacts prior to the Premier League match between Norwich City and Manchester City at Carrow Road on September 14, 2019 in Norwich, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images) /

Manchester City’s defense has been a problem to start the season. What’s going wrong for the team at the back?

It’s safe to say that Manchester City’s defense has left a lot to be desired in their opening handful of games thus far. City’s game at Norwich on Saturday was the perfect encapsulation of a somewhat alarming trend.

Though City have managed to squeak out some favorable results in the early going of this season, things have been much more difficult than they should have been thanks to some shaky defensive moments.

Almost all of the goals that City have conceded thus far this season have come from mistakes made by their defenders, their goalkeeper, or both. Those mistakes have already cost them five points.

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In their season opener in the Community Shield against Liverpool, City conceded an equalizing goal thanks to some poor man-marking on Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip on a set-piece. Van Dijk beat the defense and hit in a well-placed ball which Matip was able to head home from close range. Though Liverpool were sharper in the second half of the game, the actual goal City conceded was quite preventable.

In Manchester City’s 2-2 draw against Tottenham in the second Premier League game of the season, Spurs took advantage of two cheap defensive miscues by the team.

On the opening goal for them, Eric Lamela was able to get into space thanks to a gap that developed in the defensive line due to a miscommunication in City’s pressing and positioning between Oleksander Zinchenko, Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling, and Sergio Aguero. Lamela burst into this gap, ran several yards with the ball before getting challenged, then hit a long-range effort past a poorly positioned Ederson to tie the game at 1-1. Several players were at fault, but none were at fault as much as Ederson was on the opening goal.

For Spurs second, City were burned on a set-piece. Poor marking allowed Lucas Moura, who had literally just come on as a sub just seconds earlier, to get past Kyle Walker and head the ball past Ederson to tie the game at 2-2.

Though VAR was the story after the game, Manchester City’s defending was a major reason why they were in a position to drop points to begin with.

A game later, City conceded a goal to Bournemouth on an excellent free-kick by Harry Wilson just seconds before half-time. However, a clumsy challenge was set them up to concede the chance in the first place.

For as bad as those performances were, though, Manchester City managed to get a result out of those games. Their mistakes were costly, but they weren’t fatal. That changed on Saturday.

City put in what was one of their worst defensive performances under Pep Guardiola’s tenure as manager on Saturday at Norwich. All three goals they conceded were directly related to awful defensive mistakes, both individual and collective.

Norwich City snagged their first goal on set-piece thanks to a thunderous header. City’s marking on the play left much to be desired. However, the worst mistake came from Ederson who was caught completely out of position on the header. It’s the second serious mistake he’s made that’s contributed to a goal against City in the young season.

A few minutes before half-time, Norwich would get another shock goal. Rodri was beat on an aerial ball off a throw-in. The attacker who won the ball was able to head it forward to one of the team’s two forward players. Bad positioning and communication by Nicholas Otamendi, John Stones, and Kyle Walker allowed for a big gap to develop in behind the City back-line. Norwich’s forwards burst into this space and created a virtual two-on-one situation which resulted in an easy tap-in. Norwich had Manchester City on the ropes at two-nil.

City would do well to get a goal just before half-time on a Sergio Aguero header to make the game 2-1. It looked like an opening was there for City to still get a favorable result. That was not to be.

Just a few minutes after half-time, the team had what may have been their worst defensive mishap in several years. John Stones waited too long to play a pass out to Nicholas Otamendi as City were trying to build out from the back. Otamendi was completely steam-rolled for the ball, allowing Norwich to once again create essentially a 2 on 1 situation with their forwards . Stones and Ederson were unable to make up  for the error, and Norwich virtually put the game to bed by making the score 3-1.

Manchester City’s defensive issues are becoming a cause for concern. There’s no doubt that the team is missing Aymeric Laporte who’s set to miss out on several months of the season due to a significant knee injury. However, the team still has more than enough quality to avoid making these unprofessional errors.

City still boast two solid central defenders in John Stones and Nicholas Otamendi. Both are certainly mistake-prone, but they’re capable of being world-class in stretches of games. That hasn’t been the case thus far, and City paid for their mistakes in a big way on Saturday.

Ederson, in particular, has been struggling as well. Though he’s talented enough to be the best keeper in the Premier League, he’s looked far from it to start the year. He’s made two unacceptable errors that have contributed to goals in the games where City have managed to drop points so far.

Most alarming is City’s continuing trend of defending horribly on set-pieces. For as great as this team has been, they’ve conceded way too many easy goals off of set-pieces, especially over the past several months. They’ve been lucky that their mistakes haven’t cost them more points.

There appears to be a lack of chemistry and leadership in the back-line right now. Stones and Otamendi weren’t used very consistently in the second half of last season as Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte became the favored pairing. They’re showing a lack of trust and comfort with each other, and it’s creating issues right now.

The issue of chemistry and communication goes beyond these two too. City’s set-piece breakdowns have been a collective problem, not one that’s just isolated to any specific individuals. It’s something Pep Guardiola needs to get them to sort out.

Manchester City are also struggling with simple mistakes that stem from a lack of concentration and focus. With most of their starters having not played much time (if any) in the pre-season, some mis-steps are to be expected as the team works its way into mid-season form both physically and mentally. However, several of the players at fault for these moments are also prone to doing this at any point in a season. That may be a major concern.

City need to sort out their defensive problems and fast. The team now finds themselves five points back of Liverpool. Though the season is very young, we know from last season just how damaging a poor run of form, no matter how brief, can be. With the form Liverpool are in, City could find themselves facing an nearly insurmountable points gap before the teams even play each other.

Pep Guardiola has his work cut out for him. Getting this team to be as motivated and focused as they’ve been the last two seasons will not be an easy task, especially with City having reached such great heights of success.

Next. . dark

Manchester City will be tested just a few days from now when they take on Shaktar Donetsk on the road in Wednesday in their UEFA Champions League Group Stage opener. We’ll see if they  can fair better under the bright lights in Europe.