Monday, September 26, 2022

Erling Haaland’s Manchester City goals shouldn’t overshadow defensive improvements from Pep Guardiola’s side

To win a league title, a team must constantly be reinventing themselves and that has been a hallmark of Manchester City. While Erling Haaland is rightfully claiming the headlines for himself on his way to scoring in the seven straight games, collecting his 14th goal in all competitions during a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Wolverhampton, City’s clean sheet is also an important stat from the match.

Closing out August, City allowed five goals across two matches while drawing against Newcastle and defeating Crystal Palace. Injuries were mounting for Pep Guardiola with his preferred central pairing of Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias unavailable. John Stones and Nathan Ake might be useful squad players but they became a liability in central defense as a starting duo and with the summer departure of Fernandinho, Guardiola no longer had the security blanket of moving his trusted defensive midfielder to center back when things weren’t going well.

This is where being nimble comes into play. While swift moves in the transfer market are easier for a club with Manchester City’s financial muscle, all too often the richest clubs get tunnel vision, bidding more and more for a single player, rather than finding acceptable alternative options. City were able to add Manuel Akanji from Borussia Dortmund while also not sending Sergio Gomez on loan after his arrival from Anderlecht. Gomez himself was acquired after City declined to get in a bidding war with Chelsea for Marc Cucurella, the left back who ultimately moved to London from Brighton. Given that Kyle Walker has also missed matches for City and Dias has not been available as much as expected, these two additions have proven to be critical to City.

Since Akanji’s debut, City have only allowed one goal during his three starts in all competitions. That’s compared to allowing six goals in the six matches before he entered the lineup. It hasn’t all been down to what Akanji has been doing on the pitch although he has been in the right spots when needed, but more that it has allowed Guardiola to have the freedom to be more creative with his lineups. Stones has started two consecutive matches at right back to allow the team to shift into a back three seamlessly when left back Joao Cancelo stays forward, and even went into midfield during the victory against Wolves when Gomez came on.

After the match, Guardiola had high praise of Akanji saying, “[he has been] More than exceptional. So aggressive but then had the tempo to control the situation. From day one, we thought ‘we got it’.”

City have also been able to play Ake less, which is a good thing since he’s been a liability at both left and center back. Limiting his minutes to cup matches will allow Guardiola to rotate his squad and conserve some minutes for his first choice players while not hurting the team in a tight title race. With Arsenal and Spurs improving, there isn’t much room for error atop the Premier League for Manchester City and Liverpool, despite their early season struggles, are more than likely also going to make a run before long. 

The Citizens should be favored for the title, but the core reason for that is due to identifying issues quickly and resolving them before they can hurt the team. The defense and team depth were set to be the team’s Achilles heel but heading into the September international break, those are a thing of the past. There is still work to be done as Arsenal and Spurs have a game in hand on City but as long as the team returns from international duty in good health, things are looking quite good.

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