Back in September 2020, Manchester City hosted Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium in their second match of the 2020/21 English Premier League Season.
Man City was looking to make amends for last season, which was disappointing by their high standards. However, what ended up happening against Leicester showed zero improvement, as Man City slumped a 2-5 defeat with Jaime Vardy scoring a hat trick. This was the first time in football history that a team managed by Pep Guardiola conceded five goals in a single match.
Despite spending tens of millions in the transfer window, Man City’s defense looked unsure of themselves, reckless and disjointed. The defending champions, Liverpool, had just surged to the top end of the table after beating tough opposition in Leeds United, Chelsea and Arsenal; so it looked like there was no chance for Manchester City to dethrone their new rivals.
Fast forward to February of 2021, and the league table paints a whole different picture. Traveling to Liverpool’s famous Anfield Stadium last Sunday, Man City utterly smashed the home side to pieces, winning 4-1 in a professional and classy performance.
Currently, the Citizens sit atop the Premier League with a five-point lead over second-place Manchester United, seven points above third-place Leicester City, and 10 points above Liverpool in fourth place. Barring a disaster, it seems likely that Man City will be the 2021 Premier League Champions.
So, what exactly happened between now and September? How did Man City go from struggling to keep goals out of their own net to the best in England, maybe even all of Europe?
To understand how Manchester City came this far, one must understand what problems had been plaguing this team. By far, the biggest issue that Man City had was their defense, a problem that has been lingering since early last season. When they won the league in 2018/19, Man City were known for their daunting attack, which saw them regularly beat teams with goals margins as wide three, four or five. However, their defense was very strong as well, especially with the great center-back partnership formed between Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte. From January to May 2019, they only conceded eight goals in the Premier League.
However, plays were not as solid next year in the 2019/20 season, as Vincent Kompany left the club to wind down his career back in Belgium, and Aymeric Laporte struggled heavily with injuries that forced him to miss many matches. Pep and the board decided not to bring in a replacement for Kompany, and his lack of leadership in the backline (coupled with injuries to Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and John Stones) was a recipe for disaster.
In defense, Pep was forced to heavily rely on Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones (who were nowhere near as dependable), Eric Garcia (who had just turned 19 years old) and Fernandinho (whose normal position is not even a defender). With Manchester City’s electric attacking prowess, their defensive frailties could often be swept under the rug, as they would just simply outscore the opposition.
But injuries or poor form to their best attackers—Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling—saw the goals dry up and exposed the defensive dilemmas. In 2018/19, Man City scored 169 goals and conceded just 39 in all competitions. In comparison, they scored 149 and conceded 53 in 2019/20.
Defense quickly became Manchester City’s biggest weakness, and this carried over into this season despite the signing of center-back Nathan Ake. The match against Leicester City this past September was the most blatant example of this. Man City’s attack was decent; they created many chances, but they were not as clinical as usual despite dominating much of the possession. On the other side of the pitch, it was a completely different story; every time Leicester went forward, Man City collapsed. Whether it was players being late to challenges or far too reckless in the box, Leicester took advantage of the chaos and scored five points, three from penalties.
This match was a wake-up call for Pep and his team, and with credit to him and his players, they worked hard to correct it. With the transfer window still open, Pep splashed the cash and bought the center-back Ruben Dias from Benfica for 62 million pounds while the aging Nicolas Otamendi was sold. This would turn out to be a masterful piece of business, as Dias turned out to be one of the most reliable defenders in the Premier League this season.
But the improvement did not stop there. With that Leicester defeat in mind—as well as their shock elimination in last season’s Champions League at the hands of Lyon—Pep focused on enhancing the backline during training. The overall team looks calm and confident, plus the new signings of Dias and Ake have turned out to be some much-needed fixes. Ake offers speed and good decision-making, two things City has been lacking. Dias also brings great leadership qualities and is an all-around wonderful defender, something that has been lacking since Kompany’s departure.
However, the biggest and most surprising improvement was the rebirth of John Stones. The English center-back originally arrived at the Eithad from Everton in 2016 for a hefty fee of 47.5 million pounds due to his high potential as a young player. While there have been glimpses of his great talent, Stones had often drawn much criticism for being too error-prone and unconfident throughout his tenure at Man City. Still young, many thought he just needed more time to develop, but it seemed that last season Pep lost faith in his abilities, as he regularly chose to play Fernandinho, Garcia and Otamendi ahead of Stones. This summer, it was even rumored that Tottenham Hotspur submitted several bids during the transfer window to sign the Englishman.
Whether it be his fighting spirit to stay in Manchester or his desire to earn Pep’s trust, John Stones has truly become a completely different player these few months, finally reaching the potential he was always said to have had. No longer is he suspect to errors nor does he lack confidence; in fact, quite the opposite. Every time he is on the pitch, Man City’s defense is impenetrable. In the 13 Premier League matches Stones has played in, Man City has conceded a grand total of three goals. In fact, in Man City’s only two defeats this season—their 5-2 loss to Leicester and a 2-0 loss to Tottenham—Stones was not in the squad.
Furthermore, following that defeat to Tottenham, Pep began to start Stones, and Man City has gone undefeated. With his outstanding performances in December, he won the Eithad Player of the Month Award (given to Man City’s best player every month) and he also scored his first and second Premier League goals. Stones has been so good that he even benched Laporte, as Pep seems to prefer the center-back pairing of Dias and Stones.
Beyond center-backs, City’s defense has also been very strong this season with the fullback, Joao Cancelo, eventually starting to settle in England following his transfer. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mendy, who has been plagued with injuries in past seasons, looks to finally be getting a consistent run of matches played. In goal, Ederson has been very dependable as usual, while the new backup goalkeeper, American shot-stopper Zack Steffen, looks to be a safe pair of hands as well.
When looking at Manchester City’s record in total, the numbers do not lie. After that loss to Tottenham in November, Man City have won in 14 matches in the Premier League, including a 10-match winning streak since December. They have gone unbeaten as they both entered the fifth round of the FA Cup while also reaching the EFL Cup Final set to be played in April.
The Champions League Group Stage shows the same spirit, if not better, as they won five matches and drew one out of a total of six, topping their group. As for the Premier League, they have scored 43 goals in 22 matches while only conceding 14—the best defensive record in the league and least amount of goals conceded. In fact, this equals the second-best defensive record in Europe’s Top Five Leagues, as Man City is tied with PSG with 14 goals conceded while Atletico Madrid is in first with 12. Atletico Madrid is historically a defensive team, making Man City’s record particularly remarkable.
On the other end of the pitch, things have not been as electrifying. As was mentioned before, Manchester City is a team known for their attacking power, but this year was lackluster compared to seasons past. This is still sustainable at this point of the season, given how overtly strong their defense has been.
When necessary, their attack does show up in the most important moments. Case in point: their 4-1 victory over Liverpool last Sunday, their 3-1 win against Chelsea, the 4-1 win in the EFL Cup against Arsenal, and their entire Champions League campaign so far.
You also have to look at why their attack is not as strong as usual as well. Their main striker and primary goal scorer, Sergio Aguero, has had several terrible injuries, and he has only played four league matches all season. Similarly, Kevin De Bruyne, their best midfielder and playmaker, has had a few major injuries himself. Throughout the season, numerous players contracted COVID-19, forcing them to miss several games before they recovered. In addition, there were minor injuries of fatigue that players picked up due to the congested calendar as a result of the pandemic.
Saying all that, it is only a matter of time before Aguero and De Bruyne come back and the goals start flying in. In the meantime, many players have picked up the slack. The new signing, Ferran Torres, has fit in perfectly with the team. Phil Foden is quickly developing into one of the best attacking midfielders in the league. Ilkay Gundogan is having possibly the best season of his career, scoring 11 goals from midfield, which is already more than double his goal tally from last season.
Overall, Manchester City have come a long way from their crushing 2-5 defeat to Leicester City back in September. Highlighting the major problem of the team—their defense—both Pep Guardiola and his players have worked tirelessly to resolve the issue and have exceeded expectations in doing so. With players like John Stones, Ruben Dias and Ilkay Gundogan in the form of their lives, it looks like only of matter of time before their attack returns to their swaggering best.
With all things said and done, Manchester City are no doubt the best team in England currently, and possibly even in Europe, making them serious contenders for both the Premier League and the Champions League. Will they be able to keep up this fine form for the rest of the season? Only time will tell.