So far this season Manchester City have played, shall we say, decent football. I hope I won’t spoil it for you by looking at some of their statistics, which are, shall we say, decent as well. In fact, they’re so decently decent that…well, let’s take a decent look.
Last year Man City became the first team since statistics were kept to average over 60% possession over a full season. They finished at 60.9%, a big 2.6% ahead of second-place Liverpool. That gap between first and second was the second-largest gap between adjacent teams in that particular table.
This year so far? They’ve gone from 60.9% to 65.4% possession. Remember, that 60.9% itself was an all-time record. Basically they’ve broken the sound barrier. The gap between first and second, which last year was 2.6%, is now 7.0%. Spurs aren’t even in their rear-view mirror. By the way, the second largest gap between teams in the possession table is 3.8%.
Let’s move on to pass completion percentage. Last year, they topped the table at 85.5%, just the tiniest bit short of the record held by City 2013/14. So far this year they’ve jumped to 89.2%, miles ahead of Arsenal, at 84.1%. If you’re wondering about how big that 5.1% gap is, last year’s biggest gap between adjacent teams was 2.3%.
These are stunning numbers – and here are two more. We know Pep Guardiola likes lots and lots of short passes. Last year Man City totaled 597.6 passes/game and 484.8 successful short passes/game, both league records. Take a deep breath, folks: this year they’re at 720.4 passes/game and 613.5 successful short passes/game.
We’re less than a third of the season in, of course, and these stats could very well moderate a bit. But they’re so far above the norm that even if they drop, they should still easily be records. Most importantly, they show a complete transformation of this Manchester City side. This is a team that is supremely successful, and successful precisely in Pep’s image. Over the years the league has seen plenty of top teams, but it’s never seen a team that plays like this.
Another part of Pep’s philosophy is defence-by-attack. If you have the ball, the other side can’t score, and if you press them effectively when they do get the ball, they’re not much more likely to score. Last year Man City set a league record by allowing only 7.9 shots per game. This year it’s dropped even further, to 6.3 shots allowed. How good is that? Right now Swansea, whose attacking problems have been well-chronicled, are last in shots with 8.0 per game. So Man City turn every team they play into noticeably worse than Swansea, in attack anyway.
On a more reasonable note, there’s also some indication that the defenders are doing their jobs better. Last season City, like Liverpool, gave up a lot of high-percentage shots against teams who could break their press. Opponents finished the season with a high 13.0% conversion rate. This season the opponents’ conversion rate is only 9.9%, which still puts City in the bottom half of the table, but is nonetheless a significant improvement. The side isn’t defending with any more numbers, so unless a large slice of luck is involved, the defenders have improved as well.
Let’s move now to City’s own shooting stats, and what for me is a huge surprise. With all that possession, and all that wonderful passing, City have only slightly increased their shots per game, from 16.7 to 17.6. But their scoring is way way up, from 2.11 goals/game last year to 3.45 now.
This naturally means their conversion rate must be high, and right now it’s at 19.6%, completely off the scale. The highest ever recorded for a full season is 17.1% by (ready?) Aston Villa in 2007/8, under Martin O’Neill. So we can reasonably expect that figure to drop, which is good news for the rest of the league.
However, that leads us to examine whether their conversion rate is so high because they’re getting better shooting opportunities. Using Michael Caley’s expected goals model, City’s average shot last year had an xG of 0.127, quite good. This year so far it’s up to 0.145, outstanding. A jump like that should produce roughly 12 more goals/season from the same number of shots. Even with the better opportunities, the conversion rate is still abnormal, and likely unsustainable. But that should take nothing away from the remarkable jump in chance quality.
Let’s close with my favourite City stat of the season so far: assists, or more precisely, percentage of a team’s goals that include an assist. (Penalties and own goals are excluded.) We usually think of assists as an individual stat, but team assists can tell you a lot about a side’s passing capabilities. To give you an idea of the normal range, last year the worst in that category was Sunderland, with 52.1% of their goals assisted, and the best was Liverpool, at 78.6% of their goals assisted.
As of now, not counting own goals and penalties, Man City have scored 34 goals. How many have been assisted? 33.
Breathtaking. I will leave it to City fans to tell us about the one unassisted goal.