Manchester mismatch? The growing gulf between City and United

While Manchester United’s defence has been under scrutiny, the real gulf between them and Manchester City is in their attacking play. Adam Bate wades through Opta’s advanced metrics to highlight the contrast…

Manchester United’s defence has been one of the stories of the season so far with the foreword to the tale written during a frustrating summer in which the club failed to acquire their desired targets. Their subsequent struggles have only added to the intrigue. Alarmingly, United have kept only one clean sheet in the Premier League this season.

The contrast with Manchester City is stark. But while that feels like a role reversal – the supposedly adventurous Pep Guardiola breaking defensive records while Jose Mourinho sees his side shipping goals – it is the familiar difference in attacking cohesion between their respective teams that is still likely to be the most striking feature of the Manchester derby.


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There are many ways in which the growing gulf between these sides is manifesting itself. And yet, it is perhaps the regular sight of City stroking the ball around with such confidence before cutting through their opponents that so grates with United supporters who long to see such obvious attacking purpose from their own team.

The bald statistics reveal much of the problem. The fact that City have scored 33 goals this season to United’s 19 is a good place to start. In terms of shots from inside the penalty box, it is 156 plays 93. When it comes to what Opta defines as big chances, it is 41 versus 29. In each case, City rank top while United find themselves outside of the top three.

But there is something more fundamental here. It is about style as well as substance. It is not just that City score more goals or even that they have more shots from dangerous positions. What makes Guardiola’s team so attractive to watch – and something that is an ongoing issue for Mourinho – is the way in which his team fashion these openings.

The explanation come by delving into Opta’s advanced metrics for the added detail. It is now possible not just to count the number of passes that a team makes but to group those passes into sequences. For instance, City have had 261 sequences this season that included ten or more passes compared to the 129 that United have had – less than half as many.

Does that matter? There is surely nothing wrong with being a little more direct. Well, that’s true if it works. But the stats also reveal that City make the most progress up the field per sequence of any team. Chelsea and Liverpool are next on the list, while United are down in seventh. Whatever they do when they get the ball, it does not trouble opponents as much.

This point is further underlined by looking even deeper into the data about these sequences. Opta track how many of the passing sequences of 10 passes or more result in either an attempt on goal or a touch of the ball in the opposition penalty area. This metric helps to establish whether this is passing with a purpose or mere sterile domination.

It is here that the effectiveness of City’s approach really becomes apparent in the numbers. Guardiola’s team have had 94 of these so-called ‘build-up attacks’ so far this season. The closest team to them is Chelsea with 51, then Liverpool with 44, Arsenal with 39 and Tottenham with 33. That’s the top five on the list. United have had only 20 such attacks.

Intuitively, this would appear to pass the eye test because United can seem relatively laborious when constructing attacks. The awareness of each other’s movements in the final third is not as evident among their players. That pattern of play work is not so well drilled.

It is certainly not as effective. As well as attempting the fewest passing sequences of the big six teams, United also have the lowest success rate when it comes to converting those sequences into the sort of build-up attacks that end in a shot or reach the opposition box. Predictably, City have by far the best success rate of any of those top teams as well.

Mourinho has spoken of the need to improve in the attacking phase and the difficulty of maintain balance while doing so. Clearly, there are lots of challenges facing him and the defensive problems do need addressing. But if there is one single aspect of United’s game that highlights the difference between them and City it is what they do when in possession.

It is worth acknowledging that this is not a new problem. City were top in all of these aforementioned metrics last season too. United, meanwhile, were down in fifth or six for each and that neither stopped them from finishing second in the Premier League nor did it prevent them from winning the derby at the Etihad Stadium in April.

But it is a clue that the difference between the sides runs deep. It is not just there in the 19 point gap last season and it is unlikely to go away with the signing of a centre-back or a bit more luck in front of goal. United’s attacking play is inferior to all of their rivals – City, in particular. Until that changes, the balance of power is unlikely to shift back in their favour.

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