Man City, the juggernaut taking English soccer by storm
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — They’re scoring at a rate not seen in English soccer since the 1890s, in the days when the penalty kick was new to the law book, 2-3-5 formations were the norm and goalkeepers could handle the ball anywhere in their own half.
And their goals are coming from all angles and in all forms — off 54-pass moves, from 30-meter screamers off the underside of the crossbar, off simple crosses from out wide.
Manchester City has been an irresistible attacking force, scoring 29 goals in its first eight games in the Premier League and six goals in its first two games in the Champions League.
The 7-2 win over Stoke on Saturday featured six different scorers and has been widely lauded as an attacking masterclass. One of the goals was even a length-of-the-field effort started with a back-heel by center back Nicolas Otamendi.
City has discovered a cutting edge that was missing so often last season, when it scored 80 goals in 38 games - third highest in the league - and yet manager Pep Guardiola was regularly holding his head in his hands during games as chances were spurned.
Now it is so different. You have to go back to Everton in 1894 for the last English team to have scored so many top-flight league goals by this stage of the season. City has five or more goals on four occasions in the Premier League, has 10 different scorers, and has 17 goals in its last three home games.
In Europe, ahead of Tuesday’s match against Napoli, only three teams have scored more than City in Champions League group play.
“We are almost the same guys as last season,” Guardiola said, “but now we have the feeling we are going to score a goal. Don’t ask me why.”
Yet, Guardiola, a scholar of soccer, will know exactly why. Here are some reasons:
Guardiola places a huge significance on the impact of his full backs in terms of his team’s attacking game plan. Last season, he had four of them (Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta) and all were over 30 years of age and unable to carry out his orders.
The aging quartet left in the summer, replaced with younger, more dynamic players in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo who are able to get up and down the flanks, acting as defenders and wingers. Fabien Delph, a midfielder, has joined the full-back group as a fill-in for the injured Mendy, but has adapted seamlessly.
Tellingly, their presence has had a huge impact on City’s attacking shape, chiefly allowing wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane to come inside more and give the team more numbers in the box to convert chances. Sane and Sterling have 10 league goals between them.
The full backs can also attack on the inside, giving opponents an extra headache and opening up space for City’s wealth of attacking midfielders and playmakers.
The loss of Mendy to knee ligament damage — ruling him out until April — is a huge loss to Guardiola, but it’s not showing at present.
COMPETITION FOR PLACES
The summer signing of Portugal playmaker Bernardo Silva and the return to fitness of center midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has given Guardiola an abundance of options in the five places ahead of the defense and regular midfield anchorman Fernandinho. This is also the first time in years that Sergio Aguero has started a season with genuine competition for the lead striker position, in Gabriel Jesus.
Throw in Sterling, Sane, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne and it might be the most outrageous group of attacking players ever assembled by one team in Premier League history. City’s bench can be as scary to opposition managers as the starting team itself.
As such, Guardiola can afford to bring Jesus off around the hour mark, as he has done a few times this season already. Aguero stayed on the bench in the win over Stoke. Bernardo Silva, one of the stars of the French league last season, is having to settle for second-half cameo appearances.
DE BRUYNE’S ROLE
Guardiola’s decision to deploy De Bruyne in a deeper midfield role is paying off handsomely. The Belgian is dominating games with his vision and timing of the pass, and has arguably been the player of the season in England so far, having scored one goal, set up five others and created 26 chances.
On Monday, Guardiola reiterated that De Bruyne was among the best players in Europe, below Lionel Messi. “The best is just one,” he said, “but he is one of the best.”
De Bruyne’s new role is also getting the best out of central midfield partner David Silva, who is playing just ahead of De Bruyne and given license to go forward more.
Toward the end of last season, Guardiola said City would have challenged for the Premier League title had Gabriel Jesus been available from August and not just from January, as part of the terms of his move from Palmeiras. Jesus also missed 2 1/2 months during the second half of last season because of a broken bone in his foot.
Jesus means so much to Guardiola because of his pressing, his unlikely physicality, and his ability to stretch defenses with his pace. He is only aged 20 and is already the starting striker for Brazil.
City used to rely on Aguero for goals, but no more. In him, Jesus and the galaxy of midfielders, they won’t be short of them this season.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80