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What would it take to stop Man City?
They're very likely to win the title. What if they didn't?
Just about everyone who’s anyone expects Manchester City to win the Premier League again.
The bookies all have City as overwhelming favourites, with an implied probability of around 75-80% to win the title. Intuitively, that feels about right to me. City are clearly the best team in the league, and the one side I thought could have challenged them have had a terrible start to the season.
But we’re not here to talk about the 75-80% where they win the title today. We’re here to talk about the remaining 20-25% of the time where things go wrong, and where some other club lifts the Premier League trophy in May. How do we get there? What has to happen? What are the main risks?
I should stress that this is not what I expect to happen. This is a worst-case scenario. Man City fans, I expect your team will win the title pretty comfortably in the end. I don’t think any of these points are particularly likely. With that out of the way, let’s look at the central risks to Pep Guardiola’s team sealing another league win.
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1. They haven’t been tested yet
Here are the opponents that Man City have faced so far in the league:
West Ham (away)
Crystal Palace (home)
Nottingham Forest (home)
Aston Villa (away)
It’s not exactly the Super League, is it?
FiveThirtyEight’s “Soccer Power Index” gives those opponents an average score of 65.9, which would rank as the 15th best side in England. The other 12 teams they haven’t yet faced, however, have an average SPI of 73.0, which would rank as the eighth-best team in the Premier League. The clubs they haven’t played yet are clearly better than those they have. We can see it in the data, but it’s evident from just glancing at the fact they haven’t played any of the other top six sides yet.
The obvious retort is that they’ve beaten Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. But Sevilla have been, to use the technical term, shite this season, and thus not a huge step up in quality over their Premier League fixtures. Dortmund, meanwhile, were an even match for City in terms of xG and performance, with Guardiola’s side scraping past them through a moment of brilliance from Erling Haaland and João Cancelo. There hasn’t been a signature performance to truly dominate a good team.1
Things will get a bit tougher after this international break, but not dramatically so. City were supposed to play Tottenham on the weekend when fixtures were postponed due to the Queen’s death. They were also set to play Arsenal next month, but that match has also been delayed until after the World Cup. When the club season pauses in November, City will have still only played two of the other top six. Yes, they’ve been very good so far, but against a favourable schedule. The second half of the season should be more difficult.
2. Can Erling Haaland keep this up?
City have heavily reorientated their attack around the star Norwegian. Haaland has currently created or provided 46% of all City’s xG in the league. The squad is starting to be reshaped in his favour. Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, two attacking options who both prefer to take chances on themselves rather than create for others, were sold to emphasise surrounding their new goal machine with technical playmakers. Guardiola drew raised eyebrows last season when he said City didn’t sign Jack Grealish for goals. But when you’ve got Haaland doing what he’s doing, you need the ball progression Grealish and others provide more than another goalscorer.
The injury risk exists. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged 11 games (all competitions) missed through injury. So far, he’s shown absolutely no signs of looking like he’ll have a spell on the sidelines soon. We’re seeing Haaland at full fitness. That doesn’t mean it will last forever. Again, I’m not saying I expect this to happen, but for City to fail to win the league, he probably needs to find himself injured at some point.
In that scenario, how is the attack reshaped? Does Julián Álvarez do his best Haaland impression and the team goes on as usual? Do they revert to the false nine system, perhaps with Álvarez playing wide in a similar manner to Sterling or Jesus? It might just be fine. But there’s definitely a world where the side can’t just go back to the old City, and they’re stuck as this reshaped team without the key player.
3. Could Arsenal or Tottenham be the real deal?
With Liverpool stuttering, we’re now looking to the North London sides for competition.
Tottenham have done a very good job of picking up results, but it’s fair to say the performances have been more mixed. This is a surprise considering how good they were after Antonio Conte came in last season. For Spurs to be a serious title contender, we have to assume the performances in the second half of last season were real and the team should get back to that standard, plus the players signed this summer will become better integrated and raise the overall standard even further. A lot has to line up for this, but it’s not totally out of the question.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have played better football than Spurs despite being worse last season. They’ve looked impressive in all departments, though it doesn’t really feel like they could hit a higher gear. Mikel Arteta is getting the most out of this squad right now, and I’m not convinced it’s enough to stop Man City.
4. Can Liverpool get their act together?
Liverpool lost the title by a point last season, the second time they’ve come short to Man City on the final day. That has to sting, but what probably makes it worse is seeing the gap widen so much since then. The Reds might not get another serious shot at the title for a while, so stumbling out of the gate is a pretty huge disappointment. For this scenario to play out, that would have to change pretty much immediately.
The optimistic case for Liverpool is that the problem has been injuries, which should now be clearing up. The midfield has been a huge mess, but Fabinho and Thiago should both be fit now, which eases up problems substantially. Yes, Thiago is a continual injury risk, but with Luis Enrique largely moving on from him with the Spain national team, he’ll likely get a month off during the break for the World Cup. Arthur might not be the most exciting signing in the world, but he can still be a decent contributor and a warm body significantly better than 98-year-old James Milner.
The other reason for optimism might be one of the most criticised players so far: Darwin Núñez. This is not the start the Uruguayan hoped for at Anfield. After an opening weekend goal, he’s found himself in and out of the team and hasn’t scored since. I remain strangely optimistic about his start at Liverpool. It’s a trivially small sample size, but he’s currently running at 1.21 expected goals and assists per 90 (in both the league and Champions League). It doesn’t always look good, and the chances aren’t going in, but almost every time he touches the ball it involves a decent shot. I could be very wrong on this. It could all be statistical noise. But the man is a wrecking ball right now even as things aren’t coming off. I’m betting on him scoring a lot of goals sooner or later.
Let’s, purely for the sake of argument, imagine Liverpool get back to last season’s standards immediately. They picked up 92 points, so getting results at that pace between now and the end of the season would land Jürgen Klopp’s team with 86 points. For that to be enough to beat Man City, Guardiola’s side would need to start playing at an 84-point pace. It’s not unthinkably low, but it feels very unlikely. Liverpool would have to step it up beyond last season’s standards to realistically turn it around and win the title. Even then City would need to stumble a little bit.
All of this is to say it’s going to be really hard for any team to catch Man City. I don’t know what else to say except they’ve been outstanding. Nothing is ever certain at this stage, though, and the risks do still exist even as they’ve been so strong. If they keep this up for the next two months, though, then we might have to forget about a title race when the season resumes after the World Cup.