In the last three years, and including this summer, the Manchester clubs have spent an eye-watering £1.2 billion on players, yet the Premier League title has ended up in west London, twice, and Leicester. Collectively, City and United have been 94 points off the pace across those three seasons, never finishing better than eight points adrift of the champions. Now it is time to deliver on that outlay, and both teams look well set to bring the title back to Manchester at last.
Although defeated in the UEFA Super Cup by Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho’s side displayed enough positives to suggest they will be hard to beat next season, especially following the arrival of Nemanja Matic. United were in desperate need of a player to provide balance and control in midfield, and the Serb – well versed in Mourinho’s methods – is the ideal signing. They also swapped out one proven goalscorer for another, younger, more mobile model and reinforced the back-line.
Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, has ruthlessly overhauled his squad, axing nine players who had significant roles in the first team last season. In their place he is developing a younger, more vibrant squad that has steamrollered some very accomplished sides in pre-season. At full-back, he has turned a position of weakness into one of genuine strength, and in Ederson has found a goalkeeper who possesses all the ball-playing skills he requires but without sacrificing basic goalkeeping ability.
For both clubs it has been almost the perfect window, save for one X Factor signing in attack. Alexis Sanchez – or, indeed, Kylian Mbappe – would have been, and still could be, the cherry on the top of an already very exciting City cake. United still want a winger, though many fans will feel the existing options, particularly Anthony Martial, have far greater potential than Ivan Perisic.
How the Manchester clubs have spent over £350m this summer
Both teams have built on already solid foundations while those around them have stagnated, or even gone backwards. Champions Chelsea look a far meeker proposition without Matic and Diego Costa in the spine of the team; Liverpool are bracing themselves to lose Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona; Tottenham, incredibly, are still yet to make a single new signing despite selling the best right-back in the division; and Arsenal are, well, Arsenal.
But for a few relatively easily fixable issues last season, the title might already have returned to Manchester. City started the season on fire, winning their first six league games, but their form fell away as teams, beginning with Spurs, started to match and overawe them with intensity and physicality. Guardiola has cited the amount of leeway referees allow as his biggest lesson in English football so far, and the build of his full-back signings – tall, strong, powerful, athletic, tenacious – suggest he has reacted accordingly.
But they also conceded far too many goals, though that should not be classed as a systematic failing of Guardiola’s tactics and philosophy. If we look at Expected Goals – a metric that identifies the quality of chances created and conceded, and which will even be used on Match of the Day soon – City’s defence was only marginally worse than Chelsea’s last season, giving up around 31xG according to STATS data. They conceded nearly a third more than that in reality.
What is Expected Goals?
Expected Goals essentially rates how good a chance is, and how likely it would be to result in a goal, and attributes a value accordingly: 0.51xG means a goal should be scored 51% of the time. It is an excellent way to ascertain whether a team were knocking on the proverbial door, or struggling to trouble the opposition keeper and simply trying their luck from range. Of course, that doesn’t mean a bad chance can’t produce a goal – Frank Lampard made a career out of doing that!
A major contributor to that problem was Claudio Bravo. According to City’s Expected Saves – yes, that’s a thing too – he let in a significant number of goals that he should not have, based on the attacker’s position and shot location. That plays out with the ‘eye test’ too. As well as being nervy under high balls and failing to command his area, many of the goals he let in looked distinctly saveable, the sort that most keepers would be disappointed to have let in.
PL top six goalkeepers’ save percentage
According to Opta stats, he conceded from 26 of the 59 shots on target he faced, or 44 per cent – significantly higher than the Premier League average. Hugo Lloris, for example, conceded two fewer goals from 43 additional shots on target faced, meaning only 24% found the back of the net. Only five goalkeepers in the Premier League were less likely to make a save than Bravo. For his replacement Ederson, meanwhile, that figure was 17%, albeit in the less competitive Portuguese league.
There are marginal gains, and then there is signing a goalkeeper virtually twice as likely to save a goal-bound shot. It is a frightening upgrade, especially when you consider his confidence with the ball at his feet and ability to ping 80-yard assists. If we assume that City have corrected their issues at the back, then the really ominous signs come when you consider how many more goals they should have scored themselves last season too.
Guardiola’s side were top for Expected Goals by a very significant margin, racking up around 15xG more than Chelsea according to STATS. In reality, they scored five goals less than the champions. That is combination of both profligacy from City’s forwards and unsustainable clinicalness from Chelsea. In total, City created 101 ‘big chances’ last season, nearly a fifth more than second-placed Tottenham, but only ranked seventh for big-chance conversion.
Sergio Aguero didn’t quite match up to his rivals
It is therefore easy to see why Sanchez and Mbappe have been targeted. The former converted 11% more of his big chances than the City average – and would have ranked third among City players who scored five or more league goals – while Monaco’s teenage sensation was even better, putting away two-thirds of the clear-cut chances that came his way.
Mourinho & Guardiola on their sides’ respective woes in front of goal
‘Look, I hope the goalkeepers make mistakes against us like they do against other teams. I see many goalkeepers make huge mistakes the week before and against us they all look absolutely fabulous. I hope that the relation with the post becomes better. I also hope that in front of goal we are more objective. We go really to smash the ball in the net because we also miss goals one metre from the goalline – and not once or twice. So I agree with and understand this question. There are teams that are very defensive and they score with their first shot; with us it’s the opposite.’
Pep Guardiola: (speaking shortly after losing to Monaco)
‘We have had a lot of chances but we were not able to score. I don’t like to say we were unlucky – we were not good enough. It is simple like that. That has been a big problem for the season. We created more chances than Monaco. In the first half we didn’t shoot but in the second half we created five clear chances. In Europe you cannot do that – you are out. In many games it was like this. We have a specific quality to create the amount of chances but we are not solid enough when we don’t score goals. Until now, if you ask me about what I think about the season it is like this, in the boxes we are not good enough. We have to improve for next season to compete with good teams in Europe.’
City’s wastefulness was particularly evident, and costly, against the bigger teams. They should have been two goals clear against Chelsea but Kevin de Bruyne impossibly hit the bar from a couple of yards out (that chance was measured at 0.73xG) before the Blues rallied to win, while Spurs somehow engineered a comeback despite being totally outclassed at the Etihad. Without that marquee signing, much of the onus will be on Gabriel Jesus to provide the finishing touches to City’s expansive play. Based on his brief outings last season, he could turn a lot of draws into wins.
Similarly, United also underperformed according to Expected Goals, though not by so great a margin, while their defence was among the best in the division. The issue for the Red Devils is that Mourinho’s style of play inherently creates fewer chances than Guardiola’s style, which in turn requires players to be even more clinical.
Who was the Premier League’s best finisher last season?
2. Lukaku | 25 goals | 15.32 Expected Goals | +9.68 difference
3. Llorente | 15 goals | 7.09 Expected Goals | +7.91 difference
4. Son | 14 goals | 6.73 Expected Goals | +7.27 difference
5. King | 16 goals | 9.56 Expected Goals | +6.44 difference
*Stats via BBC/Opta
But they were nowhere near clinical enough, which is why their 26-game unbeaten run was so derided and underplayed. They drew exactly half of those matches, falling off the pace of the leaders. Incredibly, they rank 16th for actual goals scored minus Expected Goals for. Had they been more ruthless, they could have been serious title contenders.
Like their sky blue rivals, though, they have moved to correct that issue. Last year, Marcus Rashford was their most clinical striker, converting exactly half of his eight big chances – a long way off the levels elite players produce – while Zlatan Ibrahimovic only put away 28%. That figure ranked the Swede 70th, or fourth from bottom, of players who scored at least five Premier League goals, missing 18 of the 25 big chances that came his way.
His Expected Goals was just about in line with the number of non-penalty goals he scored, but the best players far exceed those numbers. So, partly motivated by injury to Ibrahimovic and largely driven by a desire to score more goals, Mourinho spent an initial £75m on Romelu Lukaku. It is easy to see why. Last season he scored 25 goals, 10 more than his xG. He also converted 72% of his big chances, almost three times what Ibrahimovic managed. In a better team, with better supply, he could be phenomenal.
The transfer spending, the stats, the pre-season form, it all suggest that City and United are building very, very special teams. They have underperformed previously, but the most glaring weaknesses have been addressed and then some. Moreover, both clubs have managers with exacting standards. Guardiola has never gone two seasons without silverware, Mourinho always wins the league in his second campaign. One of them might falter this upcoming season, but both? No chance.