A Courageous Norwich City Exposes Man City's Defensive Woes
Football still, even in these hyper-monetized times, has a glorious capacity not to make sense. Manchester City’s defeat on Saturday to Norwich City was not just implausible, it felt almost impossible. It wasn’t just that City hadn’t lost in the league since January or that it was unbeaten in 25 games against newly promoted sides; it was that this wasn’t even anything like a full-strength Norwich. Daniel Farke’s team was without 11 players and had lost its previous match 2-0 at West Ham.
For Norwich the win was reward for Farke’s courage in taking City on, for a well-drilled pressing game that prompted the errors from John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi that yielded the third goal, and for a string of outstanding individual performances, most notably from Emiliano Buendia, Todd Cantwell and Ibrahim Amodou. Teemu Pukki, meanwhile, scored one and set one up, meaning he has registered a remarkable six goals and two assists in his first five Premier League games.
How much it means for Norwich in the longer term is harder to quantify. It’s three more points in the race to the 38 or so needed to avoid relegation (and given the testing nature of its early fixtures, six points from five games is a more than handy return), it demonstrates that it has the style and a determination to do more than just survive and, perhaps more importantly at this stage, it means that whatever else happens, the club will have at least one extremely memorable day from this season.
The greater consequences are likely to be for City. Liverpool’s lead is already five points and, while City overhauled a seven-point margin last season, when the top sides are dropping fewer than 20 points over the course of a campaign, every point leaked is vital. City can point out that it was slightly unfortunate, that it had 25 shots to Norwich's seven, that Raheem Sterling hit the post and Tim Krul made a couple of excellent saves. But what feels more significant is the nature of the defeat.
It would be easy to look at last season’s table and assume City was a strong side defensively. It did, after all, concede only 23 goals in its 38 games, one more than Liverpool but 16 fewer than anybody else. But that statistic doesn’t tell the full story. City had an excellent defensive record because it so dominated possession. It enacted Johan Cruyff’s dictum that of the opposition doesn’t have the ball it cannot score. Pep Guardiola, accordingly, has a preference for defenders who can pass rather than those who necessarily excel in the more traditional defensive disciplines.
In the vast majority of games, that is fine. The problem, though, comes against teams who can break the press and actually make City defend. It explains why Jurgen Klopp has such a good record against Guardiola, and perhaps why Guardiola sides so often falter in the latter stages of the Champions League. The best way to beat City is to take it on; the danger is that in doing so a side ends up being hammered, as for instance Watford was 6-0 in last season’s FA Cup final. Norwich took that risk and was rewarded.
But there is also a sense here that City has rather sleepwalked into difficulties. Vincent Kompany’s centrality towards the end of last season was a sign of defensive cracks that needed patching but after he left to become player-manager of Anderlecht, no replacement was signed. Perhaps City could have got away with three central defenders supplemented by Fernandinho dropping back from midfield or Kyle Walker tucking in, but the knee injury suffered by Aymeric Laporte, the most compete of its central defenders, has exposed it.
Since the start of last season City has conceded 29 goals. Kenny McLean’s opener on Saturday was the 16th from a set piece. As a proportion that’s 17% more than the next highest in the league. Pack your side with diminutive passers and it’s inevitable that you will become vulnerable aerially. To an extent that’s a necessary risk, but it becomes hugely problematic when Stones and Otamendi look so uncomfortable on the ball, and when their attempts to play offside are as ham-fisted as they were for Norwich’s second goal. Some vulnerability is an acceptable risk a possession-based team takes; some is rank bad defending.
It might be tempting to write this off as a blip, particularly given it followed an international break, but warning signs had been there. Freakish as the draw against Tottenham was, it also came about because of two moments of defensive sloppiness, one of them from a corner. And even in the win at Bournemouth, City was unusually open.
It’s one defeat. City won the league last season despite losing to Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Leicester and Newcastle. There’s plenty of time to put things right. But suddenly Guardiola’s side doesn’t look quite as remorseless as it did.