For Manchester City, the next three fixtures represent the calm before the storm and Pep Guardiola’s defence will go through an audition before the period of the season that will ultimately define their campaign.
After taking on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Sunday, they face Stoke City at home and Middlesbrough in the FA Cup before the real test begins.
In the space of 21 days, Pep’s men take on AS Monaco in the UEFA Champions League, followed by Liverpool at home and away trips to London against Arsenal and Chelsea.
That is the definition of a tough set of fixtures. There will be seven games remaining after the game at Stamford Bridge, so nothing will be decided mathematically, but you have to believe that those matches will be crucial in where City finish this season.
Threat of finishing outside the top four
Nowadays, with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur in the mix, the risk of finishing outside the top four is very very real and with Jose Mourinho’s men just four points behind in sixth.
Maintaining momentum and keeping an arm’s length is very important and the most important aspect of City’s performances is going to be the defence, more specifically, the two full-backs.
It’s been a problem area all season, to the extent that the Spanish boss has used four players at right-back and three on the left. Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov were set to fight out for the place when no one was signed this summer, but with the Serbian filling in through the middle as Pep looks for centre-backs that suit his passing system, even Fernandinho has had to play on the left.
That’s been a similar tale on the right, the experienced duo of Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta were supposed to be first choice, but both Fernandinho and Fernando have made appearances there.
Not just to do with injuries, it’s the manor of the performances that has led to uncertainty at the back. Even Zabaleta, the swashbuckling Argentine, who is a favourite with the City faithful has had his moments.
City full-backs failing to perform
City have only won eight of the 14 league games Zabaleta has played this season, losing four times. In comparison, they have only lost twice with Bacary Sagna at right-back, winning 11 games.
Clichy returned from a month out against Huddersfield in the FA Cup, and like his French team-mate, he’s only faced defeat twice in 14 games, with nine wins.
It’s an obvious problem area for the former Barcelona coach, with quite a few upgrades already sounded out as summer transfer targets, however, going into the last third of the campaign, he has to play the hand he’s already been given.
Despite his poor record in the team, Zabaleta is the best defensive option on the right. Due to his competitive nature, he wins more tackles than the other full-backs they will come up against in March and April, but top balance things, he makes more fouls too.
How City’s defenders match up
Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin matches up well in terms of interceptions and Arsenal’s nature and style takes away his need to fly into challenges. The Spaniard is level with the Argentine in terms of crosses blocked and both City options fall down when it comes to the attacking side of the game.
Over at Anfield, Nathaniel Clyne is making more accurate crosses per game and even attempting more inaccurate attempts, showing his willingness to get down the flank and fire balls into the box.
His total crosses are just short of both Zabaleta and Sagna’s combined total. it takes away an element of City’s attack if the full-backs can’t contribute in the final third.
On the left, Gael Clichy only beats his competition in one area, that’s the number of fouls conceded. Not always a good thing, but with 2.1 tackles per 90 minutes, compared to Marcos Alonso at 1.9 and Nacho Monreal at 2.2, that matches up well.
The Spaniard at Arsenal makes more interceptions at 2.9, but the standout is James Milner. Not even his natural position, he has been a huge surprise this term. He is making 2.6 tackles per 90 minutes and absolutely destroys the others when it comes to getting the ball into the penalty area, and stopping it.
Milner is completing more crosses per 90 minutes than when you add the numbers from Sagna, Clichy and Zabaleta together. When you consider the Merseyside club don’t play with a big centre-forward and rely on the movement and intelligence of the front-line – just like City – there is no excuse for them having half the completed attempts than the former City man.
Defensively average, poor going forward, Guardiola’s back-line needs a lot of work in the summer, but for now, it will take some magic from the Spanish coach to squeeze every last bit of quality out of them going into the next five weeks.