EPL TALK: Defence, not attack, is key to Man City’s rise to the top

Chia Han Keong
·6 min read
Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus (centre() celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates.
Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus (centre() celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Michael Regan)

SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:

Successful tactical rethink by Pep Guardiola fuels City surge

WHAT HAPPENED: Stealthily, without much fanfare, Manchester City have climbed to the top of the table and opened up a healthy lead. And while a 1-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday (30 January) doesn’t seem too impressive on its own, it is City’s eighth straight league win amid a gruelling stretch of the season. This is title-winning form.

Surprisingly, it is not City’s much-vaunted offence that is the key reason for their surge to the top; it is their defence. Amid this eight-match winning run, they have conceded just one goal. All season, they have let in just 13 goals – by far the best in the league.

Given how they won their 2017/18 and 2018/19 titles with a dominant, swashbuckling attack, it has been a dramatically successful tactical rethink by manager Pep Guardiola, given that poor defending was one of the key reasons why City lost out to Liverpool last season.

A key figure in City’s defensive excellence has been new signing Ruben Dias, who has slotted into central defence seamlessly and formed a solid partnership with John Stones – who had previously struggled with other defensive partners such as Aymeric Laporte.

The backline has also settled into a regular foursome in Dias, Stones, Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo, working as an effective unit in protecting City’s goal. Guardiola was able to ride out the injury absences of attacking stalwarts Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne.

So can City maintain their momentum and stay the distance to win the title? Given the unpredictability of this season, one can never tell if City would hit a bump on the road sometime in the future. Yet their defensive strength could see them weather such a bump, and churn out enough wins to stay in contention until the end.

WHAT’S NEXT: An mid-week away tie to Burnley, and then the big one – a showdown with defending champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. Two tricky ties to say the least, and they will test City’s resilience to the hilt. Can they keep up their winning streak?

Manchester United's Edinson Cavani (on the ground) and Anthony Martial in action with Arsenal's Rob Holding.
Manchester United's Edinson Cavani (on the ground) and Anthony Martial in action with Arsenal's Rob Holding. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Alastair Grant)

Man United may need to be more adventurous against top rivals

WHAT HAPPENED: They were doubted as title challengers early in the season, yet Manchester United have proved critics wrong with a long unbeaten run that sent them to the top of the table. However, they have somewhat cooled in recent days – a shock 1-2 defeat by bottom-place Sheffield United was followed by an insipid 0-0 draw against old rivals Arsenal.

Even though they are still in second spot in the league, doubts have resurfaced about their title credentials. The goalless draw with a depleted Arsenal meant that United have yet to beat any of their “Big Six” rivals this season. In fact, they scored just once – in that embarrassing 1-6 hammering by Tottenham – and recorded 0-0 stalemates against Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and now Arsenal.

Should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have been more adventurous in attack when he set up United against those top opponents? The team’s lofty league position – as well as their league-best away record – may say otherwise, but with tough away matches against Chelsea, City and Spurs still to come, he might do well to unleash his attackers to grab those precious, morale-boosting wins from title rivals.

Furthermore, while it was Edinson Cavani who spurned the biggest chances against Arsenal, what would worry Solskjaer more is the goal droughts currently experienced by all his three starting forwards. Marcus Rashford (one goal in nine games), Anthony Martial (one in 11) and Mason Greenwood (one in 13) are all mired in lean spells, and need more reliable supply lines other than Bruno Fernandes.

Nonetheless, Man United are proving to be resilient and hard to beat as they reach the second half of the season, and it should serve them well against the non-title contenders. If they could just be more cavalier when they face the top sides, they could very well topple Man City at the top of the table.

WHAT’S NEXT: Two home games in a week could get Man United back to winning ways, although Southampton and Everton would be no pushovers.

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah scores their first goal against West Ham.
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah scores their first goal against West Ham. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Justin Setterfield)

Reinforcements in, can Liverpool kickstart revival?

WHAT HAPPENED: Besides the two Manchester clubs, the third side to reach the 40-point mark were defending champions Liverpool, following a 3-1 away victory over West Ham on Sunday.

Despite losing yet another stalwart through injury – this time it was forward Sadio Mane with a minor muscle injury – the Reds took all three points after a stunning second-half performance which produced three outstanding goals, two of them scored by Mohamed Salah.

With Leicester City fading after a 1-3 defeat by Leeds United, it seems as if Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs have become the most likely challengers to the EPL title.

On any other season, the Reds would be highly fancied to overcome the other challengers, yet they are so constantly wracked by injury woes this season that even their loyal fans are fearful of hearing the next player to be sidelined.

At least, Liverpool have finally been forced into action in the transfer market after a third central defender, Joel Matip, was ruled out for the season with ankle ligament injury. With Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez also out until next season, Liverpool did not have any first-time central defenders until their last-minute signings of Ben Davies from Preston North End and Ozan Kabak from Schalke 04.

Will those acquisitions be enough? It is hard to gauge the successes of these relative unknowns, whether they can adapt quickly to the tough league. But if they can bring some stability and defensive nous to Liverpool, it could kickstart their revival in time for a late surge to the top.

WHAT’S NEXT: A midweek tie against Brighton, and then the big one – at home to Man City on Sunday. Needless to say, it is a very important week for Liverpool to get their title defence back on track.

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