Talking Tactics

How Man City became champions: Safety first

By Adrian Clarke 27 May 2021

Adrian Clarke looks at how Pep Guardiola transformed his defence to secure club's fifth title

Related Articles
Hargreaves: Pep is the ultimate innovator
Fernandinho: City the best we’ve ever been External Link
Manchester City's 2020/21 title win by numbers

Pep Guardiola reacted to a poor start to 2020/21 by altering Manchester City's style of play, and it paid off as they were crowned Premier League champions.

Adrian Clarke looks at the key changes that helped City claim their fifth title.

Fewer risks

From late November, Man City became far more compact out of possession and less susceptible to counter-attacks.  

Guardiola moved right-back Joao Cancelo into midfield, adding solidity down the centre when transitions occurred.

City were also more flexible than in previous years in changing to a narrow back four.

This tweak particularly helped them away from home.

Stronger at the back

City’s improved structure without the ball led to them conceding far fewer quality chances.

They were ranked 20th in 2019/20 for the proportion of shots they faced that were on target (41.1 per cent). A more resolute set-up lifted City to 11th for that set of rankings this season (35.3 per cent).


As shown in the graphics above, City’s compactness helped them to protect the central part of their 18-yard box significantly better.

Opponents were able to create far fewer big chances inside the penalty box in the area between the width of the goalposts.

It is little wonder then that in 2020/21 their expected goals (xG) against - a value given to the quality of goalscoring chances they offered the opposition - dropped from 35.9 for the whole of 2019/20 to just 23.6 for this season.

Managing matches better

City’s new-found pragmatism also left them chasing fewer matches.

In 2019/20 they conceded the opening goal on 12 occasions. But en route to the title this time around they trailed 1-0 only seven times all campaign.

There were fewer goals in their matches, too. Better match-management was reflected in a large increase in 1-0 and 2-0 victories.

In the end they secured six wins by a 1-0 scoreline, three more than in 2019/20, along with six 2-0 successes, double their total from the previous season.

Defensive comparison
Man City 2019/20 2020/21
Times conc. opening goal 12 7
Away goal conc. 22 15
Patience and control

Pressing has always been a key part of successful Guardiola teams, but in 2020/21 his side stepped off the gas.

While City led the division in terms of regaining possession in the final third, they were more patient in the way they closed down.

Pressing is measured by the metric "passes per defensive action" (PPDA), how many passes a defending team allow before they can take a defensive action that includes the ball, such as a tackle, interception or a foul.

In 2016/17, Guardiola's first season, City allowed opponents to average 8.3 passes before they carried out a defensive action. In 2020/21, City's PPDA had risen to 11.5 passes on average.

Slower to advance

City also slowed the speed of their attacks, moving the ball upfield slower than at any other time under Guardiola.

In his first season, City progressed the ball up the pitch in open play at an average speed of 1.4 metres per second. In 2020/21, this "direct speed" had slowed to 1.12 metres per second. 

Man City pass progression comparison
Season PPDA* Direct speed (m/s)**
2016/17 8.3 1.39
2017/18 8.3 1.25
2018/19 10.0 1.20
2019/20 10.1 1.18
2020/21 11.5 1.12

Both in and out of possession, City were more thoughtful and considered in their latest title-winning campaign.

Also in this series

Part 2: How Man City became champions: Changing formations
Part 3: How Man City became champions: Key players

Latest Videos

More Videos
25 Jul 2024

PL Masterclass: Anthony Elanga challenges TikTok stars

The Nott'm Forest forward is one of the fastest players around. Watch him put some familiar faces to the test at the end of last season!

You have been entered into the competition. You will receive email confirmation of your entry with further details.

You have already entered this competition. Please check your email for further information.

You have been entered into the competition. You will receive email confirmation of your entry with further details.

Create a Premier League account


You are logged in as

Enter your details to submit your entry.