Why Manchester City Won't Win the Champions League

They're my pick to win it all, but Pep Guardiola's side are still underdogs against the field as a whole. What might European disappointment look like this time around?

They’re all flawed.

Porto, well, they’re seven points back of first in the Portuguese league and their leading scorer, Sergio Oliveira, is suspended for the first match against Chelsea, who just lost 5-2 to one of the worst teams in the Premier League and haven’t scored more than two goals in a match since Thomas Tuchel took over for Frank Lampard. Liverpool ... [lifts shirt to reveal an ironic, permanent, full-back tattoo of the face of Nathaniel Phillips] ... while Real Madrid won’t have Sergio Ramos and they will have Karim Benzema, who is 33 years old and has scored 13 more goals than anyone else on the team. Bayern Munich don’t have Robert Lewandowski and do have a mediocre defense; PSG are three points back of first in Ligue 1 despite lording Waltonian levels of income inequality over their domestic opponents. Dortmund have allowed 10 goals in their last five games and need to make up at least seven points over the final seven games to just make the Champions League next year, while Manchester City ...

You know, City don’t really have too many flaws, do they? They’re currently 14 points clear of second place in what seems to be the most competitive league in the world. Their goal differential is the best in the league (plus-45) by 20 goals. They have the best attack (as determined by both goals scored and expected goals created) and the best defense. They take a ton of shots at an above-average shot quality (by xG per shot), and they concede the fewest shots in Europe (6.9 per game) at a below-average shot quality. Plus, despite producing a defense that limits the number of attempts and the quality of the attempts, they’re still dominant with the ball, too: they’re one of only two sides in Europe (along with Barcelona) who control at least 70 percent of all the final-third passes completed in their matches. 

As former Liverpool and Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez once said, “I have talked in the past about the short blanket -- if you cover your head, your feet are cold; if you cover your feet, your head is cold. Sometimes when you attack too much, you are exposed in defense and to find the balance is the key to have chances to win titles.” Pep and the City front-office have found a way to knit together a bigger blanket; they don’t need a hat, and they’re not wearing socks to bed.

This isn’t the first time that Pep has built a team that seemingly solved a sport of trade-offs, but since 2011, the long blanket has not traveled well. After winning his second title in two years in 2011, Pep’s teams haven’t reached the final of the Champions League again. At Manchester City, they’ve never advanced beyond the quarters, and they’ve been, at worst, co-favorites to win it all at this stage of the tournament in each of the previous three seasons.

This year, they’re favorites once again. With Dortmund rather than Bayern or Chelsea or Real Madrid, they’ve nabbed a relatively favorable draw. And based on all of the information we have from this season, City have pretty clearly been the best team in the world; they’ve dominated across all competitions so far. They’re the betting favorites: +200 to win the Champions League, per the DraftKings sportsbook, which gives them about a 30-percent chance of taking home the trophy. And at FiveThirtyEight, their odds are up at 39 percent, which is more than double any other team.

Still, “more than double any other team” is not “more than the field”. The same two things are true that have been true for a while now: City are more likely than any other club to win the Champions League, but the most likely outcome is that City, once again, do not win it all. So, what might that look like? Why won’t City win it this year?

Rather than re-hashing the last 10 years of Pep in Europe, I’ll direct you to Grace Robertson’s fantastic, exhaustive series on the topic. The conventional wisdom is that Pep builds incredible teams that dominate the slow-burn of a domestic season but then he over-thinks things, over and over again, when it comes to the specifics of two-leg knockout-round match-ups. That idea, as Grace writes about, is mostly incorrect. The main driver in the discrepancy between Guardiola’s recent domestic success and lack of European triumphs is luck. You have to get lucky to win the Champions League; that’s just how it is in a knockout tournament for such a low-scoring game. PSG created the better chances in last year’s final against Bayern, who won. Liverpool won an early penalty kick in the 2019 final after mounting a 4-0 comeback in the second leg of the semifinal against Barca. In the 2018 final, Sergio Ramos suplexed Mo Salah out of the match, Loris Karius imploded, and Gareth Bale scored on a bicycle kick. The eventual champion almost never dominates and wins all seven knockout-round matchups en route to the title. The players are too good, and the sport is too stupid.

Instead, what often decides these ties is a little bit of individual brilliance. That was the basis of Real Madrid’s three-year run from 2016 to 2018: they weren’t an influential team in any strategic or tactical sense, but they had so many independent superstars, and a different one came up with a decisive moment in almost every game. It seems insane that Real Madrid won the European Cup three times in a row while only winning the Spanish title once over the same stretch. But think of it this way: They were never likely to get eliminated in the group stages, so to win three titles, they basically needed their stars to align -- someone to make a play at the right moment -- 12 times. They had so many individuals capable of making the play, so it worked in Europe, but not in Spain, where they needed to be consistent over 114 matches to win as many domestic titles.

This year’s City? They’re the opposite of those Madrid teams. Michael Imburgio’s DAVIES model classifies players into various “playing style” categories based on a number of key statistical indicators. According to his model, the best players left on the six non-City (and -Porto) teams are all “finishers”, which he defines as “Players who operate mainly in the attacking third and frequently get into their opponent’s box to look for shots”.

One way that Imburgio represents a player’s true value is by determining how many goals all of their on-ball actions have been worth compared to the rest of the players in their playing-style cohort. This way a defensive midfielder isn’t being directly compared to a 20-goal-a-season-scorer; instead they’re compared to each other based on how they compare to their positional peers. But even when adjusting for play style, the top six remaining players in this tournament are all “finishers”:

1) Kylian Mbappe, PSG: 8.88
2) Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich: 8.13
3) Sadio Mane, Liverpool: 6.81
4) Timo Werner, Chelsea: 6.22
5) Karim Benzema, Real Madrid: 6.16
6) Mohamed Salah, Liverpool: 6.15

One thing you'll notice: No City players! Next on the list is Raheem Sterling (5.97), followed by Erling Haaland (5.96), and then Kevin De Bruyne (5.87). After KDB, there’s a full-goal drop-off to the next player. Neither Sterling nor De Bruyne have scored 10 goals in league play this year; in fact, the only City player who has is Ilkay Gundogan, a 31-year-old midfielder who had never scored more than six goals in a season before this year. In other words: City have a beautifully balanced team for domestic play that can hit you from anywhere on the pitch, but they don’t have one true standout attacker, and their best attackers are the guys who do all the things before the ball ends up in the net. It’s not that Sterling, or KDB, or even Gundogan or Joao Cancelo can’t just do something brilliant or decide a game on their own, but other teams seem to have all the players who are more likely to do it.

Which brings us to the second reason why City might not win it all. Much of the criticism that’s been directed at Pep in the knockout rounds can be boiled down to, “Dude, just play your best players”. Instead of opting for his theoretically strongest eleven, he’d often add in an extra midfielder or a play a midfielder at striker or a striker at midfielder or sometimes even all of the above. This was all done, as Grace wrote about, because Pep was terrified of giving up goals on the counter. Eventhough they rarely did so domestically, super-clubs like Real Madrid were devastating on the counter. Put another way: there was almost never a reason for them to play like that, but Barcelona could be better at being Burnley than Burnley if they really wanted to.

However, the counter-attack ate up City early on in this Premier League season, and so Pep righted the ship, ironically, by bringing his Champions League approach back home. Their center forwards, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, have only combined for 21 starts through 31 games. City have cycled through a number of complicated strikerless formations with inverted fullbacks -- the exact kinds of set-ups that we’ve heckled Pep about in the past after the latest European disappointment. City are now clearly playing in a way to prevent the counters from happening: incredibly deliberate possession, fewer shots, not as much running, and no real attacking width from the fullbacks. 

It’s all about control. Last week, I wrote about how City became the slowest team in the slowest Premier League season of the modern era. But it’s even more extreme than that. Per Stats Perform’s database, which extends back to 2008, City move the ball up the field at a slower pace (1.02 meters per second) than all but one team (Spezia, this season) in Europe’s Big Five leagues ever has. The walking pace has conquered the Premier League -- and the sport is slowing down across the continent  -- but no team since 2008 has won the Champions League at anything close to City’s reduced rate of movement. So, once again, Pep and Co.’s fate will come down to this: Can they make the Champions League look like home?

Oh yeah, and luck. They’ll finally need some of that, too.