Since Manchester City’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008 they’ve taken the English footballing world by storm, winning two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup.
However, despite all of their domestic success they have yet to make a mark in Europe’s elite competition and are on the verge of crashing out of the Champions League group stage for the third time in four years.
The excuse many supporters have clung on to is that City has just been unlucky so far. They argue that the Blues had to play a series of very tough teams as a result of their inferior seeding and that they’ve outplayed their opponents in many games, but just have not been able to get results. Unfortunately for City fans this excuse that they are unlucky is starting to wear thin.
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One problem with using analytics to look at Champions League results is that there are much fewer games than in a domestic league season so the sample size is much smaller. In a small sample size there is a bigger role for luck or randomness, which is part of the argument that many have made about Manchester City’s form in Europe.
In order to avoid this sample size problem we can look at three seasons of Champions League football instead of just one. Throughout the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 Champions League campaigns, Manchester City have played 18 matches, and other English clubs have played 64 matches.
During this three-year period in the Premier League, Manchester City have a Total Shots Ratio of 0.63. Total Shots Ratio (TSR) is a ratio of the number of shots a team takes relative to the number of shots their opponents take. Any team with a TSR greater than 0.5 means they’ve taken more shots than their opponents and vice-versa. TSR is good indicator of a team’s underlying talent level, because even if a team is getting unlucky and are not finding the back of the net, as long as they are outshooting their opponents they will have a high TSR.
During this same three-year period in the Champions League, Manchester City have a TSR of 0.46. This TSR below 0.5 means that, on the whole, the Blues have been out shot by their opponents in Europe. Of course, in the Champions League the competition is typically stronger than what English teams face in the Premier League so it makes sense that City’s TSR would drop, although this seems to be quite a dramatic drop.
The difference between Manchester City’s Premier League TSR and Champions League TSR is 0.17. Looking at all the other English teams that have participated in the Champions League over the past three seasons, the average TSR drop-off is 0.11.
This drop-off in and of itself is significantly smaller than Manchester City’s, but this sample of Premier League teams includes a Liverpool side that is struggling this year, a few Arsenal teams that had their fair share of difficulties in the Champions League, and David Moyes’ Manchester United that finished seventh in the Premier League last season. These are not the teams that make up Manchester City’s direct rivals. Manchester City sees itself as one of England’s two best clubs alongside Chelsea, so it makes sense to look at their performances relative to their main rival.
Throughout this three-year period, Chelsea’s TSR difference between the Premier League and Champions League is a meagre 0.05. Compared to Manchester City’s massive 0.17 TSR drop-off, Chelsea’s 0.05 gap seems insignificant.
Clearly, Manchester City’s shot dominance in the Premier League has all but disappeared in the Champions League, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t getting unlucky as well.
A good proxy for luck is save percentage. Save percentage is a statistic that is usually not repeatable from year to year, but teams with high save percentages in the short run tend to win more often. This means that a team with a lower than average save percentage can be seen as “getting unlucky.”
Joe Hart’s save percentage in the Premier League over the past three seasons has been 69 percent, which is above league average. In the Champions League his save percentage has been 71 percent. Not only does this seem to repudiate the unlucky narrative, but it also suggests City may even have been luckier in the Champions League than in the Premier League.
When a team is so much worse in a certain subset of games than they are in the rest of their games, like Manchester City have been in the Champions League, the immediate question is whether the players playing in these matches have been different.
Manchester City have had some injury problems over the past three seasons, particularly with star forward Sergio Aguero, so it is worth examining whether they’ve had their best players available for Champions League games.
The spine of Manchester City’s team is made up of Vincent Kompany at the back, Yaya Toure in the midfield and Aguero up top. It can be argued these have been City’s best three players over the past three seasons and it would be understandable if City’s Champions League performances had suffered because one or more of these players were unavailable. However, this has not been the case at all.
Kompany has started or been on the bench for 83 percent of Manchester City’s Champions League games, Toure for 89 percent and Aguero for 94 percent. Manchester City’s stars seem to actually be available for a higher percentage of games in the Champions League games than in Premier League.
It has to be said that Manchester City have played some pretty tough opponents in the Champions League over the past few seasons, but the “unlucky” excuse just doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
Whether it has to do with a mental block, a difficulty adjusting to the playing style or something else entirely, Manchester City is a significantly worse team in the Champions League than they are in the Premier League.
Sam Gregory is soccer analytics writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter