Sergio Aguero’s hat trick against Arsenal was the 10th of his Premier League career — just one behind the record of 11 held by Alan Shearer. It was possibly the simplest treble of his career, scored from a combined distance of just 12 yards and composed of a header that was difficult to miss and two open goals.
But that’s why it was an absolutely classic hat trick — not because it underlines Aguero’s finishing ability, not because it rivals Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp’s against Leicester in 1997 or Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s for Chelsea against Tottenham in 2002 for the quality of the strikes, but because it perfectly underlines everything Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are all about.
City are playing catch-up in the title race but remain the league’s most potent attacking force, having scored 10 more goals than league leaders Liverpool. The reason they’ve scored more goals is not merely because they take the most shots in the league, but because they take shots from very close range. Guardiola has emphasised the importance of working the ball into high-percentage shooting positions, and that is evidenced by the regularity with which City score into an empty net.
Aguero’s second and third goals against Arsenal were both open goals, the sixth and seventh times that Manchester City have scored into an empty net this season. While Aguero has scored three of these goals, the others have been provided by City’s wide players, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez.
While Aguero is traditionally an excellent finisher, someone like Sterling was previously considered somewhat erratic in front of goal. He’s developed into a ruthless goal scorer not primarily because his finishing improved, but because he constantly finds himself in a position where the chance is almost unmissable.
There are various metrics to underline City’s shooting range — they take the highest number of shots from inside the six-yard box (36), their shots are from closer range than any other side outside of Burnley and they have the highest expected-goal value (63.06). But the most pertinent factor is simply that they constantly score “assisted” open goals — in other words, open goals they’ve created with a pass, rather than after a rebound or a defensive mistake.
So how do City keep on doing it? There are essentially four factors at play here.
1. Stretching the opposition defence in terms of width and depth
Guardiola’s approach at City, almost from the outset, has been about playing 4-3-3 with wingers on their natural sides and a striker who likes running in behind. This is largely a new iteration of Guardiola’s philosophy, even if it’s broadly in keeping with the classic Barcelona model. At Barca, he settled on Lionel Messi dropping deep as a false nine, and at Bayern he more typically played inverted wingers who checked inside.
This is Guardiola’s most direct front three, boasting more speed than ever, and the consequence is that City often find themselves with three players running through the opposition defence together. This depends upon top-class midfielders, usually two of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Bernardo Silva, being able to dominate the space between the lines, and in turn, Fernandinho has a huge defensive responsibility behind five extremely attack-minded players. The collective quality of that ultra-technical midfield means Guardiola can use three players who intently run in behind whenever they have an opportunity to do so.
Example: Sterling’s opener in the 2-0 victory over Brighton in September featuring Aguero receiving a forward pass and spinning to drive at the defence, before playing in Sane down the left, who crossed to the far post for Sterling to tap home.
2. Providing neat through balls for wingers after patient build-up play
While City offer multiple options in behind, they’re patient in how they service the attackers. They rarely hit long diagonals from defence, and City generally work the ball patiently into positions between the lines, towards the flanks, before releasing Sane and Sterling with well-weighted balls into the channels. This allows the wingers to collect the ball on the run, with good support in the middle.
This is a concept that Guardiola stresses heavily — working the ball forward gradually, allowing the side to move forward as a cohesive unit. It has defensive benefits if possession is conceded, but it also means that City’s front three are able to keep pace with the ball and get themselves into positions for a square pass.
Example: Sergio Aguero’s goal against Southampton in November came after City took a throw backwards into their right-back zone, before playing a clever combination down the right flank, before Sterling passed to Aguero to score from close range.
3. Assisting with low, driven crosses from “narrow” positions
There’s a particular type of assist City specialise in. They aren’t crossing the ball in a conventional sense, from a position outside of the box. Nor are they playing pull-backs and depending upon midfield runs to provide an extra goal threat from in front of the defence.
Instead, the wingers are released into narrow positions, where they then flash the ball across the six-yard box with fast-paced, low balls. This is another benefit of the wingers being deployed on their strongest side — they can fizz the ball across the box with tremendous pace and control, effectively bypassing the goalkeeper.
Often, the finish is actually somewhat uncontrolled, because both the finisher and the ball are arriving at tremendous speed. With the goal almost unmissable, though, this doesn’t cause too many problems.
Example: Aguero assisted a goal for Sterling in the 3-0 victory over Fulham in September with a driven ball from close to the byline — Sterling almost seemed unsure which foot to connect with but simply concentrated on getting something on the ball, and it was an inevitable goal.
4. A run on the blind side of the centre-backs
This seems obvious, but it’s the most consistent and decisive factor in City’s tendency to create lots of open-goal chances — the finisher is almost always located behind the opposition centre-back pairing. This is unsurprising when it’s the wingers, Sane and Sterling, arriving late to provide the finish, but it’s notable that Aguero, the type of quick forward who often races across the near post, has learned to hang back. Rather than ducking inside the centre-backs, he maintains a position behind them, knowing they can’t watch both him and the ball simultaneously.
Example: Aguero’s second against Arsenal saw him shift his position to the far post, on the blind side of Laurent Koscielny, who lost his run.
Commentators often speak of strikers “gambling” on the near post, a cliche that has never entirely made sense. It’s more accurate to speak of the far-post run as a gamble: There’s probably less chance of the ball finding its way through, but if it does, the striker is often rewarded with an unmissable open goal. At the near post, a more delicate touch is required, and there’s still a goalkeeper to beat.
And that’s the point: Manchester City’s possession football is so effective that it’s consistently taking the goalkeeper out of the game. It’s become common to speak about Guardiola treating his goalkeeper as an outfield player — someone who contributes to build-up play. But City are now treating the opposition goalkeeper as an outfielder — someone you should try to bypass with a slick final ball rather than with a shot.