How Man City can catch Liverpool and return to Premier League summit

Liverpool made one of the easiest title runs in the history of the Premier League, clinching the title with seven of 38 matches remaining. They finished the season with 99 points in league play, second-most ever after Manchester City, who finished 18 points behind the Reds in second place this year. Does that level of dominance portend a run of titles for Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, or will the league race be a much more competitive affair next year? Probably the latter.

This week we will look at each of next year's most likely Premier League contenders, their biggest strengths and weaknesses moving forward, and what they must do to rise to the top of the league.

Today, it's Man City's turn.

After winning back-to-back league titles with a combined 198 points, City's form dipped a bit this term. Pep Guardiola's squad still led the league in goals scored, and their overall performance level was still absurdly high: they won the EFL Cup, went unbeaten in Champions League group play and beat Real Madrid on the road in the first leg of their round-of-16 matchup (the second leg will take place on Aug. 7).

About once a month, however, they suffered a leaky performance, from a 3-2 defeat at Norwich City in September to a 1-0 loss at Southampton in July, and those hiccups prevented them from sustaining a challenge against Liverpool.

Good news: They're the best team on paper

Here's an odd one for you: Guardiola's City were as dominant as ever this season while earning 17 fewer points in league play. They won 14 of 38 matches by at least three goals; they managed 10 in 2017-18's title run and 13 in 2018-19. Their best form was maybe the best it's been during Guardiola's time.

Even despite Liverpool's lopsided advantage in the table, City have the best goal differential, best expected goal differential, best goal differential over the first 60 minutes of the match (when your game plan is most likely at play) and best goal differential over the second half of the season. All of these things are as or more predictive of future performance than your league point total. In an era of mighty possession play, City's remains the mightiest: they averaged 8.2 passes per possession, and no one else averaged more than 6.6.

If we rewound the clock back to the start of 2019-20 and played the whole season out again, there's a chance that City triumphs. They almost certainly put up a better fight, at least.

(Seriously, though, is there a rewind button somewhere? The world could really use one.)

Good news: Regression to the mean should be kind

Certain statistics tend to be predictive of future improvement and/or regression. Here are a couple.

Points per game in close matches (decided by 0-1 goals): Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool squad averaged 2.5 points per close game this year. Over the past 10 seasons in Europe's big five leagues, only 2013-14 Juventus (2.67) averaged more. Almost every team that has averaged 2.2 or greater in one year has seen their point totals sink, sometimes dramatically, the next season.

City, meanwhile, went from averaging 2.1 points per close game in each of the last two seasons to only 1.5 this year, fifth in the league. That accounts for almost all of Liverpool's league advantage, and it will likely right itself to some degree next season.

Expected goal differential in losses: When you lose, are you losing because you were definitively bested, or because the sport is packed with funky, dumb bounces? Looking at expected goals (xG) can help us sort that out a bit: it tells us a lot about the quality of chances both teams created in a given match, and it probably won't surprise you to learn that City generally created better chances even when they lost.

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City lost nine times in the league this season, though they had an inferior xG total in only three: the 3-2 loss to Wolves (3.0 vs. 1.9) in December, the 2-0 loss to Manchester United in early March (1.4 vs. 0.8), and the limp 2-1 June loss to Chelsea (4.3 vs. 0.9!) that clinched the title for Liverpool.

Even with the whomping by Chelsea, City's XG differential in losses was +0.5 -- only four teams in the Big Five leagues had a higher average (Atalanta, Real Madrid, PSG and Napoli), and only two other Premier League teams had positive averages (Chelsea at +0.2, Manchester United at +0.1). It took a lot for City to end up with only 81 points, and it probably won't happen again next season.

That's not to say City's regression was simply due to bad luck, however. Far from it.

Bad news: There's a clear way to beat Pep ... sort of

Guardiola has been in the Premier League for four seasons now, and while he remains one of the only realistic "best manager in the world" candidates in addition to having an obnoxiously expensive roster at his disposal, other teams will still figure things out about you over time.

His City side is indeed the best possession team on the planet, and their greatest strength has inadvertently created their greatest weakness.

By dominating the ball so thoroughly, they have in a way simplified their opponents' game plans. Only a few teams have even tried to compete in the possession game, instead allowing City to hog the ball and then planning the most aggressive counter-attacking possible. That approach can get you walloped -- again, City won more than one-third of its games by three-plus goals -- but if you convert your few chances before hunkering down and weathering the storm, good things can happen.

In two league matches against City, Manchester United possessed the ball only 28% of the time. United won both times. Southampton had 26% and split the season series, winning one and losing one. Some teams found success going toe-to-toe -- Liverpool and Chelsea both earned three points from City with nearly 50% possession, and Wolves won twice at 43% -- but City dropped 16 points to teams that had less than 32% possession against them.

In their nine losses, City allowed 20 goals. Six came from what you would generally call open-play situations, four came from penalties or set pieces, and a staggering 10 came directly from turnovers. There were four long, breakaway counter-attacks from turnovers in the defensive half -- Wolves were particularly good at these) -- a couple of extreme long-distance shots from turnovers near midfield, and there were four quick goals off of turnovers in City's defensive third.

City's primary weakness this year (transition defense) matched up directly with the style most teams attempted to employ against them.

Biggest priority: Shoring up the transition defense

Even a team with more money than most countries' GDP can find itself sucked into an undertow of injury and age every now and then. While City allowed the second-fewest goals in the league overall in 2019-20, their ability to slow opponents' counter-attacks proved inconsistent. Center back Aymeric Laporte missed most of September through January with a knee injury, and when he did play, his performance was not quite up to previous years' standards. John Stones struggled with both injury and form for much of the season, too.

This not only meant that 32-year-old Nicolas Otamendi and 35-year-old Fernandinho had to combine for 4,000 minutes in league play, but it also meant that Fernandinho had to move from defensive midfield, which weakened City there, too. Few players have better mastered the art of killing counter-attacks with a tactical foul like the Brazilian.

Midfielder Rodri, acquired from Atletico Madrid in 2019 to eventually replace Fernandinho, has performed mostly as advertised this season; he's won two-thirds of his aerials and over half his duels, also averaging more than eight ball recoveries per 90 minutes, just as he did in Spain. But when he has played poorly, City have too, and opponents have occasionally been able to overwhelm an older-than-intended back line.

Simple returns to form could solve some of these issues. Laporte and Stones are both 26 and entering their respective athletic primes. So is left-back Benjamin Mendy, another wonderful but injury-prone talent. But City do not sit still well, and while they have some exciting backup plans at fullback -- 26-year-old João Cancelo, 23-year-olds Oleksandr Zinchenko and Angeliño -- one assumes they will be looking to add to the depth chart at center-back.

Transfer rumors link virtually every good player in the world to City at some point or another, but rumors tying City to players like Bayern Munich's David Alaba or RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano make quite a bit of sense. (In a different way, so do rumors linking them to another physical Atletico midfielder, Thomas Partey.)

Alaba played for Guardiola for three seasons at Bayern, and his brilliance -- both in build-up play and his ability to snuff out counter-attacks -- after moving to center back last winter did as much to turn Bayern's season around as anything. If he's looking for a new challenge, he could be the missing piece in Manchester.