Manchester City didn't just lose to Aston Villa. It looked more vulnerable than ever

Aston Villa beat Manchester City. That, on a rip-roaring Wednesday night at Villa Park, was the top-line news that sent shockwaves through the English Premier League and through a sport that has been waiting, often in vain, for Goliath to fall. Villa's 1-0 win left City, the reigning champions of everything, six points back of Arsenal and four behind Liverpool. It nudged the door to City's deviously built throne atop the league further ajar.

But it wasn't the full story or the only story of a remarkable evening in Birmingham. Because a simple scoreline — victory by a single goal — undersold Villa's dominance.

Manchester City has lost dozens of games under Pep Guardiola. It lost to Arsenal in October and to Wolves in September. It lost to Liverpool, Brentford, Man United and Tottenham last season. It has lost to Crystal Palace and others, largely because soccer is a fickle, random sport.

But City rarely, if ever, loses like it lost Wednesday. And it rarely, if ever, looks as vulnerable and ordinary as it does right now.

Aston Villa's Leon Bailey celebrates with teammates after scoring during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park in Birmingham, England, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

Villa didn't just beat the club that has won five of the past six Premier Leagues. It outplayed, outworked and outclassed the Cityzens in every which way. It outshot them 22-2. It squeezed them with Unai Emery's trademark high defensive line. It danced around a usually supreme City midfield. It won the ball 13 times in City's defensive third, the most by a City opponent under Guardiola.

City's two shots, meanwhile, were the fewest a Guardiola team has ever managed in any league game since he debuted at Barcelona in 2008, per Opta. Villa's 22 were the most against a Pep team since at least 2014, the last year for which has data.

And they weren't low-probability Villa shots. They amounted to 2.0-2.3 Expected Goals (xG), a metric that measures the quality of each shot taken. City's two chances, which came seconds apart in the 11th minute, totaled roughly 0.8 xG. The xG margin was City's most lopsided since a 5-2 loss to Leicester in September 2020.

That described Wednesday's game rather accurately. Villa played on its collective front foot and City on its heels for the vast majority of the 90 minutes. Douglas Luiz, Youri Tielemans and Boubacar Kamara controlled the game from midfield. Pau Torres was imperious. John McGinn was immense. Leon Bailey, the goalscorer, was otherworldly.

"Aston Villa was better," Guardiola said, frankly and matter-of-factly, postgame.

And that is why Wednesday was so significant. Arsenal's 1-0 win over City months earlier was, for the most part, a tactical stalemate. City's recent draws with Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham were either bonkers or unfortunate (or both). None of them did much to disprove or even dispute the notion that City remained the Premier League's best team and title favorite.

But now?

They are still the betting favorite and probably the best team when healthy. Injuries and suspensions contributed to Wednesday's shellacking. Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Jeremy Doku and Jack Grealish were all absent. And more importantly, the 2023-24 season is still young. Twenty-three remaining games are more than enough to erase a six-point deficit. After all, 11 months ago, the Cityzens were eight points back in January, and they still won the 2022-23 title by five points.

But this year feels different. Arsenal's Expected Goal differential is now better than City's (it was significantly worse throughout last season). The Gunners have shown unimpeachable character week after week and as recently as Tuesday, when they came back to beat Luton Town 4-3 on Declan Rice's 97th-minute header. They have now nabbed nine extra points with goals scored in the 84th minute or later. They have, hopefully, learned from last season's late collapse. They should push City once again.

Liverpool, after a 4-3 comeback of its own last weekend, is firmly in the mix as well.

And heck, what about Aston Villa? The Villains, a contender reborn after years of futility (and a relegation), now sit two points ahead of City in third. They are flying, rising and believing.

"This," Guardiola said, "is the quality of the Premier League."

It is deeper and stronger than ever before.

And City, for the first time in a long time, is struggling to stay at its summit.