The win at Arsenal last week could very well signpost the way forward for Manchester City this season, with improvements in defence and midfield
When Manchester City lifted the Premier League title in May – after a run of 14 straight wins – neutrals feared it would be the start of a new monopoly.
They beat Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final six days later and there was the sensation that the financial chasm had become too great, and English football would lose its unpredictability.
Things though have dramatically fallen apart for City. Seven months on and Pep Guardiola is enduring his worst season as a manager amid rumours of an early departure from the club next summer.
Sifting through the first 17 matches of City’s 2019-20 Premier League season, there are some common tactical themes explaining Pep’s unexpectedly problematic fourth year.
Some are widely discussed – most notably the lack of leadership in defence without Vincent Kompany or Aymeric Laporte – while others have been harder to define. But Man City’s 3-0 victory over Arsenal last weekend helps shed some light on what had been going wrong and how Guardiola can fix things, even if the Gunners’ own calamitous season means we have to take any positive performance against them with a pinch of salt.
Man City’s defensive flaws in 2019/20
Leaving aside the need for new defenders – specifically a left-back and at least one centre-back – there are issues with Man City’s overall shape that need addressing. The biggest of all is in the heart of midfield.
By taking Fernandinho out of central midfield to cover for Laporte’s injury-enforced absence City have lost their linchpin; neither Ilkay Gundogan nor Rodri are capable of screening City’s possession like the Brazilian.
Guardiola’s extremely complex system is as fragile as a house of cards. Pressing so hard and playing with such a high defensive line means everyone needs to be in exactly the right position when the ball is lost, so that the opposition counter-attack can be quickly shut down at source.
If not, then the entire system falls apart; breaking through the first line leads to the concession of high-quality chances, such as the 2-0 defeat to Wolves in which the visitors had four one-on-ones with Ederson.
Fernandinho held this together, and without him in midfield the first line of the press isn’t always engaged. It would help, of course, if City had more commanding defenders to recover from such breaches, but that is a secondary concern.
The problem is made worse by Guardiola’s attempts to patch midfield by sitting Kyle Walker in this zone, but an inverted full-back only creates a hole on City’s right. Allan Saint-Maximin and Todd Cantwell in particular made use of this in games Guardiola’s side were denied five points.
Man City’s problems in possession
City have conceded 19 league goals so far this season and only four teams have netted twice against them. Clearly the issues at City are more about what they do with the ball rather than what they do without it.
The biggest shift between 2018-19 and 2019-20 has been the deployment of Kevin de Bruyne, who bizarrely now tends to feature out to the right wing, joining Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez to change City into a team that constantly looks for crosses.
They attempt 27.5 per game on average this season compared to 20.6 the year before. In the draw with Newcastle and defeats to Norwich and Wolves, City attempted 38, 46, and 36 crosses respectively. That reflects the desperation with which City now look to swing crosses into the box when faced with a deep-lying defence, rather than build patiently through midfield as in previous years.
This is only happening because of De Bruyne’s new position. By leaving the No. 10 space, Gundogan or Rodri have too few passing options centrally. Too often this season David Silva is floating harmlessly high and to the left while De Bruyne is out of shot on the right flank, meaning the central midfielder is forced into a sideways pass.
City’s football needs to be played a high tempo to pull the defensive shell out of position. That cannot happen while the lines are so disconnected.
Finally, Leroy Sane’s injury has seen the disappearance of that archetypal City goal; a tap-in at the back post. Raheem Sterling doesn’t make the same sort of runs in behind, meaning David Silva’s distribution is flattened and City are struggling to get the ball into the area in dangerous positions.
Arsenal victory shows the way forward
Guardiola picked a 4-2-3-1 at the Emirates with Phil Foden cutting in from the left and De Bruyne restored to central attacking midfield. The difference was enormous. Together they tore through the Gunners’ midfield and De Bruyne, now free to roam in the No. 10 space, was back to his creative best – scoring twice from this position.
A two-man midfield of Gundogan and Rodri helped stabilise against the opposition. Walker was restored to right-back, in turn strengthening the defence, and yet it was what these two midfielders did in possession that really helped City.
They formed a square shape with De Bruyne and Foden that overwhelmed Arsenal, easily evading tackles with slide passes that led directly to two of the goals. Overall, this gave Man City a much more balanced shape with and without the ball. Guardiola should look to use this formation more regularly now, even if Foden is to be replaced by David Silva.
The Spaniard’s influence is waning, but he could be revitalised from a false left-wing position – drifting inside unseen, rather than starting in that zone and thus getting marked out of the game.
Man City still desperately need a couple of new defenders and will remain fragile until Laporte returns in early February, and yet Sunday’s 3-0 win offers a solution to some of the problems engulfing the club in 2019-20.
It is, of course, too late to re-enter the title race, but – if they finally stop De Bruyne from shifting out to the right wing, and if they change formation to cut out the unnecessary crossing – the prospect of a first Champions League trophy is not beyond them.