Guardiola’s Manchester City narrowly beat Sunderland
Pep Guardiola finally completed his first match in the Premier League, with a narrow win over David Moyes’ Sunderland team. The managerial merry-go-round was struck into full swing when Sam Allardyce replaced Roy Hodgson as England manager, leaving David Moyes to take up the vacant Sunderland managerial role. With only a few weeks of pre-season preparation, expectations were not high against the favourites for the title.
The teamsheet is never as expected with Guardiola as manager, and he did not disappoint with his selection on debut. Perhaps the most surprising move was the introduction of Willy Caballero in goal, instead of England & City regular Joe Hart. There was also no place for a number of City’s other big earners; Yaya Toure, Elaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri and Wilfried Bony were all left outside of the matchday squad.
David Silva was moved into a slightly deeper midfield role, and Aleksandr Kolarov continued his central defensive role from pre-season. New signing John Stones completed the backline.
Sunderland opted for a more conservative selection of personnel with John O’Shea deployed in central midfield alongside Jack Rodwell. Youngster Lynden Gooch was given his first Premier League start, and new signing Donald Love made his Sunderland debut at right-back.
One of the most obvious tactical features utilised by Guardiola was the full-backs drifting towards the halfspace during build-up and attacking organisation.
A tangent: on irregularity
There is something to be said for irregularity. Part of the reason an unusual approach like this can be successful even without perfect implementation is a lack of familiarity from the opponent. An opposition winger spends his whole career understanding when and how to approach a wider full-back depending on a number of different reference points (such as the location of his teammates). When his man moves inside, it removes this automation and creates uncertainty – the defensive responsibility of individual players is now less certain.
Particularly in the Premier League, where tactical adaptability (on a team and individual level) is less prevalent than in La Liga or the Bundesliga, slightly unusual build-up shapes have often proved successful. Brendan Rodgers & Roberto Martinez both found success with back three systems, but an inability to fine-tune these systems meant they were less successful after a period of 10-15 games. Pep Guardiola has proven his ability to understand the intricacies of a system and evaluate the problems within it. He will have no such problems.
‘False’ full-backs in build-up
Both Gael Clichy & Bacary Sagna were more narrow than traditional full-backs, much to the amazement of the English commentary team. This was used by Guardiola many times at Bayern Munich, particularly in the latter stages of his reign in Germany, with Rafinha in particular being given increasingly complex tactical instructions.
During the first phase of build-up, the full-backs would drift narrow once the ball-side central defender collected possession from the goalkeeper. In the early moments of the game, this disrupted Sunderland’s defense because of their proclivity to man-orient. The ‘false’ full-back was followed by the Sunderland winger, and the vacated space was filled by either the City central midfielder or winger.
This was much more successful on the left side, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, Gael Clichy’s ability to control the ball and quickly turn is superior to that of Bacary Sagna. He has improved quickness & agility over his countryman, and can pass the ball from both feet. This allows him to be less predictable when receiving the ball with back to goal, whereas Sagna would regularly turn towards his right foot.
More important though was the differing approaches of David Silva & Kevin de Bruyne, and particularly how they adapted to the positioning of the full-back on their side. Silva often moved into the vacated space out wide when Clichy moved inside. Because of Silva’s natural gravity, and Sunderland’s proclivity to man-mark, this generally forced Jack Rodwell to follow him away from the central areas. The space was then opened for Nolito to make a sharp movement inside, receiving the ball in a good position to immediately attack the goal.
On the other side, de Bruyne never made such a movement. The means of progessing play on the right was solely reliant on Raheem Sterling dropping deeper on the right-touchline. Because both players were facing backwards towards their own goal, the responsibility to adjust to his teammate rests with the central midfielder. Silva successfully used the positioning of Clichy to govern his own movement, but de Bruyne seemed unwilling or unable to make similar adjustments based on Sagna’s location. In many cases, John Stones’s options were limited as de Bruyne and Sagna would occupy the same passing lane.
Of course, a similar effect could have been created if Kevin de Bruyne drifted slightly wider. This was just more organically created when the central midfielder moved deep + wide, as the forward could then make a direct movement towards goal in a more dangerous area.
Even when the left-side did not make this particular movement pattern, though, Silva was more subtle in altering his positioning to ensure his passing lane was not blocked by Clichy. Kolarov was able to make some nice laser passes directly into Silva in advanced areas because of this.
Provoking the press, but inability to adjust
Whilst Stones’ passing influence was somewhat negated by the structure around him, he was still able to influence the game with sharp on-ball movements forward after a quick circulation in possession. Fabio Borini was often doing two players’ worth of pressing whilst Jermain Defoe stayed central, and this meant he could be fairly easily bypassed by a quick sideways pass. Stones & Kolarov both dribbled with the ball when the space was available after Borini had been forced into pressing on the other side of the pitch.
Whilst the quick circulation in possession allowed the centre back to be the free-man in build-up, this effect was nullified by poor spacing from City. Sagna & Clichy seemed unaware of how to adjust their positioning, and this often led to overcrowding.
Unlike David Alaba’s role at Bayern Munich, the full-backs were generally limited to the first phase of build-up, or picking up second balls. Once play moved into the final third, they merely operated as an outball to recycle possession. This allowed City to retain possession well, but did not facilitate chance creation. Much of City’s ability to break through came from combination play down the left between Silva & Nolito. On the right, de Bruyne was again disconnected from play and Sterling was often tasked with beating his full-back in a 1v1 duel. Later in the game, de Bruyne began to make moves towards the left to create overloads in that area, and create more space for Sterling by dragging his marker away.
… and in defensive transition
One of the most common transition routes in English football is the lofted pass between the central defender and advanced full-back. Jamie Vardy has made a career out of getting on the end of these passes and isolating a central defender in a wide 1v1. With a full-back positioned in a more central area, this is much more difficult to accomplish.
The full-backs positioning in the halfspace gives better access for pressuring the initial passer, but also reduces the potential passing lanes the ball-player can utilise. If the pass is successful and the striker receives the ball in the wide area, the ‘false’ full-back can more easily drop into the defensive line than if he were positioned wide initially.
Single pass counter-attacks are therefore much more difficult to achieve, and the opposition are usually required increased attacking presence to make an impact in transition.
There is much to work on for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, but they showed that this will not be a boring season. The team already put in a good performance, but was lacking the familiarity and understanding to consistently penetrate in the final third.