Analysing Manchester City’s attack: Chance creation methods
Following on from the first of this two part series where the predominant offensive structures Manchester City used were outlined, this part will examine the methods used to create chances within the aforementioned structures.
When observing isolated movements and actions that lead to chances, it is important not to generalise too quickly. Thus, the only concepts included were those that were seen repeatedly over the course of the season. The fact that some movements and actions were observed consistently points towards the notion that Manchester City have some pre-determined methods of creating chances. This consistency of intention, aligned to the relative predictability of positioning within the playing structure, perhaps allows the players to direct their attention towards responding to the demands of the specific situation (possibly facilitating a cleaner decision making and execution process). We therefore see attacks where the intention is identical, but the process is entirely different. ‘What’ the players are trying to create is, to some extent, pre-determined; ‘when’ and ‘how’ they achieve the ‘what’ is largely predicated upon the inventiveness of the players – an example of this is shown below.
The majority of this section will focus on the concepts used to create chances but, first, a brief note on the process used to arrive in the final third.
Passes to Prepare the Decisive Action
Considerably more ‘outside’ passes were used to bypass the opposition midfield line compared to ‘inside’. This makes strategic sense given that the priority for most teams, when they face Manchester City, is to stay compact centrally and protect the middle of the pitch. Passes to the outside also serve a protective purpose given that wide turnovers of possession result in less dangerous counter-attacking moments, compared to central giveaways. Some notable features of ‘wide’ and ‘central’ eliminations of the opposition’s midfield line are detailed below.
Passes to the wide channels tended to come from the middle of the pitch, allowing the receiver to take the ball with his body position naturally, facing diagonally towards the goal – offering a far greater view of the pitch and increasing the likelihood of a well-planned next action. The clips below show some examples of passes from the middle to serve the wide channel. Most of the passes were played by:
- CBs & DMs – disguised, fast and low passes from the near-side or flat diagonals from the far-side (e.g. Fernandinho versus Aston Villa in the clip below).
- Near-side FB – as previously mentioned, one of the advantages of the ‘inside low’ position is that it draws the opposition WM narrow and allows a diagonal passing line to the wide channel (again, improving the receiver’s view of the field compared to a straight pass). Two of the video examples below demonstrate this (Angelino versus Shakhter Donetsk and Cancelo versus Watford).
A noticeable concept used to create more time and space on the wings was the holding of the ball centrally. This was principally done in two ways: individual players staying on the ball (e.g. John Stones vs. Norwich) and central combinations (e.g. example versus Manchester United). This holding of the ball in central areas often narrowed the oppositions’ defensive structure allowing the receiver to attack 1v1s with more momentum (e.g. Mahrez versus Manchester United) or cross from a narrower position (e.g. Sterling crossing from inside the penalty box after Stones’ dribble and release).
As already mentioned, there were far fewer passes played that centrally bypassed the midfield line. Those that were played through gaps in the oppositions’ midfield line, were disguised low and fast passes – typically aimed at the highest player within a gap to allow for combinations (usually a ST or AM). Some examples of these passes will be shown in later sections that deal with central combinations.
Moving on to the methods of chance creation, some were commonplace in all areas of the opposition’s half and these will be referred to as ‘general methods’ (detailed below). Some methods will be explained in greater detail than others, but most will be described in two parts; decisive action(s) to bypass the defensive line and finishing action(s).
This concept was certainly more prevalent from the right side however there were enough chances created from the left to warrant ‘general’ categorisation. In-swinging crosses have coincided with a more regular shift towards wingers playing on the opposite side, compared to the season prior. Mahrez and Bernardo Silva were the most effective at delivering this type of cross.
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: The crosser tended to take a touch or two inside, or even slightly backwards, to set up the action. This slight backwards touch would occasionally tease the defensive line into squeezing up towards the edge of the penalty box or at least halt their backwards movement towards goal (creating the space for the ball to be delivered and allowing runners to use their opposite momentum against the defender). Whilst this was happening, STs, far-side wingers and occasionally far-side AMs would be making drifting movements, on the blindside of defenders, towards the back post. The ball was delivered over the defensive line and into the space between defensive line and GK. The speed of the delivery was mostly dependent upon the height of the defensive line – the further the defensive line was from their goal, the slower the delivery (and vice versa).
Finishing action(s): The finishing action was generally simple (despite being aerial), due to the finisher being close to goal and the contact being taken against the momentum of the GK. Jesus was particularly adept at connecting with this type of cross.
Pass and run
Traditionally known in England as a ‘give and go’, this appeared to be a very basic principle implemented at Manchester City in the opposition’s half: once a pass had been played (particularly sideways or backwards), a forward run that threatened the defensive line would be made. The pass was usually played from the wide channel towards the centre, forcing defenders to shift their body position and vision in the direction of the ball. It was also often played slightly backwards, to stop the defensive from moving backwards and, in some cases, coercing them to begin squeezing up. The follow-up action (forward run) was then made against the momentum of the defensive line and on the blindside of individual defenders. Dynamic, blindside movements are less likely to be tracked thus creating a cleaner break through and increasing the likelihood of an effective next action. There are some examples where the follow-up run is delayed slightly to ensure that the run is co-ordinated with the pass (e.g. B.Silva versus Zagreb). Examples below.
This concept, in many ways, speaks for itself and is primarily the remit of Mahrez and Sterling as both have the profile to beat defenders consistently. Much of Guardiola’s work around this concept seems focused on teaching the team how to create more, and better, opportunities for this situation to occur. The aim is to give the ball to these players with separation from the FB (to create dynamic advantage for the winger) and as narrow as possible– so that the situation can ideally occur inside the penalty box (reducing the FBs ability to defend proactively). As already mentioned, they achieved this by serving the wingers from the middle or opposite side of the pitch, forcing the opposition FB to cover the centre of the pitch initially and thus allowing the winger to receive in a narrower position. The ‘inside high’ positioning of the AMs also helped to fix the opposing FB narrow, creating an even more favourable situation for the winger. Interestingly, wide 1v1s were more effective against 4-man defensive lines, whereas the increased coverage that a 5-man defensive line offers denied space for wide 1v1s and forced the situation to begin from a wider position – decreasing the overall threat of the next action. Wide 1v1s tended to create a slightly slower dynamic of attack, allowing defenders time to close the space between them and their GK; cutback crosses were, therefore, prominent after the FB was eliminated.
Other chance creation methods were more specific to the combination of players in each area of the pitch (right, central and left) and will therefore be presented as such.
As mentioned in the previous section, Walker and Cancelo were predominantly responsible for occupying the low point of their respective wide triangle. This meant that their forward runs were limited (perhaps introducing the element of surprise) and made from a deep position. The advantage of the overlaps starting from a deep position was that it allowed the runner to build up a great deal of speed in comparison to the relatively static opposing FB (who was intentionally engaged and slowed down by the ball carrier) – typically leading to a cleaner breakthrough (e.g. Cancelo versus Wolves). Cancelo appeared more inclined to join attacks, compared to Walker, but the athleticism of Walker brought a far greater degree of threat to his overlaps.
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: The timing and deception of the slide pass from the ball carrier was crucial here. The ball carrier would attempt to ‘fix’ the overloaded defender with his touches and the pass was played just before the overlapping player had arrived on the shoulder of the defender with a big dynamic advantage.
Finishing action(s): The slide pass tended to place the crosser close to the goal line, so cutbacks or crosses into the 2ndcorridor (space between defensive and midfield lines) were predominantly used. As soon as the last line was broken, the ST, and any other close supporting runners, attacked the 1stcorridor (space between defensive line and GK). This often became a sacrificial run from the ST, allowing later arriving players to attack cutback and 2ndcorridor crosses. It tended to be the far-side winger or a midfielder arriving from deep connecting with these crosses.
Inside Channel Run
There is only a couple of examples of this concept included because it has now become so synonymous with Manchester City and Kevin De Bruyne, that the point does not need to be laboured any further. It is worth mentioning, though, that teams were actively defending De Bruyne in this space, which is perhaps why other methods have featured equally regularly (discussed later).
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: De Bruyne would not always run into this space; he would sometimes just position himself on the last line, in the gap between CB and FB, fake to make a movement towards the ball and then wait for the ball to be slid in behind (e.g. the clip versus Tottenham). Even in the Burnley example, he delays and fakes slightly to lull the tracking player into breaking the momentum of his tracking movement. Timing was integral to the pass itself – too early and De Bruyne would not connect with the pass; too late and he would be offside or marked.
Finishing action(s): As soon as the defensive line was broken, the ST and opposite winger would attack the 1stcorridor space at top speed. The objective here was to get ‘goal side’ of the marking defender and maintain this position until the ball was delivered (the clips show Aguero and Sterling using their body to hold their ground once they got ‘goal side’ of the defender). De Bruyne is clearly the master of the 1stcorridor delivery – the pace he generates whilst retaining precision is breath-taking to watch. 1stcorridor deliveries create a somewhat simple finish for the player connecting with the cross, as they are close to goal, with no defenders obstructing and often a goalkeeper scrambling across the goal to get into line with the ball.
Winger Cutting In
As mentioned, many teams have undoubtedly worked on defensive strategies to deal with the inside channel run from De Bruyne, when preparing to play against Manchester City. One way that Manchester City have responded to the regular tracking of this run is to exploit the space vacated inside the pitch with diagonal dribbles – below is an example.
Mahrez was a brilliant exponent of the diagonal dribble throughout the season and Guardiola appears to have worked, with the team, on several concepts to maximise the impact of his carries inside. Some examples are detailed below.
Cut in and score
If unable to shoot, the channel concept, from the previous part, then becomes apparent once inside the pitch. The consistency of Manchester City’s positioning and movements across the field allow Mahrez to watch the behaviour of the defensive line and find a gap to exploit. When looking for a pass, the priority was to slide in a runner from the central channel as shown below.
Cut in and exploit central channel
Cut in and find opposite side
The process follows that if the central channel was unavailable to exploit, then the next priority was to find the opposite side. This was generally achieved in one of two ways: exploiting the inside channel or exploiting the wide channel. Again, emphasising the importance of patient positioning across the pitch. Having a threat in the far-wide and far-inside channels created a problem for the far-side FB. If he protected the inside channel, the ball would be swept wide and he would likely have to defend a 1v1 inside the penalty box. If he covered the wide channel, then he would expose the blindside of his nearest CB and open the inside channel for out-in runs or runs from deep.
This concept is another response to the opposition’s greater emphasis on covering De Bruyne’s inside channel forward runs (e.g. Winks and Eriksen both covering inside channel in the Tottenham clip below). This cross is typically delivered from the ‘low inside’ position, but Walker and Cancelo have been reluctant to do so. Walker appeared not to trust his ability to deliver this cross (frequently opting to play a safer pass) whereas Cancelo wasted many opportunities to deliver by shooting from low probability positions – this is a flaw in his decision making that Manchester City would do well to address rapidly.
Pass to prepare the decisive action: Backwards pass from wide to inside channel. De Bruyne often dropped back slightly from the default ‘inside high’ position to be found with a pass from the wide channel (if his positioning was too high, the pass would become too square and likely get intercepted by a player in the defensive line). He also used deception by faking to make his infamous inside channel run (knowing that opposition midfielders have been ordered to track) thus allowing him to receive slightly closer to the penalty box. Another advantage of playing a backwards pass before the cross was that it teased the defensive line to take steps up towards the edge of the penalty box or at least halt their retreat to goal. Just one step was enough to allow the attacking movements to oppose the momentum of the defensive line and create a clearer breakthrough.
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: The movements inside the box tended to drift, on to the blindside of defenders, towards the back post. There was then an acceleration towards goal just before the ball had left the crosser’s foot. The delivery was played towards the back post into the space between the defensive line and goalkeeper – again, the speed of the delivery dictated by the height of the defensive line.
Finishing action(s): Generally, a headed finish back across the goalkeeper (against the momentum of his movement). Occasionally, the cross would be too wide to be scored from directly, requiring a further pass helped back across goal for a secondary runner.
The majority of collective methods used to centrally break through the defensive line were grounded in high quality combination play.
This concept was predominantly characterised by vertical line-breaking passes, followed by one touch lay-offs or up, back, throughs.
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: The line-breaking pass into the feet of a focal point often attracted the attention (e.g. versus Leicester below) and sometimes pressure (e.g. versus Watford below) from defenders. This was often followed by a one touch lay-off in the opposite direction of the initial pass, or a combination into the space vacated by the attracted defender. This often created a zig-zag effect to the combinations which were challenging for defenders to deal with because their body position, and role within their unit, changed with each switch of direction. The speed and precision of the combinations did not give defenders time to suitably adjust to the rapid changes of direction.
Finishing action(s): The combinations normally resulted in a breakthrough down the side of CBs and a finish from the side of the goal (which was a challenging angle to score from e.g. Jesus against Newcastle). The finish was typically made trickier given the desperation of pressure coming from recovering defenders (e.g. tackle from Kongolo in the clip versus Fulham). Generally speaking – the cleaner the breakthrough, the more time and space for the finish – potentially even creating enough time and space for an extra pass across goal and a higher probability finish.
Switches Between Central Channels
A considerable number of Manchester City’s attacks swept diagonally across the pitch, starting on the right and finishing on the left. The diagonal attacks initiated by Mahrez have already been seen, but there were also many analogous attacks instigated by the AMs when receiving in the ‘inside high’ space with an inside-facing body position. Raheem Sterling’s function within the team has shifted more towards the role of a 2ndST (more on this later), which has allowed him to finish some of these sweeping attacks (e.g. versus Bournemouth below).
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: At the point of the line-breaking pass reaching the receiver, the defenders’ body positions and attention were fixed towards the ball. Diagonal attacks from this position, therefore, allowed Manchester City to exploit the blindside of defenders in the far-inside channel. Again, the speed and precision of the passes did not allow defenders to react to the new threat posed by these ‘mini’ switches of play.
Finishing action(s): very similar to the type of chance created from central combinations – usually down the side of central defenders and to the side of the goal.
Another method of bypassing the defensive line, centrally, is to go over. This is naturally very difficult to execute versus deep blocks given the lack of space behind the defensive line. Manchester City circumvented this constraint by ensuring that their clipped passes were diagonal, allowing greater margin for error. The trade-off was that the receiving player was often positioned sub-optimally to score directly (distance and angle to goal), requiring a further pass, helped back across goal, for a player more optimally positioned (e.g. Phil Foden versus Aston Villa and Port Vale). The receiver of the clip pass tended to come from the far-side, on the blindside of defenders. Three players were primarily responsible for connecting with the diagonal passes: ST (peeling onto blindside of CBs); AM (making a run from deep on the blindside of defenders); and W (making an out-in movement on the blindside of defenders). The run was typically started at the point that the ball carrier took a touch out of his feet and lifted his head to look for options. As evidenced in the clips, Gundogan is the master of spotting and executing this pass. Rhodri, like Cancelo, wasted many opportunities to find this pass by opting to shoot from outside the penalty box instead.
De Bruyne has delivered some nice wide crosses from the right side but this concept has been considerably more prevalent from the left side. As mentioned in the structures section, the LBs were generally positioned a bit higher and wider than the RBs. From this position, they often took the opportunity to cross, early, from outside the opposition’s defensive structure. This is perhaps, in part, because the LBs used generally lack the 1v1 ability and dynamism to break beyond the opposing FB consistently (compared to, say, Mahrez on the other side). What they do have, though, is the individual ability to deliver with quality from a slightly deeper and wider position, as seen in the footage below.
Decisive action(s) to bypass defensive line: 1stpriority appeared to be a whipped delivery into the 1stcorridor (e.g. Mendy against Zagreb and Angelino against Oxford). However, when this space was closed by the defensive line, the 2ndcorridor became the next priority (e.g. Zinchenko versus Bournemouth).
Finishing action(s): Finishes from the 1stcorridor were generally straightforward (usually just a solid contact directed towards goal was sufficient). Finishes from the 2ndcorridor were much more complicated however, hence why that space is a 2ndpriority. The reason being that shots from the 2ndcorridor are taken from a greater distance to goal, with defenders in the way and the finisher often having to strike across his body (e.g. even De Bruyne struggling to finish cleanly from this space versus Bournemouth).
Combinations in the Left Inside Channel
As mentionedpreviously, the loss of Sané on the left wing compelled Guardiola to seek other methods of creating chances on the left. Consequently, a more combinational approach was developed and this principally manifested itself in two clear ways – both are detailed below.
Overload Left Inside Channel
As mentioned in the structures section, D.Silva and Sterling have overloaded the left inside channel regularly and, at times, been joined by a ST and other midfielders. This approach seems to have really suited D.Silva given that he thrives in small spaces with teammates close for combinations. He is also another year on in age and his physical prowess is steadily deteriorating, so a less dynamic and more combinational style appears to have helped him continue to perform at a solid level. Some examples of combinations that have emerged from overloaded situations are below.
Diagonal or Horizontal Line-Breaking Passes
To access the overloaded inside channel, the ball was often worked wide (usually to the LB), around the opposition’s midfield line, to then arrive back inside with a diagonal or sometimes lateral line-breaking pass. The nearest supporting player would often make an inside channel run to drop the defensive line and create space for the pass to be played inside (e.g. Sterling versus Crystal Palace). Mendy was particularly adept at finding this pass, with the pace of the ball often setting up in-out combinations (e.g. Silva and Sterling versus Bournemouth).
For the sake of clarity, each chance creation method was presented separately however it is important to note that they do not exist in isolation of each other. Indeed, Manchester City are so dangerous because many movement patterns are occurring simultaneously across the field. Even players on the far-side of the pitch are actively engaged in the creation of chances, whether that be to reduce the cover of an opposition defender or to offer a passing option. Speaking to this element of simultaneity, an example of two chance creation methods used in the same possession phase is shown below.
Approach Against Other Defensive Styles
As mentioned in the structures section, the above concepts were most prominent against zonal defences, however, teams clearly differ in their defensive style which, in turn, requires a different attacking approach. It is beyond the scope of this piece to touch on all the variations of defensive approach and corresponding solutions in any great detail, but one brief example was Manchester City’s away game in the UCL against Atalanta. Atalanta’s midfield players were predominantly man-oriented which left significant space in front of their defensive line. This created an interesting effect whereby even Manchester City’s controlled build-up moments morphed into sequences that more closely resembled counter-attacks, once Atalanta’s midfield line was broken. Atalanta’s defensive line was also following the movements of Manchester City’s attackers which led to some interesting individual movements and actions to attack the space left behind, as seen in the clips below.
To conclude, it appears that Manchester City use some clear collective structures and concepts that, to a large extent, are pre-determined – perhaps facilitating a degree of cohesion between the individuals within their attack. Guardiola then tweaks, removes and exaggerates these generic concepts to heighten the impact of individual players within the squad which, in turn, enhances the collective performance of the team. This seamless blend of structure and autonomy creates a style of football that is as harmonious as it is imaginative. Looking ahead to the 2020/21 season, it will be fascinating to see how Guardiola adjusts the attack again, with the departures of D.Silva and Sané confirmed. The loss of two key figures will, no doubt, be offset by the growing role of players currently in the squad (Foden is now performing at a level to suggest that he is ready to play a more integral role in the squad across all competitions next season) and the acquisition of new talent (Ferran Torres the only notable addition thus far) to further alter the dynamic of Manchester City’s attack.