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Under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City move the ball and cut through defenses like an obsidian kitchen knife. Each short pass slices a little deeper until the only place left to go is the back of the net. Death by a thousand cuts. But what happens when City’s vaunted 2019 version of tiki-taka hits a wall or, to mix metaphors, a parked bus? Or conversely, is it a feasible strategy for teams to soak up wave after wave of attacking City players?
Manchester City’s 3-1 victory against Watford this past weekend is worth looking at. The scoreline fails to capture how hapless Guardiola’s men looked in the first half when faced with a solid, well-trained, defense. For 46 minutes, Watford put in a disciplined shift. They held their shape and set up a defensive blockade at the top of the box like the Maginot Line. City pushed, pulled, and prodded but managed only two shots on target. They bombarded Watford who were happy to sit back, defend, and play for a point. By and large, they succeeded as the following diagrams show.
History tells us that the Maginot Line eventually crumbled. So did Watford. With the help of an unbelievable missed call by the referees gifting City their first goal, Watford collapsed. In less than fifteen minutes, Raheem Sterling completed his hat-trick and secured a victory. The first goal changed everything. Still, the match displays a minor chink in their otherwise impeccable armor. They struggle against well-drilled and disciplined defenses.
Of City’s four losses this season, three came against teams with good to solid defensive numbers, those being Chelsea, Crystal Palace, and Newcastle United. Leicester City was the outlier with a mediocre defense.
Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea side has the third best defense in the Premier League behind Manchester City and Liverpool. The Blues have 12 Clean Sheets so far this season, once again placing them third behind Liverpool (17) and Manchester City (14). Their average goals conceded is 1.07, again behind Liverpool and City but tied with Tottenham. A notorious creature of habit, Sarri set up his men in a predictable 4-3-3 formation, his go-to. City dominated most of the match but their opponents made the most of their opportunities.
Chelsea are a top club, regardless of their hiccups this season, and a victory is not completely unthinkable. Crystal Palace and Newcastle’s victories are more instructive.
During Crystal Palace’s 3-2 victory over City in December, Roy Hodgson set up his men in a traditional and defensive 4-4-2 formation. Statistically, Palace have a very respectable 9 Clean Sheets for the season and concede 1.37 goals per match. That places them firmly in the top half of defensive Premiership teams. Their formation provided a solid back four. It also made it easier for Palace’s backline and midfield to hold their shape. While City did manage 2 goals, it easily could have been more. A Herculean effort by Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka played a major role in keeping City ay bay, probably the finest of his career. He shut down Leroy Sane on the right side, though with considerable protection from Andrew Townsend in front of him. The red bubble surrounding goal demonstrates the overall struggle City had penetrating Palace’s defense. (It’s worth noting that City’s losses to Palace and Leicester came back-to-back during a rough patch in December.)
Rafa Benitez took a similarly defensive approach with Newcastle against City. The Spaniard’s underfunded side had no business set up even being in the match with the Citizens much less take any points. Instead, they snatched all three. It says something about Benitez’s pragmatic managing that has made them one of the top defensive teams in the league. In terms of numbers, the Toons have 9 Clean Sheets and concede a very respectable 1.27 goals per game.
Newcastle set up more defensively than Crystal Palace with a 5-4-1 formation that essentially advertised that there would be a bus in front of goal. City jumped out to a quick start that normally signals a steady thrashing. Sergio Aguero scored a volley within the six-yard box within a minute. However, rather than running away with the match, City settled into a listless rhythm that never hit a higher gear. The same lull plagued the team during their losses to Chelsea and Crystal Palace.
By defending deep, in numbers, and with discipline, Newcastle’s back five of DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Schär, Jamaal Lascelles, Florian Lejeune, and Matt Ritchie stifled City’s attack. Sean Longstaff offered a good dose of protection midfield. Together, they defended as a pack. Guardiola’s preferred short passing style wasn’t able to break through and the case could be made that playing balls over the top that can turn defenders might have helped. In the end, City were futile in the final third.
For good measure, a look at Manchester City’s 1-0 victory against Bournemouth provides further proof that it is possible to soak up City’s incessant attacking while keeping things close. Like Benitez, Eddie Howe had his men set up in a defensive 5-4-1 formation at the start. Alternatively, it shows how little wiggle room the strategy provides, though the case could be made that nothing can prepare a team against their opponents being gifted goals by the referee.
WORDS: Marc Landas
DATA, CHARTS, AND DIAGRAMS: StatsZone; SoccerStats.com
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons
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