Manchester City have been practically unstoppable under Pep Guardiola this season, playing effective, attractive football and brushing aside the large majority of their opponents. But how do they do it, and is there any way to combat it successfully?
Well, although it’s happened just 4 times this season in all competitions, they have lost. Their unbeaten record in the Premier League was scuppered in mid-January with a 4-3 away defeat to Liverpool, they were knocked out of the FA Cup by their cup-tie bogey side Wigan in February, and have lost twice in the Champions League, once in the group stage at Shakhtar Donetsk, and once in the second leg of their recent tie against Swiss side Basel. Perhaps barring Liverpool, these are all sides you would expect a world-class side like City to roll over, but what went wrong?
To analyse their mistakes, first, we have to understand City’s strong points, and where they are winning the games. City’s main strength, as always with Guardiola teams, lies in midfield. I’ve talked before about how all good midfield trios consist of a player who is happy to sit deep and defend and build up from the back, a player who can move from box to box and can sit central and probe the defence, and a player who can drive forward and pressurise the opposition. The City midfield follows this trend, with either Fernandinho or Gundogan playing deep, the now-world-class Kevin De Bruyne playing some excellent passes and sitting central, and usually David or Bernardo Silva pressing up. Their strikers can also drop a little deeper and help build up if they have to, as they have the mercurial Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling to cause damage. Without this midfield strength and support of the wingers, City would struggle to create their attacks and win games, as their defence can look shaky at times. City’s idea is to simply outscore the opposition and tire them out.
So how do you combat them? There have been many tactics to try and do so, some more successful than others. Cardiff tried to, in Raheem Sterling’s words, Butcher them, and some teams have tried to beat them at their own game, pressing forward and taking the risk. But the most successful tactic, employed best by Wigan in the FA Cup, was to try and absorb the pressure and not get drawn out. This contrasts the usual best way to beat an attacking minded team, which is to control the ball and cause problems yourself, however, City’s major pressing makes this almost impossible, so the best thing to do is, surprisingly, to let them have the ball and try and pick up a goal on the counter-attack. Wigan showed some fantastic defensive organisation during their tie with the Blues, and held a deep defence and, with Will Grigg playing up top with a single supporting midfielder, which alternated between Max Power and Jay Fulton. Wigan’s Valliant defending was finally rewarded with Will Grigg’s curling strike into the bottom of Ederson’s goal just eleven minutes before full time.
City have found the almost perfect formula. They play not only attractive but effective football. City will win the Premier League, there is no doubt about that, and the Champions League could still be a possibility, however, I would believe a team like Bayern Munich or Barcelona could still roll over the Blue moon. They have found a new way to dominate English football, but they can be beaten, and if anyone can defeat Guardiola’s master tactics, it’s Barcelona. My money’s on the Catalans for the Champions League.