Analyzing Manchester City’s Premier League Opener: What’s New? What Went Wrong?

By: Connor Ceballos

Introduction

Let me preface this by saying we probably shouldn’t judge City too harshly by their opening day performance. A few of their key players were not available or unfit, and that likely had a lot to do with their lackluster outing. It is important to note that City got off to a less than amazing start last season as well, even losing a match early on to Mourinho’s Tottenham in a very similar fashion to the one we just witnessed.

However, it is still important to examine what happened in the contest. Pep clearly has some things to consider. What new wrinkles will he implement into his system this season to keep things fresh and earn results? Let’s take a deeper look at some new tactics observed from this Sunday and see what worked and what didn’t.

Narrow Fullbacks

Against Tottenham, City’s backline remained very narrow during the build-up phases. This is something we have seen from Pep in the pre-season as well, which hints to it being a tactic the manager intends to stick with in the long-term.

Typically, as a team build-up from the back, their fullbacks will spread high and wide to provide width and allow space for the central midfielders to operate through the middle.  The CBs will remain considerably spaced out from each other as well. Take Tottenham for example.

You can see above, when Tottenham are building their attacks, fullbacks Reguillon and Tanganga, are about as close to the sideline as possible. Stretching the field and allowing the three central midfielders to operate in the center of the pitch. This is what we see from most teams that play with a back four.

However, on Sunday, City set up a bit differently.

It is easy to see the difference in positioning between the two teams in this stage of their build-up. Cancelo and Mendy are positioned much narrower than fullbacks typically would be in a back four – occupying the half-spaces. It is City’s wingers responsible for providing the width in this setup (see Mahrez at the top of the picture). Although at times Grealish and Gundogan would pull out wider to receive as well.

What this primarily did for City was allow them to play directly into their wide attackers. Often this would force Tottenham’s fullbacks to pull higher and wider to cover, which then opened up space in between Tottenham’s back four. It also created 1 v 1 opportunities for players like Sterling, Mahrez and Grealish who are elite when it comes to dribbling past defenders. City created fluid triangles up the field consisting of fullback – central midfielder – winger, with Torres in the center making runs into the space when available.

A good example here. As Cancelo carries the ball past midfield, Gundogan comes over to form a triangle with Mahrez holding the width. Mahrez staying wide forces Reguillon to do the same while Eric Dier shifts to cover Gundogan. This opens space in between Spurs’ center backs. Torres sees the opportunity and makes his run in behind. The fact that Torres starts from deeper in midfield makes his run harder to see and predict by Sanchez and Dier. Skipp as well is late to recognize the threat.

Attacking Shape and Vulnerability to the Counter-Attack

City looked vulnerable to just about every Spurs counter-attack on Sunday. There seemed to be acres of open space in the middle of the pitch for Lucas Moura and company to run into after winning possession. It was City’s biggest issue, and with how much Pep dedicates himself to positioning players to prevent counter-attacks, it is something he will be desperate to correct quickly.

Looking at the shape of the team, it confirms what was seen in the match. Fernandinho was often left isolated in the middle, and so if he lost the ball or if he was bypassed by a Spurs player there was typically no one else there to stop the counter. It was exactly what happened on the goal City conceded.

To understand why this happened I think it is most important to look at City’s attacking shape.

Credit to BetweenThePosts.net

Above is Manchester City’s pass map from Sunday’s match. What is important to note is Fernandinho’s isolation in the center of midfield. As I mentioned previously, it was often the Brazilian who was solely responsible for snuffing out Spurs’ counter-attacks through the center. This was a big ask of the 35-year-old especially considering that Moura, Son, and Bergwijn are players who excel at carrying the ball and counter-attacking at speed.

The shape seen above is different to what we saw from Pep’s men for most of last season. Last campaign, City often attacked in a 3-2-5 shape. Cancelo (or sometimes Zinchenko) would move inside in attack to form a double pivot with the holding midfield player, while the other fullback would shift across to become a third center back.

You can see above how that shape looked. This attacking shape provided a lot of stability for City and made them strong through the middle against counter-attacking teams. Players were in good positions to win the ball back quickly on the counter-press as well which we know is a big part of Pep’s tactics.

The image above is from the moments leading up to Spurs’ goal. In contrast to the image from last season, both fullbacks are advanced up the field and occupying wider spaces.  Grealish and Gundogan are advanced high as well. Fernandinho is bypassed by an extraordinary flick from Lucas Moura.

Bergwijn is then left with acres of space to charge into, launching the counter-attack that would lead to the only goal of the match. This situation played out numerous times throughout the day. Every Spurs’ counter-attack looked threatening.

Jack Grealish

A quick word on Grealish’s Premier League debut for City.

Grealish started and played the full 90 minutes against Tottenham. Pep deployed him as a ‘free 8’ alongside Gundogan and Fernandinho in midfield. Though he clearly had the license to move outside and interchange with Raheem Sterling in order to get on the ball and use his dribbling abilities. I personally thought Grealish had a good first performance. He maybe did not impact things in the final third as much as he would have liked, but he was positive in his play, carried the ball well, drew a number of fouls, and looked very threatening at times particularly in the first half. He certainly needs more time to fully integrate into the team and into the system as is to be expected. I think the more pressing issue is finding a way to fit him into the team while adding more protection defensively.

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