When you put together the words Manchester City and Tactical Analysis the first idea that usually comes into mind is shots per game, possession, positional attacks, and a whole set of attacking concepts. It is fair to primarily analyse that aspect of the game when statistics show that the team has averaged 60% of possession and almost 19 shots per game, similar to the 62% possession and 16.7 shots per game during the 2017/2018 season according to Wyscout.
How to defend well when you don’t do it that much?
Humans are creatures of habit, the more we do things, the better we do them. You may never forget how to ride a bicycle, but if you do it once a year you will not be as skilled as if you ride it daily. Manchester City is a team that is used to attack, have possession of the ball and have its players in the opponents’ half. And because, among other things, they train and play like that, they do it very well. But when we talk about defensive analysis, we must consider that Manchester City is tested defensively few times per game. They have received seven shots per game on average this season, a similar number compared to last season but low compared to other first tier teams.
Having less than average defensive tasks per game, it is even more important to be stricter and demanding when you train that aspect of the game. Lower exposure during games must be compensated with more intense exposure during training, so for the few situations they face during a game, they are as prepared as they are when they attack. If Guardiola’s statement holds “If we defend well, is because we attack well; and if we attack well, is because we defend well”, you may defend less, but you must do it as well as you attack to be more dangerous when you transition into the offensive phase.
Manchester City has improved so far this season when looking at numbers. They have had fewer defensive duels per game, on average 58.89 last season versus 54.08 so far on this one, fewer clearances and fewer interceptions. So even though more attacks are ending in shots by rivals, Manchester City have been able to control possession far better away from its defensive line, forcing the opposition to make passing mistakes, and therefore, losing possession without direct intervention by Guardiola’s team on the ball.
There is still work to do defensively and we will look how Manchester City looks more vulnerable when defending and how could they improve. Videos of Pep’s team defensive re-positioning after losing possession show that most of the spaces left by players are between the defensive and midfielders’ line. That’s because midfielders and full-backs tend to stay high when attacking, if the ball is lost, there is usually plenty of space behind them, and they are caught running backwards behind the ball and opponents. This is shown in the image below against Chelsea.
This could be exploited by teams with an efficient defensive-offensive transition and fast players that can perform a successful counterattack. And because of spaces left in the middle are big, there is no need by rivals to exploit the sides, therefore having a more cohesive attacking structure.
There is also a divergence in the pressure intensity of Manchester City’s players when the ball is lost. As Marcelo Bielsa once mentioned, what he admired of Guardiola’s teams was that after losing the ball, their players immediately moved forward to press the opponents, and not backwards as what would be natural movement if you want to transition into the defensive positioning. Although Fernandinho is very good at this, inside midfielders are sometimes less aggressive, forcing the Brazilian to move far away from his position and leaving even more space in the middle.
There have been two games where this was less notorious. One was against Lyon, in the first UEFA Champions League game, because the French team pressed higher on Pep’s team, forcing them to lose possession closer to their goal. And even though Gündoğan had a weak game, he put a lot more effort on the defensive re-positioning than David Silva. The second one was against Huddersfield Town, and because the whole team was defending in the first third of the pitch, it was not leaving anyone to exploit those spaces and counter-attacks.
These big spaces between the lines have not only happened when the team loses the ball that is exploited by opponents. It has also happened from innocent long balls where City’s players should have re-positioned defensively faster. In the picture below, the ball is kicked long by Fulham’s keeper after several seconds of possession and with enough time for City to be well positioned. Note how much space is between the lines and how defenders are some meters away of rivals. The other picture is also a long ball from Lyon’s keeper.
The slow defensive transition of Manchester City allows rivals not to look for numerical advantage but to positional advantage. They don’t need to put a lot of players in their offensive line, they just need them to find those spaces and exploit them with fast movements. Look at the sequence below, after a long pass Manchester City has the numerical advantage, but after Zinchenko is anticipated the team has a sloppy reaction and ends up in a positional disadvantage.
Doing better defensively, but there is room to improve
Pep’s team is having a good season defensively. Numbers are in their favor, they have improved the intense pressing forcing rivals to lose possession and reducing the need of defensive duels, tackles, and aerial duels. But still, there is evident lack of a cohesive defensive structure, with low coordination and misaligned pressure intensity in the offensive line versus the defensive line. It is key for the team to close spaces between defenders and midfielders, and because Guardiola’s teams usually press high up in the pitch, the defensive line must position higher. The times they pressed the rivals forwards, even after the middle of the pitch, they were very successful cutting oppositions attacks because the opposition had the defenders pressuring from behind and the midfielders coming from the front cutting potential passes alternatives, as shown in the picture below.
That along with a more even pressure intensity across the lines, and increased concentration in the few defensive situations, it should help Manchester City to improve its already stronger defensive shape.