Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City got back to winning ways in the Premier League with a fairly comfortable 2-1 victory over Newcastle United at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. In this tactical analysis, I will look at how City overcame Newcastle, employing the unorthodox use of a diamond.
As with most City games under Pep these days, we the fans wait with baited breath for the team news to roll in an hour prior to kick off and 4:30 pm on Saturday was no different.
City lined up with only two real nominated midfielders in Fernandinho and David Silva so many assumed that it would be a 4-2-4 or in fact a 4-4-2 with Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez flanking the two central players.
However, as Pep tends to do, he sprung a surprise and City in fact lined up more like this.
A Front 2
One of the main upsides for a defensive side of using a flat back five is that the defenders will almost always tend to have a numerical advantage over the opposing side. In my pre-game analysis of this game, I looked at Newcastle’s previous fixture against Chelsea. Newcastle set up in the 5-4-1 as they did on Saturday whilst Chelsea played their usual 4-3-3. This set up played into Newcastle’s hands as the three central defenders for Newcastle could basically be as aggressive as they liked up against Álvaro Morata as he mostly spent the game as a lone striker with little direct support around him.
To counter this numerical advantage City set up with two strikers who were positioned against the two wider central defenders. Agüero and Jesus were tasked with occupying the two wider central defenders due to the fact that in a back five the middle centre-back is usually a sweeper and is generally more conservative with his interceptions and his pressing. As such, Guardiola wanted to limit the opportunities for the wider centre-halves to press aggressively into the space behind the Newcastle midfield and knew that if they were occupied by an opposition striker they would be unlikely to close this space.
At times, however, one of the strikers, Agüero in particular, would drop deep and come looking for the ball. This tended to prove quite counter-intuitive. When one of the two would come and look for the ball from the likes of Laporte or Fernandinho this gave the numerical advantage back to Newcastle and gave two of the central defenders the licence to be aggressive in the space between their midfield and defence. This made it much more difficult for Silva to get on the ball with time and space in these areas.
The Wide Men
Throughout last season, in City’s best performances, Leroy Sané would play from the left wing and Raheem Sterling would play from the right wing. Due to ongoing issues behind the scenes, Sané is yet to start a game this season so, Sterling started on the left-hand side, while Riyad Mahrez took up his place on the right-hand side. Both players are more adept in these positions at cutting in onto their stronger foot than attacking the byline, particularly Mahrez. At the weekend this was again clear as both Mahrez and Sterling tended to prefer to cut back inside when they received the ball in high, wide positions. Riyad Mahrez completed just 3 of his 8 crosses, while Sterling was unable to complete a cross during the game.
I feel that this was an area in which many of City’s attacks broke down against Newcastle. This area of the field was of great importance and this was obvious as I will show later with the use of Mendy and Walker forming a midfield diamond. Sterling and Mahrez were encouraged to stay high and wide and City tried to work them into 1v1 positions as readily as possible. Sterling is adept at dribbling beyond an opponent, but was unable to complete any take-ons against DeAndre Yedlin, Mahrez on the other completed the most take-one in the City side with 3 from 4 attempts, however, many of Mahrez’s take-ons were followed by hopeful and slightly aimless balls into the Newcastle area or shots on goal of which he managed 0 on target from 3 attempts. Mahrez is style finding his feet at City and I am sure he will come good but at the moment things are quite going his way.
The most interesting aspect of City’s set-up against Newcastle on Saturday was the formation of a diamond in the midfield area.
Above we can see that when City had the ball they would form a midfield diamond with Fernandinho at the base, Silva at the point and Mendy and Walker joining the two together. Walker, Mendy and Fernandinho attracted the Newcastle midfield towards them, giving David Silva plenty of space to be found by Fernandinho.
The principles behind Mendy and Walker playing as inverted wing-backs has been explored at length, but the basic premise of it is to reduce the distances between the players in the central areas of the field allowing City to counter-press more effectively as soon as they lose the ball. This leads to the chance of Newcastle counter-attacking being greatly reduced. What’s more, the central defenders can also find the City wingers with direct passes, getting them into 1v1 situations quicker and hopefully while the opposition are more vulnerable.
The counter-press, along with a poor give away from Lascelles is exactly how City’s first goal came about.
As can be seen in the image above, Mendy is positioned high and narrow and is in a perfect position to win the ball back quickly after City had lost it. Mendy intercepted the pass out from Lascelles, feeds the ball to Sterling who cuts back inside and fires into the far corner.
However, when Pep has used two strikers before he has liked to use Mendy and Walker as more conventional wingbacks as he did with Mendy against Huddersfield earlier in the season. In addition to this, City have rarely used just two central midfielders and instead opting for two free-eights in De Bruyne and Silva operating in the left and right half space. As you well know, De Bruyne is out for the foreseeable future and as such Pep has to adapt his style of play slightly. In the game vs Newcastle, Guardiola used David Silva more like a traditional number 10 rather than a free-eight, and he would take up his position in behind the Newcastle midfield and in close proximity to Jesus and Agüero. By allowing David Silva to operate in this position, City would again ask questions of the Newcastle structure. The middle centre-back would have to decide whether he wanted to press Silva, leaving a big hole in the defence and the midfield four of Newcastle would also have to try and prevent the ball getting into Silva in dangerous positions.
Above is another example of the unorthodox diamond in action. Walker has positioned himself very narrowly again drawing in the Newcastle midfielder’s giving Silva space in behind Ki and Diamé.
City knew that they could have as few players as possible in the first phases of build-up as it wouldn’t be difficult to bypass the one-man press of Rondón. Laporte, Fernandinho and Stones would easily move the ball beyond the striker, allowing Mendy and Walker to be the more advanced central players.
Mirroring the Opposition
The other way in which City would line up in possession is shown below.
Laporte is incredibly comfortable on the ball and his incisive passing into the final third is a real weapon for City. During this game, he would often carry the ball into the midfield and position himself alongside Fernandinho leaving John Stones on his own as a lone defender. When David Silva was at his highest points on the pitch City were almost set up in a 1-4-5, the inverse of Newcastle. Pep knew that individually his players are better than Newcastle’s and if City could pin back and occupy the Newcastle defenders in the final third and were able to work situations where they could negate Newcastle’s numerical advantage then City would be able to create chances.
I took a few conclusions away from the game at the weekend.
The first thing I took from the game was the role of Benjamin Mendy. Mendy is one of the best full-backs in the league at attacking down the left-flank, getting half a yard and whipping in dangerous crosses. He is an accomplished passer of the ball, however I don’t feel he is entirely suited to playing in the role he was asked to this weekend. In my eyes, Mendy is a wide attacking full-back and if he isn’t used in that role it is somewhat a waste of his ability, this is emphasised by the fact that Mendy only completed 1 cross in 90 minutes and what’s even more staggering is that he only attempted 2.
When Guardiola wants someone to play in the inverted wing-back role from the left-hand-side in a game such as the one at the weekend, I feel Fabian Delph is much more suited to this role. Delph can take some of the responsibility off the shoulders of Fernandinho and Silva to progress the ball forward, which is something is his very accomplished at. In addition to this, by using Mendy and Walker as inverted wing-backs in this system, the likes of Gündoğan and Bernardo had to drop out of the side and thus City lost a little bit of their incisiveness in their ball progression through the middle of the pitch.
As mentioned previously, I felt many of City’s attacks broke down when the ball came to Mahrez and Sterling as they were being played on the opposite side to their strongest foot. Width is crucial to overcoming a low block and with the use of inverted full-backs, as well as inverted wingers, City encountered some trouble breaking down a stubborn Newcastle back-line.
And finally a more positive note to end on. Aymeric Laporte is quickly becoming a crucial cog in the Manchester City machine. Laporte completed the most passes against Newcastle, only relinquishing possession 3 times out of 119 attempted passes. He also completed the fourth highest attacking third passes, behind Mendy, Silva and Sterling, which really emphasises his willingness and ability to step into midfield and play accurate passes into City’s danger men.
City remain unbeaten and Pep himself has stated that he feels the season truly begins once the international break is over, during which many of City’s players will have well-earned rests, and the World Cup fatigue is finally shaken off and I for one am looking forward to seeing City’s stars firing on all cylinders again.