I think most of us were expecting Manchester City to bounce back well this season from a relatively disappointing 2019/20. With the addition of Ferran Torres giving them another forward option to replace Sane, as well as Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake providing some desperately needed defensive reinforcements, they looked well placed to reclaim their title from Liverpool.
However, so far in 2020/21, the problems for Man City seem to grow more serious by the week. While struggles could perhaps be put down to poor finishing, injuries and misfortune last year, the issues are starting to look like they run deeper than that as Pep Guardiola tries to evolve this City team.
What will be especially concerning for City fans is the emergence of troubles at the top end of the field. Even when this Man City team has faltered on the defensive side of the game, their offence has remained the strongest in the league over the past three seasons. So far in this campaign meanwhile, we have seen a blunter City attack that has managed a surprisingly low 8 goals from their first 5 Premier League games.
Although that may not sound too desperate a situation to be in, when you watch this team it is clear something isn’t quite right. Of course it would be too simplistic to try and reduce this down to just one factor, but a large part of it stems from the lack of width Manchester City have often been playing with this season.
In the first half of Saturday’s 1–1 draw at West Ham we saw this issue in full effect. With the left footed Mahrez playing on the right wing, and the right footed Sterling playing on the left wing, both wingers are continually looking to come inside towards the centre on their stronger foot. Naturally that narrows the front three, but this is not a problem in of itself. Many teams play this way.
Where City differ however, is in the use of the fullbacks. In order to maintain width, when a team is using inverted wingers they will typically push their fullbacks high up the field to fill the space left by the wide attacking players who have drifted inside. Instead of this, Pep was also inverting his fullbacks who were tucking into the midfield to offer more protection there.
Inverting fullbacks isn’t a new concept for Pep’s City, they’ve been doing it for a few seasons now. What is causing problems now is having both the left and right back do it too often. With the players consistently ending up in such a narrow shape in possession they became easy for West Ham to defend against.
In the second half of the game Pep responded. Rather than stick with the 433, Gundogan dropped deeper next to Rodri with Bernardo Silva playing in front of them as the 10. Using a double pivot at the base of the midfield instead of having Rodri there alone meant that Walker and Cancelo could push further up the field to stretch the West Ham defence.
Ultimately it was a much better second half performance from City, even though they were unable to find a winning goal. But what has given rise to this lack of width in a team that were so effective at stretching the pitch and creating goals in wide areas in the past?
One of the biggest causes is the loss of Leroy Sane. Although he left for Bayern Munich in the summer, City have effectively been without him since the start of 2019/20 as a result of injuries. Having that naturally left footed player on the left side of the attack obviously stops the centre of the field getting too congested as there is less tendency for him to cut inside.
Also, Sane’s explosive pace made it easy for him to drive past defenders to the byline where City created lots of goals pulling the ball back across the box. With Sterling now usually playing on the left, with Mahrez on the right, that path to goal is no longer as viable as it once was. Something we could see to try and offset this is more game time for Ferran Torres.
As a direct, right footed winger, Ferran could be used on the right side to offer that type of threat we saw from Leroy Sane. Similarly, Phil Foden who is left footed, can also offer better balance by starting on the left side. In fact that was a substitution that Pep made at half time in the West Ham game, and it certainly made a difference as he grabbed the equaliser.
Irrespective of which wingers are used though, it is the increased use of fullbacks as inverted fullbacks that has really compounded this problem. Cancelo and Walker taking up more central and less advanced positions in possession during the first half of the West Ham game is a tactic used by City to limit their weakness in defensive transitions.
Their susceptibility to conceding chances on the break is a known frailty in this Man City team, so having the fullbacks move inside to offer extra protection for Rodri makes a lot of sense in one regard. In the past, when Fernandinho was the lone defensive midfielder, this wasn’t so necessary, but as Rodri struggles to fill the Brazilian’s shoes on the defensive side of the ball something has to be done.
So right now it’s a case of every time Pep Guardiola tries to plug in one leaking hole in his team, another one appears elsewhere. I guess that’s a risk you run when your style of football requires such specific qualities in different roles in order to function at its maximum potential. The rewards when it does come together are special though, as we have seen throughout Pep’s career.
As I always feel compelled to say when offering up thoughts early in the season, it is important not to get too carried away here. City are struggling with injuries so far in 2020/21 at left back, centre back and striker, as well as with chief creator Kevin De Bruyne, so it has not been an easy start to their campaign. Plus, that is after their limited preseason following their involvement in the Champions League during August.
All the same, it is hard to ignore this increasing struggle Man City are having in finding a balance between more defensive solidity and maintaining their offensive output. Potentially the 4231 that we have seen Pep turn to more over the course of the past 12 months can offer an answer to that.
It worked against West Ham. The fullbacks got forward while Rodri was able to play in a double pivot where he looks far more comfortable. Whether or not it can provide a long term solution remains to be seen, but it is something to keep an eye on as many of their injured players return to action over the next few weeks.
Originally published at http://jackmccutcheon.com on October 27, 2020.