In light of a resounding three goal victory against the Premier League champtions, most would assume another gushing piece on City's wonderful attack. But more surprising – and encouraging – than the score and the way City played going forward, was the defensive solidity and tactical nous in dealing with Chelsea’s offensive threats. When we talk or think about shape and the importance of asymmetrical setups, it’s in very specific contexts – City don’t play a lopsided 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 without the ball, if they did, they’d concede goals at alarming rates. But they do play a lopsided shape in the build-up and final third and that shape often dictates what the opponent can do once City lose possession.
I’ve been thinking about City’s shape and how it informs the team’s defensive transitions more in the past two games than I have in quite a while – mostly, because I expected City to concede a lot of goals this season and through two games, Hart has yet to pick the ball out of his net. Why is that? Well, the most obvious reason is that City have played West Brom and Chelsea through two games. Under Pulis, West Brom are notorious for dropping deep and offering little going forward while Mourinho’s Chelsea are equally notorious for playing defensive, cagey football in in the matches against other top sides.
But that’s only part of the reason that City are one of only three Premier League teams to keep clean sheets in the first two games of the 2015-16 season (while scoring three times as many goals as the other two, Liverpool and United). Joe Hart’s been largely fantastic through two games, and while he’s had little to do by way of shot-stopping, his decision making has been flawless, choosing all the right times to come off his line or stay home.
In front of Hart, Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala have been nothing short of sensational – which is a relatively big surprise all things considered. Finding a reliable CB pairing that understands and compliments each other is incredibly difficult. Ideally, one would be a calm, reliable player who reads the game well and has perfect positioning (Pique, for example), while the other would be a more aggressive player, who steps up to follow dropping forwards and has the athleticism to track the runs of faster players. Strangely, Mangala and Kompany are both the latter with very few traits of the former. (Even more strange, is the fact that City’s apparent new signing, Nicolas Otamendi is also of the aggressive variation.)
When paired together in 2014-15 (apart from Mangala’s seriously incredible debut against Chelsea), Kompany and Mangala simply didn’t work. Their positioning, or lack thereof, was consistently exposed and they never appeared to improve their cohesiveness. And that didn’t change in an embarrassing first half display in City’s final preseason friendly against Stuttgart – a game that saw Kompany and Mangala concede this goal that might be one of the worst bits of "defending" I’ve ever seen). And while that game was just a friendly, it worried most of the fan base (myself included) into thinking Denayer’s time was sooner rather than later.
Yet here we are, two games into the season, and Kompany and Mangala appear to have blossomed into a wonderful pairing. But before jumping to that conclusion – because truly, I still have my doubts – we should consider two other more likely explanations: specifically, that a) City’s tactical shape and b) Fernandinho’s return to top-drawer form are the primary reasons for the defensive solidity to start the season.
Let’s start with shape: in place of the rested, Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna has played a vital, yet almost invisible, role in City’s first two games. What Zabaleta does, he does very well, and that includes his defensive performances. But because of his ability to get up and down the flank so well, he often takes up forward positions that carry him too high up the pitch to be a consistent piece of City’s transitional defence. Through two games, Sagna has taken up "offensive" positions that are almost exclusively in line with or deeper than Fernandinho’s position in midfield. With Kolarov playing as an almost auxiliary winger (as he should considering his skillset and City’s possession dominance), Sagna’s deeper position allows City more control in their defensive transitions, either a) forcing the opposition into worse attacking positions and/or b) limiting the number of odd-man breaks.
This is best seen in the 62nd minute against Chelsea on Sunday. As you can see in the stills below, when Silva loses possession on the edge of the box, Toure and Fernandinho are caught too high – Sagna though, instead of taking up a high outlet on the right, dropped deep enough to function as midfield cover as Mangala follows Costa high up the pitch.
If Sagna had moved further forward, this would have been an incredibly dangerous chance for Chelsea. Down just one, it would have seen Hazard running with the ball directly at Kompany with Willian to his right marked only by Kolarov. Instead, Kompany can continue to retreat, knowing Sagna's support will force Hazard into a quicker decision than he'd prefer. Furthermore, consider Sagna's average pitch position against Chelsea: almost perfectly in line with Fernandinho and well behind Kolarov.
It's this positioning that provides City far more control than they’ve often experienced in the moments after losing possession – and when Zabaleta comes back into the first team (which he inevitably will), something that will need to be replicated by the Argentine.
And finally, Fernandinho. It’s hard to be the best player on a pitch that includes David Silva, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Edin Hazard, and yet, that’s exactly what Fernandinho was on Sunday. Immense almost doesn’t do it justice, as he was seemingly everywhere doing everything. He was the player to confront Costa while offering City structure, outlets, tenacity and tackling, all while playing more than 45 minutes on a yellow card. Incredible performance from a truly incredible player.