The win over a threatening Watford side may have provided some sights that sore Manchester City eyes needed, but the injury to Ilkay Gundogan made the three points bittersweet. With the German out for the rest of the season, it's hard to put a finger who could fill the Gundogan sized hole in the team. Enter Yaya Touré.
Though the days of seeing Touré blaze past two or three opponents and into space to deliver a cannon blast of a shot are long gone, the Ivorian showcased his immense, and often underrated, passing ability against Walter Mazzari's Watford to great effect. Sinking into a deep midfield role to facilitate possession, mainly operating as that vital link between the defense and the attack, Touré brought a level of distribution to the team unsurpassed by the likes of any midfielder currently wearing a Sky Blue jersey. With the central midfield partnership that won the 2013/14 Premier League title, Pep Guardiola has the chance to make use of the once thought auxiliary City legend.
Architect, not Painter
As opposed to deploying Touré higher up the pitch where he's been most effective in the latter stages of his career, utilizing the complete range of passing further back has aided Manchester City in their transition from a back three to a tentative back four. As displayed in the passing map above, Touré's involvement featured an overwhelming majority of lateral passes, the importance of which cannot be measured on the score sheet. The former African Player of the Year's newfound role will be primarily concerned with switching the play and making the correct passing decisions to create the best environment for the forward players, who can create high fidelity chances on the ball. He'll also serve to protect the back line by ensuring possession isn't lost in key areas and to facilitate the build up play.
Much to the chagrin of English football media pundits, Pep Guardiola surprisingly turned to what looked to be somewhat of a back four with a full-back shift against Watford. The way this worked was when one full-back took up a position further forward, the opposite full-back stayed back, forming somewhat of a back three or even four if either Yaya or Fernando sunk inwards.
The reason for this may stem from Pep Guardiola giving up on trying to utilize Pablo Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy in the same way that he did David Alaba and Phillip Lahm at Bayern Munich. Both of his Bayern players became skilled central midfield operators under Guardiola, allowing him to more easily implement both the high pressing and risky possession actions synonymous with his system. The members at Manchester City, unfortunately, haven't performed to the same standard, but it wasn't for lack of effort. We saw flashes of how brilliant someone like Zabaleta could be in the second leg against Barcelona, where he was able to defend Neymar adequately and yet still provide a passing outlet further up the field. Consistency is the key, however, and the crucial touchline fulcrums haven't been able to offer the type of dynamism Guardiola ideally envisions.
Contrary to popular belief, the City defense, or at least the more traditional understanding of a defense, isn't the issue. The porous defense starts with problems occurring much farther up the pitch. In a recent press conference, Guardiola spoke about how the high pressing differed from his time in Spain and Germany. His broken English made it a bit difficult to discern his points, but the message became evident towards the end of his statement. Since so many teams in England choose to launch the ball long after a goal kick, regardless of a positional press (standing in short passing lanes), it isn't "necessary" to start pressing off the bat. Guardiola said, "You have to start to make the high pressing after the second or third ball." Committing too many players higher up the pitch for a press that is, in his own words, "not necessary," can cause a lack of defensive solidity at the back, but the most concerning and relevant issue regarding personnel deficiencies is the counter press.
Not only have the aging City full-backs not performed to the standard in which Guardiola hoped they could on the ball, they, along with the rest of the team, have been incredibly weak from a counterpressing standpoint. What makes this tactic so essential to the system is the fact that at the very least, a decent counterpress is supposed to force the first few passes backward so that the defending team can attain a solid defensive shape rather than being hit on the counter. Since the end of the first ten games, the efficacy of City's defensive pressing action has been far below expectation.
The graph above and its shocking amount of color provides us with a visual representation of where opposing teams have been able to complete passes after the counter press has been broken. Far too much possession is being allowed to take shape in dangerous areas after the initial press is broken. If Manchester City are to shore up their "leaky defense," they must first mend their ability to stop the ball from getting there in the first place.