Do you guys smell that? I know I do. That would be the smell of the cream rising to the top, my fellow Manchester City fans.
We’re running out of things to say about how great Manchester City are playing here at Bitter and Blue. Last season’s hot start turned into inconsistency that dogged the team throughout the year. This team feels different however, and I get the feeling there won’t a repeat of last year’s dip in form. City obviously won’t be able to score 7 goals a game like they did in their victory against Stoke City, but the domination this team shows week in and week out is the new normal.
Pep Guardiola didn’t unveil any new tactical tweak for this game that drove the team to victory. In fact, we saw much of the same strategies City have utilized throughout the season and Pep simply planned for this game by reading the back of his shampoo bottle (“Wash, rinse, repeat” for anyone unfamiliar with shampoo).
City came out in a familiar 4-3-3 formation with a frontline that featured Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané with the recently injured Sergio Agüero making the bench. The midfield and backline remained the same and the interchanging between positions was consistent with previous games.
Sterling and Sané switched wings at times throughout the game while Jesus habitually dropped deep to link up with midfield. Fabian Delph would occupy the central midfield while in possession and Kyle Walker was given the freedom to make runs down the right wing as well as diagonally into the box.
Pep Guardiola is clearly a manager with a fantastic grasp of tactical strategy and the most efficient ways to break down a variety of defenses. However, the biggest impact he appears to have had on this team is changing the way his players approach the game on a fundamental basis. Many football teams you watch feature lineups in which each position has a well defined role and their movement is structured to function within specific areas of the pitch. City do the opposite and this game was a great representation of that.
Guardiola has developed a culture and mindset in this squad that unleashes player creativity by teaching his players how to read the opponent, their teammates’ positioning and movement, and available space on the field. City have created a team wide mentality where each player trusts in one another to react accordingly in response to the game flow. Having an understanding of what your teammates are going to do before they do it improves every aspect of a team’s play.
The position fluidity that Manchester City displayed against Stoke and throughout the season is effective because it creates unpredictability as opposed to crowding. It has all come together into the juggernaut City have become because Pep has driven this read-and-react philosophy into each player’s instinctual approach.
John Stones is comfortable stepping up into the attack because they know his teammates will read this movement and provide cover. Sterling and Sané understand that they can expose space in the center of the attack with diagonal runs when Gabriel Jesus drops deep, pulling a defender with him.
This is a style of play that improves with time and experience amongst teammates, which is likely a big reason why City struggled during Pep’s first season. It’s difficult to implement this type of play with unfamiliar players and it cannot be adopted overnight. However, given time and high quality players with a couple guys to pull the strings (Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva), this system is absolutely lethal.
Stoke were City’s latest victim to this ruthless efficiency and each of the seven goals developed through quick passing, intelligent movement, and unpredictable attack. The Citizens dominated possession (79%) and had 11 shots on target. This may have been the best we have seen of City this season, which is an awfully high bar to set. City’s domination was so severe that you would have thought they were playing a team in the fourth tier of English football.
I know I do this week after week, but I’m going to take time to throw praise on Kevin De Bruyne once again. He is a remarkable footballer and his quality is up there with any other player in Europe. There are usually 2 or 3 times a game where I have to remind myself that De Bruyne and I come from the same species because his play is so insane that I can’t believe we even have that in common.
Pep Guardiola finally has built the team that can fulfill the style of play he knows is the most effective way to win games. His vision may be coming to fruition in front of our very eyes and City are now a team that can compete with anyone in the world. Pep has had his doubters since he became City’s manager, but what happened against Stoke has been his plan the whole time.