Despite how the 3-0 scoreline may look, Manchester City were actually not in peak form against Burnley on Saturday. As the game wore on however, the Citizens found their footing and finished the match on a strong note. The early struggles were mostly a credit to Burnley’s ability to effectively defend in conjunction with some poor execution by City.
Pep Guardiola made a couple of lineup changes from the Napoli match, bringing in Bernardo Silva for Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero for Gabriel Jesus. These moves did not appear to alter the formation at all as both moves were like-for-like. Guardiola did push his team into more advanced holding positions, indicating he was more comfortable leaving his backline isolated in counter-attacking chances for Burnley.
Though the formation was nominally a 4-3-3, it more closely resembled a 3-2-4-1 or a 4-1-4-1 throughout the first half depending on the movement of Fabian Delph between left-back and defensive midfield.
With a 4-man attacking midfield, City relied on Delph and Fernandinho to move the ball forward into advanced positions, which was a point of struggle early. Burnley did not apply heavy pressure on the ball while the backline possessed but closed hard and maintained tight man-marking as City approached the final third. This made it difficult for the Blues to transition from the defensive midfield forward, often leading into heavy passes to marked teammates that were easy clearances for Burnley.
Unlike many opponents City have faced this season, Burnley did not simply pack the box with bodies and accept crosses, but chose to track attackers in any position in the defensive half.
This defensive structure from Burnley pushed City further down the wings where they would get caught without many passing options. As we have seen in the past, City thrive when they can attack quickly from the edge of the final third, moving forward as a team with space to making dynamic runs into the box. Burnley’s tactics thwarted the ability to do this and getting pinned into the corners of the pitch left City’s attack stagnant.
Pep Guardiola’s side was able to maintain strong possession despite this lack of cohesion, but their inability to break Burnley pushed the entire team further and further forward. This allowed the opponents to create a couple of counter attacks that often left two defenders back to handle a lone Burnley attacker that operated as an outlet.
Obviously, having two defenders to handle one attacker is not the worst situation to be left in, but a couple of desperate attempts on the ball opened up space for Burnley and gave City fans a second of concern before Ederson could sweep up.
Even a flawed City attack is still incredibly dangerous and several buildup plays looked like the breakthrough. Unfortunately, several attacks were disrupted by passes just behind runners, forcing the movement to slow down, giving Burnley time to recover.
Pep made a couple of in-game adjustments that solved these problems and relieved the pressure on the attack, allowing City to regain their attacking fluidity. The advanced position that the attacking midfield maintained early in the game was abandoned and Kevin De Bruyne dropped into a deeper spot, where he could dictate play.
Agüero also made consistent efforts to drop into midfield to pick up passes and spray balls out to the wings. This connection allowed City to create quick strike chances from deep, challenging Burnley to stay in their defensive shape. The first two goals, scored from a penalty and a corner, were initially set up through quick transitions from the defensive midfield to the final third.
City’s flow also improved after taking the lead (albeit by a questionable penalty call), forcing Burnley to increase their ball pressure and take more chances. With an uptick in aggression, Burnley wwere also more susceptible to getting stretched thin and City developed a flood of chances as the game progressed.
De Bruyne’s movement into defensive midfield decreased the instances of Delph pinching in, moved Bernardoto a more central role, and pushed Kyle Walker further up the right wing, where his pace could be used as an outlet. David Silva was once again used to apply heavy pressure on the backline, leaving him in advanced positions to coordinate counters with any interceptions.
City’s ability to possess increased in efficiency throughout the match, and it was beautiful to simply watch them move the ball amongst the midfield with a bevy of one-touch passing. Let’s also take our moment every week to swoon over De Bruyne’s passing because his assist on Leroy Sané’s goal was simply unfair. Controversial opinion here, but Kevin De Bruyne is really, really good.
Pep’s adjustments, along with Burnley’s desperation to equalize, allowed City to find the domination later in the game we have become so accustomed to. A slight cause for concern was again City’s overconfidence in playing out of the back almost costing them, but they were able to recover in time to prevent conceding.
Burnley are a strong defensive team that came into this match in good form, avoiding defeat in their last 6 Premier League matches. This game was actually more of a challenge than many would think at first glance, especially considering how hard it is to break down a defense as sound as Burnley’s. City were obviously supposed to win this game handily, and deserve credit for making the necessary changes to crack Burnley’s strength.
We can’t expect to City to look flawless week in and week out, but it is encouraging to see them handle a difficult opponent anyway, which is something all of the best teams must do (right, United?).