Manchester City continued their hot streak on the road against West Bromwich Albion with a 3-2 victory. Pep Guardiola’s side weren’t at their best, but their opponents deserve a lot of credit in preventing yet another City blowout. With multiple competitions in full swing, victories won’t always come easy and this one was no different.
West Brom had plenty of bright moments in the first half of this game, and manager Tony Pulis put his team in a good position to stay with City. They started out with what was a 3-5-2/5-3-2 blend with Salomon Rondon and Jay Rodriguez as the strikers. West Brom, who came in this game last in the league with 37% possession, made a concerted effort to apply heavy pressure on City’s backline and push forward. In fact, we could see Tony Pulis on the sideline several times urging his team to move up the pitch.
Interestingly, Pulis did the opposite of this when City broke the high press and moved the possession into the attacking third. In these areas of the pitch, West Brom would fall back into a compact defensive shape and absorb attacks from the Blues . The combination of these two principles worked well in stifling City for long stretches. West Brom’s pressure on the City defense slowed down the ability to play out of the back and forced more balls over the top than Pep Guardiola would like.
Additionally, staying tight in their own defensive third with 5 defenders and 4 midfielders around the box invited City to maintain possession further up the pitch. City are not at their best when in this position, preferring to make quick strikes from peripheral regions of the attack. It is a fine line between patience and stagnation and City were bordering on that line when accepting West Brom’s invitation.
When West Brom did win possession back, Rondon was often left high up the pitch as an outlet but they made an effort to bring the attack to City. Unfortunately for them, Pep Guardiola’s team were instructed to close down on West Brom as soon as they had the ball. Forcing the opponents to work hard to maintain possession and regain possession worked in tiring out a West Brom side that looked visibly exhausted by the end of the game.
The first West Brom goal was a direct result of City turning this pressure off for just a moment. The Baggies had moved the ball into the midfield, forcing City to retreat into their defensive shape. The midfield dropped off of Gareth Barry and he was able to play a ball over the top to Rodriguez, who had beaten John Stones for pace and lifted the ball over Ederson for the goal.
Despite a strong gameplan by Tony Pulis, Pep Guardiola introduced an effective wrinkle to his lineup that opened up West Brom for two City goals. With Bernardo Silva getting the start ahead of Raheem Sterling, many believed that he would just occupy Sterling’s customary right wing position. But Bernardo spent most of his time operating as a central attacking midfielder. This left City with only one true winger (Leroy Sané), but did not shift the formation to create a balance between the left and right sides of the pitch. This asymmetry left one wing (usually the right) vacated and gave City a lot of space to develop attacks into with Bernardo, Kyle Walker, and Kevin De Bruyne.
The lack of a winger occupying that flank compressed the accompanying side of West Brom’s defense. Now when City would create possession down this wing, West Brom had to compensate and transition towards that corner. This created space for runners in between defenders, but more importantly, isolated Leroy Sané with a single defender on the left wing. We all know City have the skill to switch the play in an instance, and moving the ball from the right to left side allowed Sané to beat West Brom right back Allan Nyom for the opening goal and find Fernandinho outside the box for City’s second.
As the game wore on and second half substitutions were made, the prevalence of these specific tactics diminished in favor of open play from both sides. West Brom struggled maintaining their stamina and their ability to apply consistent pressure on the backline suffered because of it. City were able to get comfortable in possession even if that didn’t always result in quality chances. West Brom’s defensive awareness was strong even if their energy was not and their plan to man-mark runs into the box thwarted City’s buildup.
However, City tend to treat good defensive teams like this as one would treat a maze and eventually found the opening for the third and winning goal. It once again featured a quick switch of play along with intelligent one-touch passing that resulted in Kyle Walker in space down the right side of a box. A quality pass across the face of goal found the foot of fresh-legged Raheem Sterling for City’s third.
Though we didn’t see peak Manchester City this weekend, all victories are welcome and West Brom is a notoriously stiff opponent. Pep should be happy with how his team played and some of his best players not being on their best form (which is very rare) explains part of the struggles. This also could easily have been a trap game with many looking forward to the midweek match against Napoli looming on the horizon. Another big win for City solidifies their place on top of the table as they increase their lead over several of their biggest competitors for the league title.