Victories don’t always come easy or pretty, but they count for 3 points all the same. A matchup against Huddersfield Town that looked like a straightforward win quickly became one of Manchester City’s toughest challenges so far this season.
Nevertheless, a 2-1 comeback victory continues the winning streak and pushes City’s Premier League record to 12 wins out of 13 matches, a run of form that is quickly putting this Manchester City team in the conversation with the best English teams ever.
I’m very hesitant to make statements like that because I'm a bit scared that I’ll jinx them, but I also think it is important to take a moment and appreciate what we are currently experiencing. It’s difficult to accurately put current teams into a historical context with so much of the season still to play, but we should absolutely acknowledge how rare a team like this is.
Manchester City have shown a propensity to win games in a variety of ways, and we saw them scrap and crawl their way there against Huddersfield. I’ve reached the stage where I assume City will win every game but my mind did start to wander late into the second half to the possibility of this ending in a draw. It was a very weird feeling and I didn’t exactly know what to do with myself. I felt kind of like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights when he experiences his first interview.
Luckily for all of us, Raheem Sterling scored late to secure the three points and restore the world to the proper order of things.
Huddersfield manager David Wagner didn’t reinvent the wheel with his tactical approach, but he did prepare the team very well to contain a lethal City attack. Saying that Huddersfield “parked the bus” is an understatement, but the newly promoted side were more savvy than simply jamming 11 players in the box.
Huddersfield decided to apply almost no ball pressure to the Manchester City backline, opting to drop way off into their own half. This allowed the City defense to carry into the Huddersfield half of the field without opposition but also put two levels of defense between the backline (with Fernandinho) and attacking midfield.
The Blues had trouble bypassing these numbers in their buildup play and long passes played on the ground were closed down quickly by Huddersfield, leading to a very disjointed City attack despite the dominance in possession.
Huddersfield also fluctuated their backline spacing to compensate for where City were concentrating their attack. Early on the defense was packed tightly, clogging the center of the pitch so Pep Guardiola’s team couldn’t build up their attack through midfield.
City responded with a lot of diagonal balls across the field to wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané. However, City did not send crosses into a crowded box from these positions, but maintained prolonged possession in the corner forcing Huddersfield to stretch their backline. City were then able to rotate possession into the middle of the field outside the box and look for runners towards goal at a now exposed backline.
Wagner’s team adjusted to this by going to a six-man backline that spanned across the entire pitch and cut out the diagonal crossing option. City were then able to attack through the center of the pitch, and with Huddersfield dropping so far in Pep often pushed his entire team into the attacking third.
Center-back Nicolas Otamendi was more active in the attack than we have ever seen him before. He was consistently positioned within the defensive midfield with Vincent Kompany playing as the last line of defense. Otamendi was able to find teammates upfield and even stepped up to make attacking runs when space was available.
City concentrated their attacks primarily down the right side of the field. I am admittedly not all too familiar with Huddersfield but imagine that Pep decided to flood this side of the pitch because he pinpointed a weakness in the defense or thought those players were less able to spring a counter. Whatever the reason may be, City’s attack found itself as the game progressed and Raheem Sterling was influential within it.
“Parking the bus” is a viable defensive gameplan but 11 players can not cover the entirety of the field, and City are great at accessing whatever space the defense provides and chances were increasingly created as the game wore on.
Getting a result against City as a clearly inferior team requires discipline and luck, and Huddersfield came awfully close to doing just that. The blueprint many teams use against the big boys of England is fairly simple, but is a gameplan that is easier said than done: maintain a conservative and defensive shape, look for opportunities to counter and win set pieces, and take advantage of the few chances you can create. Huddersfield carried out this strategy with much more effectiveness than any other team this year, and got their goal right out of this playbook.
They sprung a nice counter attack off a Manchester City turnover with the entire team in advanced positions, leading to a corner right before the half. Teams like Huddersfield only want the opportunity to throw the ball into the box and hope for the best. Well, in this particular scenario, the best is exactly what they got when a flicked on header deflected off Otamendi’s shoulder for an own goal.
Huddersfield’s biggest challenge was getting past City’s aggressive press when they lost possession and made the Terriers just boot it out of their half for the Blues to restart their attack. However, on the few instances where Huddersfield were able to survive the pressure, they were efficient in getting the ball into areas where they could provide crosses into the box. Huddersfield didn’t change their tactics once they had the lead but neither did City. The equalizing goal was not far behind as the attacking pressure was too great and a well-earned penalty was finished by Sergio Agüero.
Bend but don’t break defenses can only last for so long and Manchester City’s two goals felt as if they were bound to happen. Pep made smart substitutions to account for Huddersfield’s formation, matching their six-man backline with four dedicated forwards when he brought on Gabriel Jesus for Vincent Kompany. When City came back to take the lead, he changed his team into a traditional formation with the additions of Ilkay Gundogan and Eliaqium Mangala.
The fact of the matter is, in most matchups, City will have an advantage in on-field talent and managerial preparation. 90 minutes is an awfully long time to overcome both of those disadvantages and Huddersfield were the latest team to understand that.