Manchester City continued their amazing winning streak on Wednesday night against Newcastle in what was a frustrating and sloppy game for Pep Guardiola’s squad.
Newcastle had been in particularly bad form of late (last weekend’s win against West Ham United aside) and City were expected to dispatch of them easily. I suppose you could argue that the Blues did that, dominating possession (78%) and outshooting Newcastle 21 to 6, though any time you only win by one goal leaves the potential for a weird equalizer.
This game wasn’t particularly fun to watch for a couple of reasons, but mainly because of some shaky passing/shooting from City and an absolute lack of ambition from Newcastle. Rafa Benítez clearly came into this game with the intention of getting a 0-0 draw because his team was the least aggressive side City have played this season. Newcastle came out in a 5-4-1 formation and dropped ridiculously deep into their own half. The midfield four tightly man-marked any City player in their zone but lined up in close proximity to the backline.
The interesting difference between Newcastle’s approach and many other teams City have faced this season is that while most teams aim to take advantage of counter chances, Newcastle abandoned almost all their chances to attack. Even after Raheem Sterling scored the first and only goal of the game, Benitez only slightly changed his tactics to move his team further up the pitch.
Newcastle only lost by one goal so it’s hard to say where this outcome falls on the spectrum of scenarios but hoping to get lucky on a refereeing decision or opponent mistake is generally not a good idea. Newcastle did get more aggressive late in the game but were only able to create one solid opportunity to score on a header that went just wide by Dwight Gayle.
Pep Guardiola wanted to attack Newcastle through the middle of the park early on and pinched in his full-backs to fortify the midfield. It was a challenge succeeding with this strategy against two solid levels of defense that had no desire to deviate from their organized shape, so City were forced to attack with pace and rely on precise one-touch passing that just wasn’t happening.
You could see the gameplan changing within the first 10 minutes of the game because of the challenge Newcastle presented, but it totally flipped after defender Vincent Kompany was taken off with injury in the 11th minute and was replaced by forward Gabriel Jesus. As Jesus ran onto the pitch, you could see him indicate to his teammates that they were switching to a “4-4-2”, but that is very far from the true construction of City’s formation.
With Fernandinho dropping in to play center-back next to Nicolas Otamendi and Newcastle playing such a tight formation, City essentially split their 10 outfield players into two groups (attack & defense) that encircled the Newcastle team. The backline then wrapped around the Newcastle midfield and often encompassed one of the two central midfielders in a defensive role (either Ilkay Gundogan or Kevin De Bruyne). Then the City attack operated with the remaining five players, who all lined up across the Newcastle backline.
The dynamic between the two teams created an interesting image as Newcastle sat tight in a 5-4-1 and City created a circle around their formation in what can most accurately be described as a 4-1-5. Pep Guardiola had his team vacate any space in between the levels of Newcastle’s defense where there was not much room to operate. This mitigated the effect that Newcastle’s central midfielders, Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diamé, could have on the game defensively.
Then, with a robust front line and several skilled players sitting deep (Fernandinho, Otamendi, De Bruyne or Gundogan), City attacked by sending in diagonal balls over the top. With five different attacking options to make runs towards goal, it was hard for Newcastle to maintain their discipline as the frontline was free to interchange. The deep lying playmakers for City had a lot of time and space to pick out a pass with Rafa Benítez’s team staying compact and not applying any pressure.
This tactic was effective for two reasons: 1 - It was a viable way to create chances. The only goal of the game came off a play like this with De Bruyne playing a ball over the top to Sterling, who expertly placed it past Newcastle keeper Rob Elliot. City could have easily had more goals from this buildup but some sloppy finishing squashed any chances. 2 - This strategy dared Newcastle to step out of their shape and put pressure on the ball, opening up one-two passes for City to work through the defense, their preferred method of attack.
Pep Guardiola always encourages his team to play their game and continue to push forward for more goals regardless of the score, but he did make some changes to make sure City saw the game out as the scoring chances dried up late in the game. He switched back to his traditional 4-3-3, bringing on Leroy Sané and Eliaquim Mangala in order to move all of his players back into their natural positions.
This game was interesting because both teams had to execute to perfection in order to achieve their goals for the game. Newcastle needed to be on point defensively to keep a clean sheet and they were unable to do so, with one slip-up costing them. For City, they needed to be accurate and on time with their passing and finishing to break down a team with no ambition other than to keep them out of the goal. Fortunately for Manchester City, a game frustrated by unusually poor finishing only required one goal to get the three points, and that is ultimately all that matters.
These games aren’t always beautiful to watch, but make no mistake, City are not required to beat every team they play by three goals. Sometimes I get the sense from TV pundits that games like this are disappointing and exhibit a vulnerability in City. This could not be any further from the truth as Pep’s team no longer needs to prove anything to anyone. Any game that ends in 3 points is a good game because it maintains their lead in the table and gets City one step closer to the title.