Another game, another 2-1 victory for Manchester City. Let’s be honest, the first half of this game was ugly and the second half more closely resembled the team we know. Before the game, Pep Guardiola made a few lineup changes to protect Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany from yellow card suspension for the upcoming Manchester Derby.
These changes manifested in the reintroduction of Danilo into the lineup with Fabian Delph moving into midfield while Eliaquim Mangala stepped in for Kompany. City’s poor showing early in this match are less of an indictment on this particular lineup, and more due to complacency from the players with an eye towards the much anticipated matchup with United next weekend.
The first half of this match was arguably the worst we’ve seen from Manchester City all season. City were their own worst enemy and were simply complacent in all facets of the game. West Ham United deployed the same strategy as every other team lately, playing a conservative 5-4-1 or 5-3-2. This is a formation that City are familiar with attacking but have been struggling against recently.
City rely heavily on creativity from their attacking players and they simply did not have it early on against West Ham. The Blues’ attack was concentrated down the wings with full-backs Danilo and Kyle Walker consistently moving into advanced positions. Pep continued to invert his fullbacks, though this was more applicable with Walker than Danilo, who primarily maintained width.
The attack was stagnant and showed no dynamism despite controlling possession. Sergio Agüero, who started up top, was nonexistent in the first half and his only memorable touch came on a shot ultimately ruled to be offside.
City looked to break down West Ham with vertical passing through the defensive lines, though this plan was opposed without problem. West Ham used their midfielders to track runners towards goal, allowing the backline to maintain its shape. Passes looking to bypass two lines of defense needed to be played into small gaps that did not challenge well positioned West Ham defenders to rotate as a unit.
City worked the ball from side to side very slowly and the lateral movement was inconsequential. West Ham were not forced to change their horizontal position with any urgency and could comfortably shift the defense from left to right when need be.
It’s worth noting the best and only clear-cut chance City created for the entire first half came on a quick pass on the ground across the entirety of the 18-yard box from Kevin De Bruyne to David Silva, who had space to fire a shot on goal that was tipped just over by West Ham keeper Adrián. The quick lateral movement of the ball opened up space in between the backline.
The center-back partnership of Otamendi and Mangala was shaky and West Ham should have done a better job of taking advantage of their unfamiliarity. Many of West Ham’s counters came down the wing, but they would send an additional runner at one of City’s center-backs, who would track them as they curled their run to the sideline. Fabian Delph, who started as the defensive midfielder, was responsible for dropping into this space left by the center-back. But when Delph was caught in advanced positions, the backline was inadequate in filling in and left massive space for midfielders to transition into open field.
Defending set pieces was again a concern in this match, with West Ham generating a goal and another great chance off corners. City seem to turn off when the ball is not played immediately into their man, exposing them on flicked-on headers and short corners. West Ham were the better team in the first half and deservedly went into halftime with a one-goal lead.
I can only imagine what Pep Guardiola’s halftime talk was like, but I can guarantee you that he was not a happy man. Going into the half down 1-0 doesn’t always express how well a team has played, but it certainly is a good representation in this case. City started the second half not only with Gabriel Jesus instead of Danilo, but also with a fiery motivation to make up for the first half.
The ball movement was quicker and the decision making was more efficient. Having two strikers on the pitch allowed City to drop one into midfield with the other player off the shoulder of the backline or line them up in a traditional strike partnership. This gave West Ham defenders more to think about in their defensive responsibilities, which sparked confusion.
City’s attacking positioning in the second half was as aggressive as you will ever see. Pep clearly decided that if West Ham wanted to park the bus, he would just push his entire team forward, only leaving two defenders back to deal with counter attacks. Determining a formation with a fluid team like City can be tough, but can best be described as a 4-2-4 or a 2-4-4 for most of the second half. With a front line consisting of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Agüero and Leroy Sané, full-backs Kyle Walker and now Fabian Delph stepped up to complete a four-man midfield.
The equalizing goal came off a saved free kick from Kevin De Bruyne from just outside the box, won by Fabian Delph. The ball was cleared into the corner where Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling tracked it down. Jesus played it into Sterling, who had his back to goal and played a nice backheel through to the Brazilian making a run right past his position. Jesus was able to compose himself and play the ball across to the waiting feet of Nicolas Otamendi for the finish.
By the time the first goal was on the board, City seemed to have completely come out of the trance they had fallen into in the first half. It seemed inevitable that the winning goal would come any minute, though City once again waited until the last ten minutes of the game to do so. Leroy Sané started to take advantage of an isolated Pablo Zabaleta, creating at least three shots on goal and additional chances simply by beating the City legend off the dribble.
City were successful in creating chances by simply playing the ball into the strikers in the box with their back to goal. Wingers and midfielders would then make runs past and around them, causing the marking defender to anticipate if the ball would be moved again in their zone. Overloading one specific player with two attackers was possible because Pep was using such an ultra-attacking lineup, and it opened up space in the box.
The Blues were able to create an amazing chance because of this, and it should have been a goal: the ball was played in to Jesus, who had a defender on his back, while David Silva made a run across the face of Jesus and towards goal. The West Ham defender took a step towards Silva, anticipating a pass that never came. Gabriel Jesus took one touch, turned, and fired a shot on goal that was parried away by Adrián. The rebound fell to Sterling who was all by himself but couldn’t score on an empty net.
The winning goal came about because of the combined brilliance of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. City were clustering three players around West Ham’s center-backs, making it difficult for the opponents to maintain distinct defensive responsibilities. Silva broke off of this group and made a run towards the left post where De Bruyne played a tremendous chip over the top of the defense. Silva was being pulled down but still managed to get a foot to the ball as his body was almost horizontal, finishing into the side netting to clinch the victory for Manchester City.
Three consecutive 2-1 victories certainly dampen the mood that we all had when City were regularly destroying opponents, but it should not be a cause for too much worry. Many commentators keep talking about the need for competitors to keep pace with City until their form dips and the results inevitably start to go against them. However, I’m pretty sure the last three games are that drop in form they keep referring to, yet City continue to find ways to win.
I can’t imagine a Pep Guardiola team playing much worse than they did in the first half of this game but they battled back to secure the three points. City have some big games coming up with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur on the schedule within the next two weekends. I’m going to venture a guess that marquee matchups like this are exactly what City need to come correct and bring their best game from the kickoff, ultimately getting them back in rhythm.