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Why Manchester City struggle against a parked bus, and how to fix it

What can City do to more effectively get past defense-heavy tactics teams usually deploy against them?

SSC Napoli v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

The margins of victory we have seen from recent Manchester City wins have been much tighter than what we became used to earlier in the season, when the Blues were regularly beating teams by 3 or 4 goals. Opponents have regularly parked the bus against City, which has been more effective as of late. It’s difficult to say what has caused the change but we’re going to look into what City can do differently to break down defensive tactics like this more efficiently.

The first suggestion is not at all a tactical one, but a philosophical one, and that is for Manchester City to look to score desperately from the kickoff. City have no problems creating chances late in games in which they are losing or in need of a winner. They are simply too talented to be contained no matter how many players opponents put behind the ball.

But City have a tendency to come out of the gates assuming they will score willingly. When this doesn’t happen, the opposition is allowed to develop comfort in their defensive shape and responsibilities. Teams often need time to find this comfort and are most vulnerable to make a mistake in the opening minutes. If the first goal is on the board early, parking the bus becomes a much less viable strategy and City will have the luxury of a more open game.

Parking the bus is clearly not a perfect strategy, and City obviously have the talent to eventually find ways to beat it. The keys to breaking down this strategy are to draw defenders out of position and cause confusion on which attackers the defense are responsible for marking. Parked teams often set up with two banks of players, with 4-5 midfielders and 4-5 defenders generally. It is crucial to pull the midfield away from the backline and attack the space in between.

City should be able to accomplish these goals by playing laterally and moving the ball from sideline to sideline quickly at the midfield level. Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling should be instructed to play essentially on the touchline, forcing the opponent to defend every inch of grass on the pitch.

Moving the ball from side to side with pace will make the defense rotate constantly and challenge their ability to maintain concentration and fitness. Instead of making runs towards goal, City players should look to make runs laterally across the face of the defense to disrupt the continuity of the backline.

Huddersfield Town v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

City have gotten into a habit of attacking defensive numbers by matching with attackers, with 4-5 teammates concentrated around the ball. This gets them caught in tight spaces where they are forced to be perfect with passing/movement to exploit the defense. Increasing their lateral spacing and switching the play with speed is their best bet in opening up the defense.

This tactic can be more effective with two defensive midfielders, which is why bringing Fabian Delph far into the midfield will help with this ball movement. Furthermore, moving Kyle Walker far down the right wing will provide spacing and free up Sterling to make lateral runs across the pitch in combination with Sergio Agüero and/or Gabriel Jesus.

Confusion amongst the defense is the key and making runs across the backline repeatedly will make those players question who they are supposed to be marking, leading to mistakes.

Another idea City could try goes against what Pep Guardiola usually preaches, but they could theoretically dampen their aggression on defense to draw the opponent out. What usually happens now is City maintain possession, attack relentlessly, and when the ball is turned over, they work like crazy to win the ball back as soon as possible. The opponent often ends up booting it deep down the field or turning it over themselves before ever getting out of their own defensive shape.

If City allowed the other team to have the ball and build up for just a little bit, it would draw them out of their own half. Some of the Blues’ best chances this year have been on the counter and City can create an attack as fast as any team in the world. This obviously carries some risk in giving your opponent the chance to attack, but the rewards you would see in spacing are much more valuable.

This has best been illustrated when City are forced to defend corners and are often out on an odd-man break with the opponent committing numbers forward to take advantage of a set piece.

Huddersfield Town v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Fighting fire with fire is not a strategy we should expect from Pep, but when it happens by accident it does usually lead to some decent opportunities for the Blues. Pep could also encourage his players to attack opponents on the dribble, where beating one player could unsettle the entire defensive structure.

Whatever the answer is to unlocking the soul-crushing type of victories that were common earlier in the season, City are not that far from figuring it out. When City were winning by those wide margins, most of those teams also parked the bus so small tweaks here and there could easily get them back to where they were.

Either way, it’s always fun to play manager and speculate on the best way for your team to play. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola is the best tactical mind in the world and he’s always thinking of creative and exciting ways to attack this specific defensive gameplan. Manchester City are in good hands with him.