What we all witnessed is borderline cruel and unusual punishment.
City dropped the hammer on Watford on Saturday in what may have been their most comprehensive win of the season as of yet with a 6-0 victory on the road. This game was an absolute masterpiece in every aspect of the game and the statistics reflect that. City generated 20 chances and 28 shots to go along with 91% pass accuracy and 59% possession, making it look very easy for the whole afternoon.
And here’s the thing: Watford are actually good! This is a team that had not lost yet this season and had a chance to go top of table if they pulled out the victory against the Citizens.
It was interesting to see how Watford approached this game considering the form they have been in. They chose to adopt a conservative approach instead of taking the fight to City. Watford played a tight defensive formation which emphasized cutting off passing lanes instead of applying heavy pressure on the ball. Center forward Andre Gray stayed high up the pitch as an outlet while the attacking midfielders provided defensive cover.
Much of Watford’s strategy can be witnessed through the play of their defensive midfield featuring Nathaniel Chalobah and Abdoulaye Doucouré, two of their best players. Despite playing deep in the midfield, both players have the ability to contribute offensively and jump into the attack.
However, their offensive games against City were clearly muted by manager Marco Silva. Chalobah and Doucouré were able to win the ball back in the middle of the pitch several times with time to run into space to spark a counter. Instead, the ball was often played over the top to an isolated Gray running into space on the left flank.
Numbers were rarely committed forward during counter attacks and the attacking responsibility was left to Gray and midfielder Tom Cleverley. When one of Doucouré or Chalobah did step up to join the attack, the other would always stay deep and maintain defensive structure in preparation for if/when City regained possession. Marco Silva was obviously very wary of the risks in being overly aggressive on the counter and hedged his bets by playing balls over the top and into space vacated by City’s full-backs on the wings.
Watford were looking to get chances where Gray would be in a one-on-one situation with a center-back and possibly earn a set piece. Unfortunately for Watford, John Stones continued his excellent form and shut down those chances masterfully.
With every goal City scored, you could see Watford’s gameplan loosen and the defensive midfield stretch forward. In fact, Watford actually had their best stretch in the second half when they were already down 3 goals and played with an attacking mentality, sending a couple shots just wide of goal. Nevertheless, City become more lethal with more space and the Blues took advantage of Watford’s desperation.
This game was a perfect example of the snowball effect, with every goal loosening Watford’s defensive shape leading to a flood of chances. City were ruthless in this game and did not take their foot off the pedal regardless of the score. I was honestly confident City would add a seventh goal before it was all said and done.
Pep Guardiola’s team continued to play with tremendous cohesion and fluidity, coming out in a 4-3-3 formation. Gabriel Jesus was nominally the left winger but often operated alongside Sergio Agüero in what is now a very familiar striking partnership.
City do a great job of compressing and decompressing the defense in order to create space. It can be a challenge to face teams that put 9 or 10 men behind the ball and clog up passing lanes. Pep has been able to attack this by flooding small areas of the pitch with players before breaking out into the space created by tracking defenders. This often leads to the defense scrambling to get back into position and provided City with a number of chances to get the ball into dangerous zones.
This movement was primarily slanted down the right side in the first half of Saturday’s game with Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne linking up well throughout. Dealing with the pace of Sterling and Walker is a difficult task, and having both as options making runs down the right wing is an intimidating combination.
De Bruyne would drop deep to pick up possession from John Stones and Sterling would pinch in closer to the central midfield, leaving space for Walker to bomb down the wing. Depending on Watford’s defensive reaction, De Bruyne could play a ball directly to Walker or into Sterling with space to turn and run at the defense.
These roles were often rotated amongst the three players and there was definitely an effort to get De Bruyne as the player making the final run down the right wing as he is the strongest crosser of the group.
However, City’s first goal actually came off a free kick Stones won on the left side of the pitch in the 27th minute. De Bruyne played a picture-perfect ball right onto the head of Sergio Agüero who expertly placed it in the back of the net. Now facing a deficit, Watford made an attempt to develop an attack out of the back and City adjusted accordingly. The Citizens were relentless in applying ball pressure as soon as Watford had possession.
City’s second and third goals came directly off of this pressure. In the 31st minute, Fernandinho stepped forward to apply pressure with Gabriel Jesus, who won the ball clean and was free down the left wing. He played a short through ball to David Silva, whose first time cross into an unmarked Agüero was easily finished. Similarly, pressure applied by Kyle Walker led to City’s third goal, finished by Gabriel Jesus off a nice pass from Agüero.
City flipped the script in the second half, featuring Benjamin Mendy (who was somewhat quiet in the first half) heavily down the left wing. There was much more space in the second half with Watford abandoning their conservative defensive structure. Kyle Walker become more reserved in the final 45 minutes and Mendy was activated, with Sterling playing as more of a central midfielder right behind Agüero and Jesus. The attack would build up through Sterling in the middle of the pitch and he would distribute out wide to Mendy. This combination was so effective that I truly lost count of how many times Mendy provided service into the box.
The fourth goal came about because apparently Marco Silva forgot to tell his team that you can’t let City have any time or space on the short corner. David Silva and De Bruyne created two goals against Feyenoord off short corners, doing the same thing in this situation. Silva was clearly planning on playing the ball back to De Bruyne so City could build some possession, but was given so much space by the Watford defense that it wouldn’t have been right not to cross the ball into the box. Watford had been zonal marking against corners for the whole game, and Otamendi found a soft spot where he could easily meet the cross for the 4-0 lead.
Goal number five for City was simply a great individual play by Kyle Walker followed by a great individual play by Sergio Agüero to complete his hat-trick. This goal is a reminder of how truly special a player Agüero is. If you haven’t seen it, I sincerely encourage you to watch it. City fans should never forget how lucky we are to have this guy.
Sterling won and finished a penalty in the 89th minute in what was a strong game for the English attacker. He was heavily involved in City’s play throughout with the only criticism continuing to be on his finishing ability, wasting a couple of quality chances.
With the game in hand early in the second half, Pep felt free to experiment with his lineup/formation. Guardiola brought in Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan (for the first time in 9 months) for Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne, respectively. The substitutes occupied a similar role to the players they replaced but City seemed to transition into a “Christmas Tree” formation (4-3-2-1) with Sterling and Bernardo playing centrally behind Agüero, allowing the fullbacks to provide width.
Once Leroy Sané was brought on for David Silva later in the half, City seemed to adopt a 4-2-3-1 with Gundogan sitting next to Fernandinho as defensive midfielders and Bernardo playing as the central attacking midfielder. All of these potential wrinkles are exciting for City fans to think about and create headaches for opposing managers. The fact that the Blues looked strong in all these iterations is fantastic with the necessity of squad rotation upcoming with consistent midweek games.
This was the best of Manchester City we have seen under Pep Guardiola and within the context of the past week, it does not appear to be a fluke. City are capable of beating any team in the world when they play like this and they’re beginning to play like this consistently. If anyone assumes that this game is City’s peak, don’t be so sure. They could just be entering their prime.
Enjoy the victory City fans, this team is going places.