That game had me on the edge of my seat far more than I thought it would going in. With a second leg on the horizon and a Championship level opponent, I expected to have a relaxing experience. However, I had no such experience, finding myself more engaged and nervous than I’ve been for a number of Premier League games this year.
This is mostly a credit to Bristol City, who were more impressive at the Etihad than the majority of top flight sides. With the game ultimately ending in a 2-1 Manchester City victory thanks to a brilliant connection between Bernardo Silva and Sergio Agüero in stoppage time, my nerves are calm going into the return leg at Bristol City where the Blues only need a draw to move on to the final of the unfortunately named Carabao Cup.
Pep Guardiola has used the League Cup as his personal experimental testing station throughout the competition, trying new tactics and formations while giving young players substantial playing time. This game against Bristol City was no different, with Pep trotting out a lineup that did not feature a true center forward.
We have seen this structure before, but only late in games where City were looking to finish out a game and get their strikers a breather. In this one City started with a front three of Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, and Bernardo Silva. When I saw this lineup my immediate reaction was that Bernardo would play centrally as a false nine. This ended up not being the case to start, as Pep deployed Sterling as his central striker for the majority of the first half while Sané and Bernardo occupied the winger roles.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that this structure will never work, but it certainly didn’t work against Bristol. I imagine Pep envisioned this lineup operating best attacking the left side with Sané driving towards the end line, Sterling running at the near post (pulling defenders with him), and Bernardo coming across behind him for the cutback on his stronger left foot.
But this buildup just wouldn’t click early in the game. The Bristol City backline was funneling the wingers out wide and then rushing towards goal once the ball reached the end line, sometimes with six or seven players within the 6-yard box. With their central midfielders also coming deep in defense, there was little space to pick out a pass in the box.
Furthermore, with the wingers being funneled wide, Bernardo was having a hard time cutting in towards the center of pitch with the ball as he likes to do. When he did attack the end line, his right foot (weaker foot) was not accurate enough to make a quality final pass, cross or shot.
The major tactical change that Pep Guardiola made in this game to unlock the defense was switching Bernardo and Sterling. With Raheem now on the right wing and playing on his strong foot, the passing options expanded as the play built up down this side of the pitch. Additionally, Sterling’s pace was able to create more urgency in the Bristol backline, exposing space for runners into the box before the midfield could recover.
Bernardo, now in a central position, had the freedom to roam the field and be creative, which is where he thrives. Though he can be classified as a winger, he is a much different player than both Sterling and Sané in that role. He is a natural playmaker and likes to float around the edge of box. Bernardo clearly has the ability to beat players off the dribble (as he did against City with Monaco last season), but does so based on technical skill and not sheer pace.
As a right winger, when the defense cuts off his ability to cut inside, Bernardo can be easily neutralized, especially when he doesn’t have a player like Kyle Walker making overlapping runs with pace to pull defenders wide. When he is allowed to play wide to see the play develop in front of him, he is absolutely lethal. We saw that with the game-winning goal, when he played an inch-perfect cross into Agüero from the right side.
As the game wore on and City found themselves locked in a 1-1 draw throughout most of the second half, Guardiola reverted to the formation that the Blues are the most comfortable/dangerous in. He brought in Agüero and Walker, allowing everyone on the pitch to play their natural position. It was in this formation that City found the winning goal and shut down the Bristol attack.
We do have to give a lot of credit to Bristol City and manager Lee Johnson. Watching this game, you could definitely tell they were playing with house money and had that “screw it, we have nothing to lose” mentality. They attacked Manchester City when most teams would sit back and made a thorough attempt to play out of the back. City were able to counter against them, though the Robins’ transition defense was solid and the Citizens were a tad sloppy in the final third.
The obvious exception to this was the equalizing goal, where Bristol City pressed very high up the field and Claudio Bravo was able to bypass four or five opponents with a simple pass to Kevin De Bruyne, who was already almost in the Bristol half. With numbers and space to counter attack, he found played a one-two with Sterling and fired home the equalizer.
The Bristol City gameplan was to look to stabilize possession and then pick out a run over the top of the defense that would lead to an opportunity to send the ball into the box. With a giant center-back in Aden Flint (6’6”), Bristol wanted every chance possible to get the ball onto his head and cause chaos in the box. Left-back Hordur Magnusson would take any throw in on either side of the field near the attacking third and fling it as far into the box as he could.
Manchester City were playing a high line and the defense looked shaky from the start, something Bristol City clearly noticed. They made runs behind every defender in the City backline without discrimination, getting a number of crosses into the box in addition to trying to get their deep midfielders forward to pounce on clearances. Their aggression was rewarded with a penalty, deservedly won thakns to a bad tackle from John Stones (his second costly mistake in the last two games).
Bristol City were more than good enough to earn the one-goal lead for the opening hour and make me nervous enough to think that City may face a deficit in the second leg (I should have known better than to think they would keep a clean sheet). Judging from the post-match conversation on the pitch, I’m thinking that Pep Guardiola had a lot of praise for the way Lee Johnson prepared his team as well. It will be interesting to see how both these managers alter their tactics and lineup choices for the second leg considering the incoming score.