There was a recent report that Pep Guardiola sent the team out against Watford without any instructions at all. I’m in no position to say whether that report was true or not, but I would believe you if you told me Pep did the same thing against Newcastle on Saturday, because Manchester City’s strategy seemed to be as schoolyard flexible as ever. This was a perfect game to play without any limitations considering how easily City dominated possession throughout the game.
Interestingly, the opening few minutes of the game involved a Newcastle side that appeared to be up for the challenge and would take the fight to City. This did not last all too long however, and Rafa Benitez’s team quickly fell back into an ultra-defensive formation.
The broadcast initially showed Newcastle’s formation as a 4-3-3 but they only set up in this structure in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the match. Throughout the game Benitez drew his team back into primarily a 5-4-1 which would transition into a 4-5-1 according to the situation.
Newcastle looked to attack on the counter, but were rightfully hesitant to advance forward too eagerly, especially when the game was still level. Whenever Newcastle did attack they were often inefficient with their passing, which left themselves vulnerable to City countering the counter. The only reason they didn’t concede a goal from this is because Raheem Sterling drifted slightly offside on a goal rightfully denied by the assistant referee.
With Newcastle sitting deep and absorbing attacks, Manchester City were given the freedom to probe the defense and recycle attacks in a variety of ways. The Blues gave Newcastle so many different looks it was impossible for the defense to anticipate the build-up play. This unpredictable attack often left the Newcastle backline scrambling to clear balls out of the box, leading to 18 corners for City.
Pep Guardiola’s team varied their attack in creative ways consistently, and there was not one setup that seemed to dominate. We saw their traditional formation with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling positioned wide on the wings while full-backs Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker tucked into midfield to support the attack. We also saw Sergio Agüero drop into midfield pulling one of the Newcastle center-backs along with him, with both Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling operating in tight positions between the wing-backs and center-backs on the edge of the box.
Additional interesting looks City threw at Newcastle included asymmetry in Newcastle’s half. Sané and Sterling would attack down the same wing at times while the full-back on the opposing side of the pitch would move far towards that corner to provide additional passing options. There were also occasions when one winger would stay wide while the other would come in to work next to Agüero.
City’s full-backs also showed tremendous flexibility in this match, never settling into one particular role. Early on, it seemed as though both would play more traditionally, staying wide and offering support on the edge of the attacking third. This quickly changed as Newcastle fell back into shape, creating opportunities for underlapping and overlapping runs. Zinchenko and Walker also ventured into midfield, something City fans have become very familiar with this season.
This was probably the best we have seen Zinchenko play all season as a left-back. He was more influential in the attack than ever before and displayed increasing comfort defensively. Yes, he does take some of the blame for Newcastle’s goal as he let Jacob Murphy get behind him, though that is the only mistake he made all game.
Zinchenko’s performance is also probably an indication that Danilo is going to leave in the summer. He is needed for depth right now, but I can’t imagine he’s too happy sitting behind a 21-year-old who hasn’t played full-back until this season. I also can’t imagine Pep is too happy with him if he can’t beat out Zinchenko for a starting position with both Fabian Delph and Benjamin Mendy unfit.
All of City’s dynamism created a dangerous attack that dominated the scoring chances stat as well as possession (81%). The Man of the Match has to be Sergio Agüero, because it’s almost impossible not to give MOTM to a guy that scored a hat-trick. But all of the goals were created by the wide players and some of City’s best attacks came from diagonal runs behind the defense from wide areas. This type of lateral movement through the backline presented challenges for Newcastle in maintaining man-marking responsibility and matching City’s pace.
It is necessary to give Leroy Sanpe a shoutout for City’s third and final goal, considering he single-handedly took four Newcastle players’ lunch money. He picked up the ball near the halfway line and made an incredible run through and around multiple defenders before finding Agüero outside of the six-yard box for the hat-trick goal. It’s worth a couple of replays at the very least.
Overall, this was a nice bounce back win for the Blues against a team they should have dominated and did dominate.. City’s defense recovered well from a bad performance against Liverpool, and with Vincent Kompany’s return looming it will be interesting to see how Pep handles this transfer window. Regardless, City are in a good position to maintain their large lead in the league and move forward in the domestic cups.