Manchester City’s 2-0 victory on the road against Cardiff City in the FA Cup fourth round was far from the most entertaining we have seen from Pep Guardiola’s side this season, but it may have been exactly what the team needed to help them get through a packed schedule coming up.
City’s main starters have not received as much rest as Pep probably would have liked recently, so the fact that this game was played at a slower, comfortable pace should be considered a good thing. The Blues played most of the second half essentially in autopilot, easily maintaining possession in their own half and content to go through the motions until the final whistle. This would normally irritate Pep, and it may have, but conserving a bit of energy before a tough Premier League match in midweek against West Bromwich Albion should be taken as a positive.
City’s lineup was shown on the broadcast as a 4-1-4-1 with Raheem Sterling operating as the striker while Sergio Aüuero got a rest. However, this is not quite what happened throughout the meaningful portions of this game. In my eyes, their formation could best be described as a 4-4-2 diamond with Leroy Sané and Sterling as wide forwards. Bernardo Silva played as the attacking tip of the diamond, taking up the role of a False Nine. Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were the central midfielders, often rotating sides, while Fernandinho was the deepest midfielder, as always.
This setup is something we have seen before when Agüero sits, but this formation looked as good as it ever has in this game. City was able to create dangerous overloads with Bernardo Silva given the freedom to roam anywhere on the pitch. When the Portuguese attacker would drift towards the wing, it would create a multitude of passing options as two midfielders dropped in nearby. With two attackers in close proximity, it also gave the full-backs, Danilo and Kyle Walker, three distinct options to make runs: on the inside/outside of both attackers or in between them.
The first goal was created from a buildup down the left wing where Bernardo and Sané combined well while Danilo made a smart run as his teammates occupied defenders. The Brazilian received the ball in space and played a ball into Gundogan, whose shot was saved but the rebound was recovered by City. The ball found its way back onto Gundogan’s foot where he was fouled just outside the box as he was lining up another shot. Kevin De Bruyne took the free kick, expertly and cleverly shooting under the feet of the wall, which jumped simultaneously.
Manchester City were able to take advantage of another flaw in Cardiff’s defense, which was their preoccupation with Kevin De Bruyne and to a lesser extent, Ilkay Gundogan. Cardiff set up in what appeared to be a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1, and were determined to prevent City’s playmakers from having space to pick out a pass that would bypass multiple levels of the defense.
When they would move towards the full-back to pick up possession, two Cardiff midfielders would often accompany them, leaving a whole of space behind them down the center of the pitch. Fernandinho did a great job of identifying this and stepping forward where he was usually found unmarked to make a run into the attacking third. This left City in dangerous positions so frequently that Cardiff were forced to change their tactics, with a man on Fernandinho’s hip at all times.
Cardiff did have their chances but the outcome of this match was never in question. The only momentum in the first half Cardiff had was originated from what was almost a howler from Claudio Bravo on a shot from distance that should have been handled with ease. Other than that, the Welsh side looked to get their pacey attackers in one-on-one countering situations in space while also pushing their center-backs forward for flick-on headers when they had a free kick anywhere on the field.
Ultimately, the 2-0 victory downplays City’s domination in this game and the referees didn’t do much to help. A tremendous goal by Bernardo was called off for what may be the stupidest offside decision I have ever seen and what should have been a red card on Joe Bennett for a bad tackle on Sané was only punished with a yellow. Bernardo was great in this game and his play has been more and more impressive as of late. The success he showed as False Nine in the first half of this game should allow City to take their time with Gabriel Jesus while also giving Agüero the occasional day off.
The second half of this game saw Agüero in place of Sané and City returning to their traditional 4-3-3. Cardiff actually dropped deeper facing a two-goal deficit and much of the final 45 minutes became a drawn out version of keep-away. On the road at Cardiff was a more difficult matchup than the naked eye would indicate, and Manchester City continued to show the class that has them alive in four competitions.