A comfortable victory with a whole bunch of chances created: Check!
Kevin De Bruyne survives a scary injury and is back in the squad: Check!
David Silva returns from his personal leave and picks up right where he left off: Check!
John Stones returns from his long absence to play a strong 60-70 minutes: Check!
No horrific tackles and no injuries! Check! Check! Check! Check! Check!
City played this game as if they got their pregame speech from none other than Patches O’Houlihan (crazy coach from the movie Dodgeball, if you don’t get the reference I am disappointed in you).
Pep Guardiola’s team played downright angry in this game and were flying around the pitch. Who knows what was said in the locker room before the match, but City looked like they were trying to prove a point. Maybe they were mad at the referees for not protecting them from dangerous tackles or maybe they heard the doubters speak up as soon as they dropped points. Whatever it was, Watford were unlucky to be the team on the other end of the pitch when a pissed off City side took the field.
City’s press is constantly a source of aggression, but I can’t remember players flying towards the ball with such determination. City seemed to take it personally whenever the Hornets got the ball and destroyed any chance at Watford possession, in most cases immediately.
John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi were jumping hard into midfield to cut out passes to Watford striker Andre Gray. The front six collapsed on opposition possession with speed and cohesion. Kevin De Bruyne at one point sprinted from his position as the right-sided center midfielder to the opposite corner to close down on a Watford defender, forcing a turnover and ultimately leading to a free kick right outside the box that he rung off the crossbar.
Whatever Watford manager Marco Silva wanted to do in this game, we have got a chance to actually see it because Raheem Sterling scored just 38 seconds in. A dream start for City came at the expense of a disastrous one for Watford, who could not get their defensive shape correct. Playing in a 4-5-1 formation, they stepped forward into midfield more than a lot of teams have but maybe they shouldn’t have, because their defense was exposed by City excessively.
Pep Guardiola came out in his traditional 4-3-3 with passing triangles set up on either wing. There was a lot of interchanges but these groups consisted primarily of Leroy Sané, David Silva and Fabian Delph on the left, with Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker on the right. Fernandinho and Sergio Agüero floated in between the two sides of pitch to create extra passing options to switch the play or migrate down the wing.
Watford were unable to handle City’s quick buildup play from the get-go and did a poor job in keeping consistent spacing between their lines of defense and closing down on City attackers. The first goal of the game developed when Delph found Silva in midfield with time and space to turn towards goal and play a perfect through ball to the end line, where Leroy Sané played a low cross into Sterling for the finish.
With Watford looking to maintain a relatively high line, there was plenty of space to run in behind and the backline did not have the pace or urgency to compensate when City were able to access the wing.
The second goal came due to the backline’s ineptitude once again, as a Watford clearance fell to David Silva who played it down the wing to De Bruyne, who crossed it into the box as Agüero made a run to the far post. The backline had stepped up after the clearance and were slow to recover back into a defensive position, and Christian Kabasele ended up knocking the ball into his own goal in a desperate attempt to clear it.
Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling are fantastic at making runs towards the back post as the ball is brought down the opposite wing. They both have the intelligence to make a diagonal run into the outside shoulder of the full-back, pushing him further into the box towards the center-back. Then, when the ball is about to be played in, they break off this path and divert their run vertically down the pitch towards the far post which creates a tremendous amount of space.
Manchester City did a fantastic job of switching up their looks so the Watford defense could not get comfortable with their assignments. The standard lineup deviated and often saw Sterling and Sané switch wings and De Bruyne and Silva switch sides of midfield. Sané was particularly flexible and was all over the pitch even when the rest of the team stayed in their natural positions. The freedom Pep gave him in this game seemed to reignite Sané after a slight dip in form lately, and the young German was successfully beating defenders and exploiting space for the entire 90 minutes.
City also overloaded parts of the pitch with multiple players filling the same role. In their normal setup on the wings, teams may lock in on the passing triangle with an outlet (full-back), a playmaker (central midfielder), and a runner (winger). This obviously isn’t always the case but defenses may simplify their schemes by identifying each player’s most dangerous attribute and defending that.
The Blues flipped that plan on its head by occasionally attacking one side of the pitch with both Sterling and Sané or both De Bruyne and Silva. This overload confused the Watford defense when trying to identify where the buildup will develop and through who, giving City a distinct advantage.
To their credit, Watford did create a goal and a fair number of other chances and were more than competent on the counter when they could get out of their own half. The last 10 minutes of the game were a little shaky for City but that is not reason for concern given the game as a whole.
Danilo coming on for John Stones to play center-back was an interesting move given the timing, as I wonder if that was an audition of sorts. I’m curious if Pep will plan this transfer window according to how comfortable he feels with Danilo as his fourth-choice center-back. I’m not sure if I would necessarily agree with that, but food for thought.
All the bad feelings that City fans had after the Palace game were easily washed away in this game. The reintroduction of Stones and Silva to the lineup makes a dramatic difference on the potential this team has. Challenges will certainly arise but I have no doubts this team can handle them. With City still in 4 different competitions, it will be interesting to see how Pep prioritizes the schedule and squad rotation. Either way, expect quite a few more games like this one.