The dream of the quadruple lives on! After a concerning first half when Manchester City were simply outplayed by Burnley, Pep Guardiola’s boys were unstoppable in the second half to the tune of four goals and another win.
Sean Dyche prepared his Burnley team very well for this FA Cup 3rd round matchup despite how the game ultimately turned out. Burnley’s play in the first half may have been the best City have seen this season, maybe even better than the big English clubs. Burnley have outperformed expectations all season and have been a thorn to the side of the Premier League’s best, beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as well as getting points away to Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Manchester United.
Pep Guardiola was forced to rotate his squad against Burnley with fitness concerns (hi, Fabian Delph!), especially given the packed schedule in January. Danilo and Oleksandr Zinchenko entered the team as full-backs, Ilkay Gundogan replaced Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, while Claudio Bravo was in goal. It is difficult to say whether or not Sean Dyche anticipated squad rotation for City in his tactical preparations, but either way, Burnley absolutely took advantage of City’s lack of continuity.
While most teams sit deep in ultra-defensive formations against the Blues, Burnley did quite the opposite, pushing far up the pitch and constantly pressuring the City backline. Dyche had his team aligned in a 4-4-2 formation, but the wide midfielders often stepped forward alongside the forwards in the press. Burnley did not want to simply wait for City to make mistakes the final third in order to counter, instead opting to force errors as City had the ball in their own defensive third.
Dyche’s plan was executed well and led to a first half in which Burnley created the better chances and frustrated City’s buildup. Burnley had a tremendous opportunity to score when they were able to force the ball back to Claudio Bravo, who passed the ball out of play for a corner due to the press. The corner was played to the far post and headed by Ben Mee across the face of goal, miraculously rolling through the box without a Burnley player able to finish.
Burnley’s lone goal came from the press forcing John Stones into a horrible mistake, in which he essentially played the ball through onto the path of Ashley Barnes, who was through on goal and placed a shot at the near post, beating Claudio Bravo with accuracy and power.
In their own half, Burnley didn’t allow City to build through the center of the pitch, often sitting in a 4-2-4 that cut off passing options into midfield. When the Blues were able to have the ball in the attacking third, wingers Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling stayed wide while Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan moved horizontally across the pitch to create overloads. Zinchenko and Danilo stepped up and pinched into the midfield to create what looked like a 2-3-5 formation in possession. City dominated the ball in the first half, yet were unable to create any good chances.
In the second half, Burnley did not dramatically change their approach, but did show more of a propensity to fall into a defensive shape in their own half instead of pressing high up the field. Pep Guardiola altered his attack slightly, shifting Agüero out to the wings at times with the hope of pulling Burnley’s central defenders with him. Raheem Sterling also cut into a central position from the right wing more often, allowing City to really flood one side of the pitch. Compressing the field like this challenged Burnley to maintain their marking and created space for vertical passes across the pitch.
This game all changed in a matter of minutes, thanks to Agüero and Gundogan. The ball was moved from the left wing to Danilo on the right side of midfield where he was fouled. Burnley took a collective nap for just one second and allowed Agüero to make a run unmarked into the box; Gundogan played the ball into space and Sergio finished before the majority of Burnley’s team knew what hit them. Just like that, the game turned on its head.
Within two minutes, the Agüero-Gundogan combination struck again after City’s heavy pressure won the ball back in the attacking third. Agüero, who had drifted out to the left wing, played the ball into Gundogan with his back to goal. As Burnley defenders collapsed around him, he played a magnificent backheel to Sergio, now running through the box and towards goal. He was once again alone on goal and expertly rounded Nick Pope before passing the ball into an empty net.
By this point, City were definitely in their groove while Burnley must have felt like they took a sledgehammer to the gut. Pep Guardiola’s team looked well on their way to seeing the game out and tacked on two more goals for good measure. David Silva was amazing throughout this game, dictating play at every level and providing the assist for Sané’s goal, City’s third of the game. Guardiola brought in Kyle Walker, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva at various points in the second half, which is as impressive a group of substitutes as you will ever see.
It was good to see Agüero get a few minutes off at the end of this game given he is Pep’s only true central attacking option at the moment. I would expect to see Sergio substituted in games out of reach moving forward to preserve his legs. Interestingly, we saw 15 minutes of football without a center forward on the field on Saturday and it appears as if Pep plans to use Sterling or Silva as a false nine without Agüero.
The Blues have a short rest and are back on the pitch on Tuesday, against Bristol City in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final at the Etihad. Expect more rotation for the Blues against a Championship opponent and a second leg still to play.