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Manchester City Tactics: International Break Didn’t Slow Them Down At All

The Blues smoked Burnley at the Etihad on Saturday in an outright dominant performance.

Manchester City v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Manchester City returned from the international break to pummel Burnley to the tune of a 5-0 scoreline. It was great to see the Blues return from the layoff and pick up right where they left off. Despite the lopsided score, City may not have been at peak level on Saturday, guilty of some nonchalant ball movement (looking at you backline) and over-passing in scoring positions. But this match did give us the long awaited return of Kevin De Bruyne, John Stones at right back, and the best performance we’ve yet to see from Riyad Mahrez in a City kit.

From a tactics perspective, Burnley and their manager, Sean Dyche, are set in their ways, tending to stick to the same system from game to game. Their approach against City was no different, setting in a standard 4-4-2 formation that prioritized maintaining a defensive shape and getting players behind the ball. Burnley are a team that doesn’t tend to have prolonged spells of possession, they like to launch quick counter attacks when you’re out of position or look to get set pieces in dangerous areas. Obviously, counterattacking is easier when you are closer to the opponent’s goal so Burnley did implement a press when City possessed in their own half. This way if City made a mistake and turned the ball over, Burnley would already be on the edge of the attacking third with only the backline left to beat.

When City got past the initial pressure (which they did routinely), Burnley would drop in and bunker in front of their goal. The maintained their 4-4-2 shape while they were pinned deep, though they did drop six men into their backline during long bouts of City possession. The strategy currently in vogue by many opponents is to man mark Fernandinho while City builds out of the back and Sean Dyche was no different in his gameplan. Pep Guardiola must expect this every match by now and he moved the Brazilian all over the pitch to free up him and space.

There were times when Fernadinho would move forward ahead of the ball while attackers dropped in to pick up possession or the fullbacks tucked into the midfield. He’d also drop in between the center backs as the backline expanded out wide. Another set up featured Fernandinho falling into the left back position as Mendy moved central. All of this interchange was effective at confusing Burnley’s man marking assignments and pulling defenders out of position.

Defensively, Guardiola actually took his foot off the gas on his press because there’s really not that much need for it against a team like Burnley. They generally do not want to possess for extended stretches and tend to play low percentages ball, so they’re eventually going to give the ball back to you if you stay solid in defense and have a little bit of patience. So Pep had his forward players only press hard when Burnley were stuck in vulnerable possessions and waited for the ball to work itself back to a City player to recycle the build up.

This was also the first we’ve seen of Leroy Sane and Benjamin Mendy starting together on the left side of the pitch. Pep had made comments in the past that indicated he didn’t think they’d be capable of occupying the field together since they use the same space but they actually worked well together against Burnley. Mendy and Sane had a good understanding that one of the two of them had to occupy the inside channel while the other could make wide runs. Mendy spent a lot of time in the midfield based on Burnley’s set up which allowed Sane to man the touchline. But in the attacking third, Sane ran the lane between the full back and center back well, with the two actually combining for the fifth and final goal from this positioning.

The most surprising lineup decision may have been John Stones at right back due a minor groin concern for Kyle Walker. This is a reminder of the concern City may face is Danilo continues to struggle getting past his recent injury problems, but Stones didn’t look all that out of place as a fill in. He didn’t treat the position as if he was a third center back as you may have guessed, but actually played as a traditional right back. And when I say traditional, I mean for a Pep Guardiola team, not for a normal right back. If you paused the game randomly, depending on the moment you could peg Stones as the wide man in a three man backline, a defensive midfielder, or as a right back. Guardiola has used the Englishman in so many different ways this year, showing how intelligent the coaching staff thinks he is as a player. His versatility is a major asset right now and would be even more so if injuries pop up in shallow positions.

Manchester City v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Overall, Burnley lost control of this game because they were too worried about staying in their defensive shape at the expanse of tracking attackers. To put it simply, they were defending space and not players, which allowed City to find pockets of space in between the lines and generate chance after chance. Sergio Aguero honestly could have (maybe should have) had a hat trick in the first half if not for an uncharacteristic miss and a great save by Joe Hart. The one goal he did score was based on a great one two combination from Sane and David Silva on the left and the Burnley backline dropped too deep, leaving space for slight cutback by Aguero.

Riyad Mahrez was also fantastic in this match, playing inch perfect crosses into the box that Burnley’s backline was utterly incapable of handling it while also scoring a beautiful goal right into the top corner. This was the most involved he’s been, looking much more comfortable and dynamic in his positioning, venturing centrally from his right wing position frequently. There really wasn’t one City player who had an overall bad game (Kompany was a tad shaky) and everyone made an impact in some capacity. We finally got De Bruyne back and he looked, well, like classic De Bruyne. His return may bring this team to another level, let’s not forget he might be the best player in England. I’d like to have seen Gabriel Jesus get a goal because it seems like he needs it right now but if that’s a concern we’re getting nitpicky and should probably just enjoy the win! Manchester City face Shaktar Donetsk in a critical Champions League matchup on Tuesday so this match was a great sign leading up to that.