Over the past week, we’ve seen Manchester City decimate two opponents: a 2 - 0 victory against Fulham in the League Cup and a 6 - 1 result against Southampton in Premier League play. With a bunch of “second-stringers” getting the start against Fulham, it has been fun to see so many players get serious time on the pitch in these past two games. Only John Stones and Leroy Sane started both games, while starts from Brahim Diaz and Phil Foden are always cause for excitement. Despite the difference in starting 11’s across the two matches, Pep Guardiola’s tactics did not change much from game to game.
I would love to sit here and break down Pep’s tactical genius about how he perfectly broke down Fulham and Southampton. But not to take any credit away from Guardiola, I don’t think there was any reinventing of the wheel here that drove City to victory. I’d argue Pep has this team so well drilled and thinking the game on another level, that he kept status quo and simply allowed his players to play freely. The Blues are as close to a positionless team as you will ever see and encouraging this interchanging freedom is dangerous against inferior opponents. Now, don’t get me wrong, there was obviously some tactical gameplan coming into both games, but the style of play clearly supersedes the tactics here.
From the opponent perspective, both Fulham and Southampton had similar overarching goals in mind, but went about it in different ways. Teams like these, especially when they are in bad form as both are, plan to disrupt City’s buildup before it can get into danger areas and launch counters. How teams go about doing this can absolutely vary and Fulham manager Slaviša Jokanović and Southampton manager Mark Hughes certainly took different approaches.
Fulham played a compact 4-3-3 that was actually much more of a 4-5-1, looking to clog the center of the pitch. The plan was to then break the counterattack out onto the flank where their wide players such as André Schürrle and Ryan Sessegnon could use their pace to put a recovering City defense under pressure. Alternatively, Southampton defended much further away from their goal, stretching their 4-3-3 into a half press, often well into City’s half. Their set up within this shape was interesting as well, with the front 3 spaced wide horizontally, with each player lurking in the passing lanes between the Blues defenders. But the midfield was tight, looking to congest any central channels coming from any angle of the backline. The goal in this plan being it would force fullbacks Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to have limited passing options infield, while center backs John Stones and Aymeric Laporte would be encouraged to play low percentage balls out to the wing.
When you compare the two strategies, you can rationalize it from both managers’ point of view, though it is certainly difficult to do so in hindsight. Fulham are an athletic team with lots of talent, at least on paper, so Jokanović trusting his players to launch a collective length-of-the-field counter is somewhat reasonable (?). Southampton may have a lower ceiling in terms of sheer athleticism and any countering opportunities work better if you can turn the ball over when your attacking three is already in the opponent half. Clearly, neither plan worked but I honestly don’t know how much blame you can put on the managers. Obviously, someone has to take the blame but I really don’t know what tactical setup would have stopped City when they are clicking all on cylinders like they were this past week.
The Blues were successful in breaking down Fulham and Southampton in similar ways. To start, you have to get the ball into the final third before any scoring chances can develop. Fulham were more or less giving City the space to just carry into their half so they didn’t have much work to do to get into scoring range. But with Southampton’s half press preventing the preferred path of buildup, City were flashing their attackers (Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling) into pockets of the midfield to directly pick up possession from the center backs. This pulled a Southampton midfielder off of the Blues midfield three, unlocking short passing lanes between the lines.
The attack thrived because of City’s ability to manipulate the fullback and pull him out of position. When these teams get pinned deep, they want to keep a tight backline and allow the midfield to shift in an arch around it to mark attackers on the wing. Fulham intended for the distance between their midfield and defense to be short, giving the outside midfielders a short path to recover on the wingers. On the other hand, Southampton encouraged those long balls onto the wing, which would let a midfielder recover as the ball was in the air and being settled. But City’s quick passing centrally takes so many opponents out of the play that they can move to the ball to the wing with such pace that the midfielders are too far away to recover.
This happened frequently, forcing the fullbacks to step out of the backline and close down on the wingers. Then City would send a runner down that channel the fullback just vacated. And then someone would float into that space left by the midfielder or a cutback dribble would be open, and before you know it, the defense is in chaos. It is so hard for a defense to recover their shape in this state and City feast in these situations, this is the beauty of Pep Guardiola’s team. We should also give some credit to the counter press. Turnovers generally lead to counterattacking thoughts, which thus lead to teams abandoning their defensive shape. City always do a great job of winning the ball back as the opponent leaves themselves vulnerable and Fulham and Southampton were both victims of this.
I’ve said this before so I hate to sound like a broken record, but this Manchester City team continues to get better. A 2 point lead atop the Premier League table is a testament to the strength of the other top clubs rather than an indication that City is falling back to the pack from last season. It should be noted that Southampton did have some quality stretches on Sunday, looking dangerous for about 5-10 minutes after City’s third goal. I subscribe to the idea that this was more a mental letdown by the Blues than some cause for concern about the defense. But Southampton did post the highest expected goals total (1.72 xG) City has given up all season. Granted, 0.76 xG of that is from the penalty shot but it is in these stretches where we can expect Pep to make improvements. Especially with arguably the biggest week of the season so far ahead of us, with a Champions League matchup against Shaktar Donetsk Wednesday and derby day against United on Sunday.