Manchester City’s success continued on Saturday with a 3 -1 victory against Bournemouth at the Etihad. We haven’t had to experience many matches in recent memory without the likes of David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne, but were forced to do so against the Cherries. In their collective absence, the Blues’ winning ways were accompanied by a change in tactical buildup. Pep Guardiola clearly prefers his squad to build up through the middle with sustained possession, leading to high percentage scoring chances. This philosophy persists throughout the entire squad, but can be more difficult to carry out over 90 minutes without a player like Silva or De Bruyne to control the game. Because of this and the strong spine of Bournemouth’s defense, City were much more direct than usual.
Manager Eddie Howe has Bournemouth off to a strong start this season, sitting comfortably in the top half of the table. They are a squad well-suited to a counterattacking mindset, making them a dangerous opponent for the Blues. Howe set his team up in a 5 - 4 - 1 formation with Callum Wilson up top as the lone striker. Bournemouth had fellow attacking threats Josh King and Frasor Foster as the wide players in the midfield four. This created an environment where Bournemouth could outlet to Wilson on the counter and have wide attackers to join the rush as the counter buildup progressed.
Bournemouth’s three center backs (Nathan Ake, Tyrone Mings, and Steve Cook) were disciplined and sheltered by the central midfielders (Andrew Surman and Lewis Cook). They rarely got pulled out of position, creating a ton of congestion through the middle. With the high level of difficulty in building up through the central channel and no Silva or De Bruyne to manipulate the defense there, City did a very non-City thing and played long balls over the top to wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. There’s a small group of players in the world who can match Sterling and Sane for pace, and Pep Guardiola knew that none of those players are on Bournemouth. These two were by far the best two players on the pitch, causing problems by dribbling at defenders as well as getting in behind for balls over the top. I don’t have an exact statistic on how many long balls City tried on Saturday, but I would feel comfortable putting money on it being the most they have all season.
Left back Oleksandr Zinchenko and center back Aymeric Laporte were the most common distributors from the back, picking out runs down the wing throughout. City’s first goal came as a direct result of this, with Zinchenko playing a ball over the top to Sane. The German got a slight touch with Bournemouth keeper Asmir Begović charging out. Sane got enough of the ball to cause Begović to mishandle and the ensuing chaos in the box saw the ball fall to the feet of Bernardo Silva, who isn’t going to miss from that distance with the keeper out of goal.
When City did get in behind, passing avenues were available into scoring areas because the Bournemouth defense was overly focused on maintaining positional structure, often at the expense of marking the man. For all of the Cherries’ success this season, they have failed to get a result from one of the big six clubs and definitely had a “deer in the headlights” look to them against City. Once the Blues scored the first, the match adopted an air of inevitability to it that is common against smaller clubs. Bournemouth looked resigned to defeat and it was just a matter of how ambitious Pep Guardiola’s team was feeling. City weren’t actually that good in the first half, but were very comfortable. Possession wasn’t dynamic but was easy, and they seemed to lull themselves into a false sense of security of their own.
Bournemouth’s equalizer came when City were in this self imposed zombie state defensively, where they just switched off and allowed Callum Wilson to take advantage. Maybe I’m simplifying but I really chalk it up to just a mental lapse. Sometimes City have a habit to be impatient defensively, like they have a birth right to have possession and consider defending a minor irritation in between buildups. They have been much better recently in avoiding this mentality but seem to fall back into late in the first half against Bournemouth. City was strong defensively overall though despite this, allowing the Cherries to only get 0.27 expected goals, with only four shots registering on the xG scale.
The Blues improved as the game went on, with 65% of their expected goals coming in the second half (1.83 of 2.83 xG). David Silva was introduced for the final 15 minutes of the match, setting up Leroy Sane’s assist to Ilkay Gundogan and giving City the controlling force they had been missing. I realize this could be taken as a criticism of Bernardo Silva, so before someone jumps down my throat, let me explain because I do love him as a player. That being said, it is clear David Silva (and De Bruyne) are just a level above right now. The Porteguese national has been crowned as the heir apparent to his namesake, expected to step into that role as soon as the Spaniard leaves Manchester. I do agree with this expectation and believe Bernardo could reach that status someday. At the current moment however, he does not control a game like David Silva does, often tending to drift out wide right even when playing the midfield. When the Spanish Silva is in the game, you can see his fingerprints everywhere, he moves all over the pitch to pick up possession and dictates the movement even when he’s off ball. Bernardo has showed an ability to do this at times, but his evolution as a player is not complete yet. An attacking midfield pair of Bernardo and Gundogan, who tends to be deferential, lacks some incisiveness. This results in a less effective attack that is forced to bypass the midfield at times, with balls from the defense over the top right to the attackers.
So I guess that was a long-winded way of stating the obvious: Manchester City are better with David Silva on the field. But the Blues proved they can succeed when he’s not on field, which is crucial with the slate of matches coming up over the next month. Squad rotation will be key and you can expect David Silva to sit out more matches, it’ll be fun to see the team grow without him out there.