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Manchester City Tactics : Adversity Strikes

City struggled in both games this past week, with injuries finally taking their toll.

Manchester City v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Manchester City’s crowded schedule continued over the past week, with another two game set over a five day span. There was some good in those matches, but also a fair amount of concern. City have been immune to adversity for much of the last year and a half, but are going to have to bounce back after a pair of shaky performances.

Taking these games in chronological order, Manchester City survived a League Cup quarterfinal at Leicester City on Tuesday, winning 3-1 on penalties after a 1-1 draw during regulation. Pep Guardiola’s team selection was really interesting in this match. That’s not to say that he didn’t put out a strong side, but the trust he put in youth against Leicester was heavier than many expected, including myself.

Phil Foden and Aro Muric were not surprise starters, given the former’s growing place in the squad and the latter assuming the Cup keeper role. However, the inclusion of Brahim Diaz is worth noting given the current contract dispute. But the real shock on the team sheet was 17 year old Eric García starting at center back alongside Nicolas Otamendi. Garcia’s name hadn’t really been mentioned all season so him being thrown into the deep end came out of nowhere.

And he was quite impressive! The young Spaniard didn’t look out of place at all surrounded by world class players. He was composed and strong with the ball at his feet, finishing the match without losing possession once. His positioning was consistently sound as well, leading the team with 4 clearances. Garcia’s communication was what stood out the most though. He was directing traffic and letting his teammates know of opponent positioning like a veteran.

Guardiola didn’t adopt a more pragmatic tactical approach to protect Garcia either. John Stones did go the full 90 as the defensive midfielder in front of him, but I doubt that was done to provide a shield.

Overall, City kept their strategy status quo, focusing the attack down the wings before working the possession back centrally into dangerous shooting zones. The offense as a whole wasn’t all that effective, however. Optimists would argue this is a function of the heavy squad rotation, with the focus on youth bringing some unfamiliarity among the players. Pessimists may say there are deeper concerns here, but it’s difficult to make any strong conclusions with this lineup on the pitch.

Pep did make a few small adjustments to try and jumpstart the attack, switching his wingers and attacking midfielders to the opposite side of the pitch, tucking in the wingers, etc. But none of these tweaks made a discernible difference.

Regardless, City’s flaws offensively were salvaged by the return of Kevin De Bruyne, whose 13th minute strike for the Blues’ lone goal was perfection and a reminder of what this team has been missing in his absence.

Though City sacrificed the lead due to a big second half mistake by left back Oleksandr Zinchenko, who allowed Marc Albrighton to get in behind, they were saved by the penalty heroics of Aro Muric. The Kosovan was good throughout in fact, making a couple big saves in regulation while having his strongest game in terms of distribution as well. He’s more than certainly earned the start when City face Burton in the League Cup semifinals in a couple weeks time.

Leicester City v Manchester City - Carabao Cup: Quarter Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Manchester City were back in action four days later against Crystal Palace for a Premier League matchup at the Etihad. With an important 3 points on the line to keep pace with Liverpool at the top of the table, the Blues lost to the London side 3-2. There’s really no way to sugarcoat it either, City were simply awful against Palace on Saturday.

City have survived so many injuries this season with no real, noticeable drop in form. But as far as I can recall, this was the first Premier League match all season that didn’t include David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, or Fernandinho. City have proven capable of dominating with one, maybe even two, of those three replaced. But their collective absence was clear against Palace.

Pep Guardiola started a midfield three of Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, and John Stones. And that combination in the midfield just had no presence whatsoever. The attack was as close to nonexistent as it can be for a team this talented under a manager like Pep. You can attribute a large chunk of that to Roy Hodgson’s tactics, sitting his team in a 4-5-1 low block with only Wilfried Zaha as an outlet, but that’s no excuse for this performance.

With Palace bunkered in this ultra defensive shape, City were unable to break them down, particularly in the midfield. Bernardo Silva, for as great a player he is, has a tendency to drift wide when’s he playing in central midfield, often looking like an extra winger. I rate Ilkay Gundogan higher than most, but I will readily admit he is a player who can be quite deferential and works better as a role player among more decisive talents like David Silva or De Bruyne. And John Stones is a center back, and a very good one at that, but he still plays like one when he’s in the midfield.

City tends to rely on their wingers to be the creative forces when playing with a weakened midfield. This match was no different, as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane had to carry a large portion of the offensive load. But the midfield link between the wings was nonexistent and the incisive lateral passing used to routinely pull defenders out of position couldn’t materialize. Instead, City relied on long switches of play to move the ball from side to side.

But with Palace being so conservative, they were rarely out of position, and the lack of dynamism in the midfield did nothing to change that. The Blues created few, if any, memorable, high quality chances. Even down 2 goals for the majority of the second half, there was no energy or creativity in the attack. You could have easily forgot that both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus were even on the field at times.

Pep Guardiola concentrated all of his substitutes on improving the attack, ultimately converting to some type of 3-3-4. Kevin De Bruyne came on and was City’s best player. His ability to distribute from deep positions was something the team desperately needed. But Palace’s only amplified their bunkering as the game progressed, and the Blues deferred to lobbing balls into the box late in the match. There was none of the quick passing and one-two combinations we have become too accustomed to.

Manchester City v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

On the defensive end, City were not as collectively bad as the three goals would indicate, but Crystal Palace’s finishing was simply incredible. The goals by Jeffrey Schlupp (0.05 xG) and Andres Townsend (0.01 xG) were low percentage chances as far as expected goals are concerned. The Townsend goal in particular was a screamer, it’s hard to even get upset about a goal that beautiful.

However, the defending and clearances that led to these goals could have been better. Kyle Walker did little to prevent Schlupp from getting that shot off and was actually poor throughout. He consistently looked slow on the ball and made just an awful challenge that gave Palace a penalty. Fabian Delph should have certainly done more on his own right to prevent Patrick van Aanholt from getting the cross off so cleanly that ultimately led to that penalty.

Palace’s counterattacking strategy was well orchestrated though. Wilfried Zaha was excellent hold up skills and his ability to retain possession as the lone outlet allowed his teammates to sit in their deep defensive positions and catch up on the counter. Palace didn’t have many chances, only 5 registered on the expected goals radar, but clearly made the most out of them.

Manchester City’s drop in form over the past week should not be a cause for panic, but it does present a fair number of concerns. It’s not as if City were incredibly unlucky against Palace and we can chalk it up to that. Yes, Palace’s finishing was otherworldly but Kevin De Bruyne’s goal was an even more lucky score. The final expected goal numbers came out to 1.28 xG for City and 1.25 xG for Crystal Palace, so the Blues earned their misfortune.

The lack of chances created is absolutely discomforting, but getting players back from injury and the tactical genius of Pep Guardiola should be able to remedy that problem. But we also learned that City’s depth has its limits. Playing an out-of-position left back and defensive midfielder is not a successful option, regardless of their talent.

City are still within striking distance of Liverpool in the Premier League table while simultaneously are still in contention for three other trophies. Fans know this is the most challenging time of the year given the loaded schedule and weeks like this past one should be expected. This team will recover and find the form everyone knows they are capable of. But for now, there’s little time to dwell on the dropped points, as the focus must shift to Boxing Day, when the Blues will again face a Leicester City side that just defeated Chelsea.