The string of two-match weeks continued for Manchester City over this holiday season with contests against Leicester City and Southampton. Unfortunately, City dropped points once again on the midweek but appeared to be coming out of their malaise on the weekend. The dropped points extended Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table but over the course of these two matches, it was clear City are getting themselves back on track from both a mental and tactical perspective.
The game at the midweek against Leicester City extended Manchester City’s poor run of form to three Premier League losses out of the last four, falling by a 2-1 scoreline. The Foxes had given City a run for their money the week prior in the League Cup quarterfinal, in which the Blues survived in penalties in a match where both managers rotated their squads. Claude Puel brought back his strongest starting eleven on Boxing Day however, and he certainly got his team selection and gameplan right.
Leicester City opened the match in a 4-5-1, where James Maddison and Marc Albrighton were the primary transition players from defense into the attack. This left Jamie Vardy as the lone central presence up the field with the midfield sitting relatively deep. The Blues were able to take advantage of this setup early, as the first goal derived from Aymeric Laporte being able to carry the ball forward into the midfield unimpeded. His pass into the feet of Sergio Aguero pulled out both Leicester City center backs (Harry Maguire and Wes Morgan), allowing Bernardo to slip in behind and give City the lead.
Puel quickly adjusted to this deficiency by shifting into a 4-4-1-1, where Maddison played behind Vardy. This tweak discouraged City building up through the middle while simultaneously freeing up Maddison to float into pockets on the counter anywhere on the pitch. Doing so also forced Hamza Choudhury out wide, a position he is fairly unfamiliar with. Despite this, the Leicester midfield was fantastic. Nampalys Mendy and Wilfred Ndidi played in the central roles, culminating into a physical and mobile group that was able to push City’s attack out wide and isolate it there.
When City got the ball to the wingers, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, Puel would often flood three players in that direction. This cut off any passing options back into the center channel, leaving the only option to dribble to the endline. Leicester wasn’t worried about the Blues crossing balls deep from the corner with a significant size advantage and two center backs strong in aerial challenges.
Pep Guardiola was without Fernandinho once again, and his absence was evident, not only in providing a link between the flanks, but more so in his defensive contribution. Leicester equalized not long after Bernardo’s goal on a play that highlights the primary concerns for City: left back and defensive midfield. Chaos in the midfield preceded Maddison picking up possession around the halfway line. Gundogan, playing in Fernandinho’s deep role, missed an opportunity to put in a foul or slow down the counter. Vardy picked up the ball down the left wing with Danilo caught upfield. This forced the remainder of the backline to shift over and put Fabian Delph on an island defending Albrighton. The makeshift left back lost his mark far too easily and Leicester were level.
This was not the only time Gundogan failed to thwart a counter or Delph allowed someone to get in behind. The two problems are connected. Fernandinho has protected the backline, particularly Delph, from many of these situations in the past. His absence really amplifies the fact that City have been playing midfielders at left back for the majority of the past two seasons.
Claude Puel realized Manchester City were vulnerable and three points could be had. He replaced Choudhury with Demarai Gray, a player more natural to that wide midfield position, especially when getting on the front foot. Gray moved into the central attacking role when Maddison was removed, concurrently allowing Ricardo Pereira to adopt a more aggressive mindset in the midfield with Danny Simpson now at right back. Each of these changes stabilized a dangerous attack for Leicester without sacrificing defense.
Leicester were able to exploit City’s backline throughout, actually finishing the game with a higher expected goal tally than the Blues (1.56 xG to 1.35 xG). The game winner by Ricardo was another screamer that came off a cleared corner. But this goal originated with Delph getting beat behind on a long ball off a Leicester free kick, directly leading to the ball going out for the corner.
This was arguably City’s worst performance of the season. The most obvious diagnosis for this extreme drop in form is Fernandinho being injured. That is clearly a large factor here, especially in defense, but the attack should not be as inept as it was with Gundogan in that deep position. It would seem the Blues are struggling on the mental side of the game as well, unsure how to respond in the face of overwhelming expectations and growing adversity.
I’d argue that Pep Guardiola agrees with the notion that his team’s problems are largely between their ears, as he reinserted the captain, Vincent Kompany, back into the starting eleven against Southampton on Sunday. Kompany has been the fourth choice center back all year but is still the clear leader of this team, and they really needed his voice out there. He looked like a player that has been lacking game time, with a few sloppy passes and tackles throughout. But he was still a massive, calming presence and led the team to a 3-1 victory, despite conceding another 1-0 lead.
Manchester City were actually quite excellent in this match, finishing with 2.97 xG to only 0.22 xG for the Saints. The return of Fernandino and David Silva are obviously big contributions to this return to quality, but Pep also made a big change in comparison to the Leicester match that unlocked the attack. He refused to let his team get bogged down in the corners where passing options are limited.
Leroy Sane loves to use his pace to attack space, but doing so into the corners against Leicester played right into their hands. He was replaced in the starting eleven with Riyad Mahrez, a player with more finesse to his game who can get involved in quick one-two passing combinations into the teeth of the defense that City had been missing. Guardiola also shifted the foundation of the attack into the middle third, where they still used the entire width of the pitch.
But the movements into the final third were always angled towards goal, with the focus on making runs within the horizontal limits of the 18 yard box. City’s first goal came from a wide position from Mahrez in the midfield. His through ball to Bernardo took him towards goal and provided shorter, higher percentage passing options to select from. He picked out David Silva on a cutback run for an easy finish. This attacking design was clear for the entire 90 minutes, with a bevy of City chances originating in the central channel with a return to the incisive quick passing combinations.
Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl set his team up in a fairly attack-minded shape, clearly realizing the fragility City have displayed recently. Starting in a 4-3-3, the front three were positioned high up the pitch. Even when Southampton switched to a three-man backline, they pressed City deep into their own half throughout the opening 45 minutes. The Saints equalized due to this pressure, dispossessing Oleksandr Zinchenko as City played out of the back. The finish by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was an impressive one and all the doubts among the City fan base reappeared.
But the Blues showed their mental fortitude and persevered despite some strong stretches from Southampton, taking back control of the match. A side effect of Southampton’s aggression was that it also provided space for City to exploit, and transition opportunities were more apparent than they are accustomed to. Guardiola’s side finally got a stroke of luck with the deflected own goal off a Raheem Sterling cross in the 45’ and added another before the half. It was a backbreaking way to end the opening 45 minutes and clearly effected Hasenhüttl’s second half strategy. He definitely realized his team had missed its chance and reverted into a five-man backline, reducing the intensity of ball pressure and converting into a counterattacking mentality. The Austrian is aware his team is in a relegation battle that may come down to goal differential and didn’t want to take any chances against a City team that appeared to be figuring it out.
The left back concerns still persist, though Zinchenko, who started in place of the suspended Delph, was actually better in this match despite a pair of glaring mistakes. In addition to the giveaway that led to the goal, he got beat in behind and subsequently almost conceded a penalty. But overall, this was a fine performance, providing the assist on Sergio Aguero’s goal. Again, Fernandinho being in the lineup definitely helps in preventing chances for the opponent to go after the left back but nevertheless, it was good to see him show signs of improvement and Guardiola’s comments after the match reinforce that. Fellow fullback Danilo was very good in his own right as well. His contributions to the attack and understanding of when to step forward to intercept a pass were fantastic. I’d argue he’s your first choice left back for the rest of the season.
Some of the post game coverage I saw after the Southampton match focused on City’s struggles and how the Saints were unlucky to be down two at half time. Feel free to ignore this. Don’t get me wrong, there were some sloppy moments that absolutely need to get cleaned up. But if that match takes places during a City winning streak, the narrative is completely different. The Blues dominated on Sunday, having 94% of the chances. All opinions about City right now are viewed through the lens of this recent drop in form and it is clouding a great performance.
The title race is far from over. Manchester City face Liverpool on Thursday on what is as close to a must win as it can get. If the Blues can pull out a victory at the Etihad against the league leaders, the deficit will be reduced to 4 points, which is without question a surmountable number. The recent form of both teams makes City the underdogs, there’s no doubting that. But the way they played on Sunday’s showed the greatness this team is capable of and I’d argue the best version of City is still better than the best version of Liverpool. The only question is whether Manchester City can get back to their best by Thursday.