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Manchester City Tactics: As Dominant As Ever

Pep Guardiola set his team up perfectly to destroy Huddersfield in the home opener.

Manchester City v Huddersfield Town - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in recent memory. City were at peak level again on Sunday, easing some of the concern surrounding Kevin De Bruyne’s injury with a 6-1 destruction of Huddersfield at home. I don’t care who you’re playing (many would argue Huddersfield is in relegation contention), it is not easy to do what Pep Guardiola’s team just did against any Premier League opposition.

When the lineup was first announced before the match, it was a little hard to discern what Pep was going for. Based on the team sheet, we knew it would be some version a 3-5-2 (my television broadcast incorrectly claimed Fernandinho would line up as the right wingback), but player selections were particularly interesting with Sterling, Sane, and Walker all left on the bench.

Sacrificing all that pace would normally seem risky, but made a whole lot of sense when you consider the expected game flow. With City’s possession-based style and the massive talent gap between the two clubs, Huddersfield would surely be pinned deep in their own half for sustained stretches, negating some of the value of that pace. It’s worth noting however, Huddersfield manager David Wagner isn’t shy about pushing his defense forward instead of just absorbing pressure in their defensive third. We saw them look fairly competent doing so against Chelsea (only for the opening 30 minutes) and actually did attempt this against Manchester City. Unfortunately for the visitors, they conceded almost immediately when trying to do so, with Ederson playing Aguero into space off a goal kick before chipping the Huddersfield keeper Ben Hamer. Despite this, there was little doubt the majority of the attack would take place in tight windows. Not thinking his team would see that much open space in the attack, Pep went with a lineup that maximized creativity and service into the box, where the dual partnership up top would give two targets.

Six goals later and it’s pretty obvious that Pep got his tactics right in this one. City attacked primarily in a 3-5-2 but actually fell into a four man backline with Stones outside on the right when forced to defend. That’ll be the extent with which I talk about City’s defense considering they only had to do so for about as long as its taken me to write this sentence.

City were able to attack in different ways from the left and right, given the stark contrast of the offensive drivers on each side. Mendy dictated the attack down the left flank, providing powerful balls into the box, while the Silva’s occupied the right side, picking the defense apart more meticulously. Introducing this asymmetry into the attack is something Pep has done in the past and Sunday’s match was an example of how effective it can be. Having two players with gravitational pull like Bernardo and Silva set up in close proximity and allowing them to interchange willingly is about the best you can do when trying to stretch a compressed defense. Normally, these two guys steal the show as the fulcrums of the attack, but Benjamin Mendy was so good in this game that he is rightfully getting the notoriety.

There’s been times during his brief time on the field for City when I’ve been slightly critical of Mendy for putting his head down, driving to the end line, and blindly firing the ball into the box without a clear target. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always rated him as a player and throwing a ball into the penalty area at pace can be very effective in creating chaos. But that struck me as his default decision even in moments where they’re were better options elsewhere. This match was a perfect argument against that criticism. It was an illustration of his intelligence as a player and his ability to read defenders.

Manchester City v Huddersfield Town - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Mendy’s reputation as a great crosser precedes him and Huddersfield were keyed in on limiting his opportunities to do so. They were initially selling out on riding Mendy into tight spaces where he’d be pressured into getting rid of the ball before he had time to pick out a target, resulting in some misplaced crosses early on. It was clear how well he adapted to Huddersfield as he began toying with defenders, subverting their expectations repeatedly to put himself in the most advantageous position.

When they would commit to a forward dribble, he’d cut back and attack on a diagonal.

When they would expect the cutback dribble, he’d only feint in that direction or toss another cutback on the cutback.

Finally, when they didn’t know what Mendy would do next, they were terrified of over-committing and would back off him when he received the ball. No problem, he’d just find a target in a scoring area from where he stood, making it no longer an option to not close him out.

The Frenchman put on an absolute clinic throughout this match and was a primary factor in three City goals though he may only get credited with one assist. The second goal was the result of him beating Huddersfield right back Tommy Smith off the dribble in City’s half and pulling away from Jon Gorenc Stankovic towards an exposed backline. He connected with Gabriel Jesus, who ultimately put it in the bottom corner with a group of defenders closing in. City’s third was on Ben Hamer, but Mendy deserves credit for putting the ball into a dangerous area with teammates nearby. The left back’s ball in bounced right in front of the keeper and Hamer fumbled the rebound into the path of a lurking Sergio Aguero. The prettiest of the three was probably the one on which Mendy actually gets credit on the score sheet. Huddersfield’s backline got too tight, leaving Mendy time to play a first time cross into the box off a pass from Bernardo. He hit it with pace and accuracy, right at Aguero, who expertly provided the necessary touch with the outside of his foot to direct it into the side netting.

His performance against Huddersfield was the best we’ve seen of him in a City kit. And considering he’s only played 9 times under Pep, we can expect him to improve even further and become a consistent difference maker. Having this guy back on the field this season is going to impact this team in such a good way.

Manchester City v Huddersfield Town - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe its taken me this long to talk about the strike partnership that scored four goals but I wanted to save Aguero and Jesus for last because I think they’re interplay is my biggest takeaway from this match. It’s been a while since they’ve been given an extended run on the field together so its easy to forget just how great they play alongside each other. Their success as a tandem is founded in skills they both possess: dropping into the midfield for linkup play, strong holdup play, and the ability to make smart, timely runs.

Both Aguero and Jesus were being bracketed by a defender in the Huddersfield backline along with a midfielder providing tight coverage from the top. This didn’t leave much space for either to operate, but they worked well together to throw off the opposition man marking responsibilities. With the buildup outside the box flowing down the wings, there wasn’t a dedicated central attacking midfielder. Aguero and Jesus would take turns moving into this space and pick up possession while their strike partner would make runs based on their movement. Having the second striker in the box making runs behind the backline prevented defenders from stepping too far forward as Aguero/Jesus picked up passes in the midfield, allowing them to turn and exploit vulnerable pockets of the defense.

Sometimes they would combine this presence in the midfield with a deeper hold up play in order to set up one-two passing opportunities. There were several occasions where Aguero would pick up the ball outside the box, turn towards goal and find Jesus with a center back pinned to his back. Jesus would play it back on his first touch to a now full-speed Aguero with the defense scrambling to keep contain.

Finally, the runs they would make simultaneously were the perfect combination for confusing Huddersfield’s center backs Terence Kongolo and Christopher Schindler. The City strikers would get really tight in the box (almost right next to each other) as the buildup made its way down the wings. This would subsequently pull the center back pairing in tight alongside them. As the final ball was about to played in, they would break off into different directions, often losing their mark. The most common iteration of this would have the two meet at the penalty spot and then split, one towards the far post and one towards the near post. Their movement remained unpredictable in its direction and purpose, destroying any semblance of structure in the Huddersfield defense.

Aguero bagged a hat trick and Jesus scored one as well, though both could have easily had a couple more. Lineups like this could be downright unstoppable for Pep moving forward.

This game was so eventful that there are going to be so many aspects of it I won’t be able to cover here. I barely touched on the Ederson assist and didn’t even mention David Silva’s perfect free kick goal (he was also just had an overall great game)! Not to mention, Pep brought on Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez and we now have seen how Mendy fits next to each play who could man that left winger position. Gundogan also deserves credit for doing the work that doesn’t regularly get noticed. He was doing a great job of reading the defense, then making runs to stretch the backline and pulling Huddersfield players out of position.

All in all, every single player on City played well today. I’m not even too concerned with the fact that they didn’t keep a clean sheet (Stones simply got beat for position on a long throw into the box) considering how good the backline played in this game, cutting out any chance of a counter before Huddersfield could get time on the ball. If I have one complaint about this game, and it’s a very small one, it’s that Fernandinho didn’t get some rest at the end with the result well in hand. I’d just like to keep him as fresh as possible and this game seemed like a chance to do so. But if that’s my biggest complaint from a match, that is very good news. Yes, it’s only the second game of the season and yes, it’s against a weak opponent, but this level of play is other-worldly. If anyone out there was hoping City’s form would drop off after last season’s dominance, they might not want to watch this match.