Manchester City’s perfect record ended far sooner than it did last season, dropping points on Saturday, coming away with a 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton. Objectively, City were clearly the better team on the pitch and this match could have easily ended with a victory. We can certainly point to poor officiating decisions and some chances that were literally inches away as the reason for this result. Though blaming these things may make us feel better about the fact that City isn’t at the top of the table for first time in months, but it fails to acknowledge that Pep Guardiola’s team just weren’t very good this past weekend.
The reasons behind a lack of success on any given week can usually be attributed to either poor execution and/or flaws in the tactical strategy. In this particular case, I think we can safely place a little bit of blame on both of these, figuring out which of these symptoms is more concerning may be the more challenging conversation.
Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo regularly deploys his squad into a 3-4-2-1 formation, and this game was no different. In defense, their structure would often fall back into a 5-4-1 with wingbacks Jonny Castro and Matt Doherty dropping into the backline. With this expectation in mind, there was much debate coming into this match from the City fan base on how Pep Guardiola should structure his players. There were valid arguments for both a three or a four man backline, but ultimately Pep chose to toe the line between the two options.
The starting 11 he selected had all the elements of a traditional 4-3-3, but spent most of the game lined up in a 3-5-2, with nominal right back Kyle Walker operating primarily as the outside center back. In this shape, Raheem Sterling moved in from his standard winger position to play centrally as a second striker. This gave Benjamin Mendy access to the entire left wing while Bernardo Silva manned the right touchline.
With the game in the past, we’re all asking ourselves if Pep got his tactics right in this one?
Personally, I have no problems with the players that were chosen. I’ve said before how much I like Kyle Walker in this swing position where City can seamlessly transition from a back three to a back four. The ability to drastically change your tactics without a substitution is such a dangerous feature for a team to possess. Problem is, Pep was very static in his structure throughout this match, choosing to maintain a 3-5-2 shape until some changes were made later in the game.
When we saw Walker in this role against Arsenal, it didn’t inhibit his ability get forward as much as it did in this match. There were few occasions when Walker got in behind the defense and provide service into the box. Obviously, City doesn’t require him to do so to be successful but that was something that was lacking in this match. The attackers often got stagnant and failed to make Wolverhampton’s backline to defend on the move. City really could have used Walker’s presence in the attack to stretch the backline vertically and horizontally.
To compound this problem, Walker’s positioning also stunted Bernardo Silva’s ability to impact the game because he was forced to provide the width on the right. He is one of the best creators on the field and not giving him license to work into the center of the pitch to make things happen limits how dangerous he can be. Bernardo had as many completed passes (23) as Sergio Aguero and only one more than Raheem Sterling (22). This is not ideal when you consider the difference in roles between these players, as Bernardo should be dictating buildup while Aguero/Sterling are primarily concerned with finding space in behind the defense. Bernardo was the first player substituted, coming off Gabriel Jesus in the 62nd minute.
As a result, City’s attacked slanted down the left, away from the nominal positions of their two most creative players. This put a heavy burden on Benjamin Mendy and Ilkay Gundogan to pick apart the defense, and overall, they were unable to do so. Part of the blame for that is on the attackers for failing to consistently make runs to stretch the defense, but we also must give credit to Nuno and Wolverhampton for their defensive performance. Parking the bus is not in this team’s nature, as they executed a responsible and efficient press in this game, even after taking the lead.
The press was the foundation of the effectiveness of their defense, along with a solid back three that made smart decisions and were quick to close down on attacking runs. Nuno’s press was depended on Castro and Doherty, along with wingers Helder Costa and Diogo Jota. The Wolverhampton wingers were incredibly flexible in where they applied the press, sometimes coming inside to press possession in the center of the pitch ahead of the defensive midfield pairing while more routinely controlling the passing lanes of City’s wide players. The wingbacks work well behind the wingers to read where they were directing the Manchester City possession and pressure that player before the ball even arrived. This allowed Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho to maintain their position, pick up errant passes, and clog up passing lanes in the midfield.
All in all, it was a tactic that made Pep Guardiola’s team look less cohesive than most opponents. Still, City maintained 72% possession and had created several chances (three of which hit the woodwork) despite not being at peak level. The lone goal came off a set piece where Gundogan played a perfect ball into the box from just outside the corner of the box. Wolves were zonal marking and Aymeric Laporte started his run from further out than the rest, allowing him to gain speed and find the hole in the defense before heading it home.
But on top of the tactical questions, City just didn’t execute well, with promising buildups often stalling due to a poor pass or heavy touch. Pep Guardiola must have thought this was the primary reason for the struggles, given the fact that he stuck with his gameplan for so long. The main criticism about City’s manager is that he often overthinks his tactics at time, so his stubbornness against Wolves is uncharacteristic for him. His assessment is misplaced though, as several players (Kompany, for one, was far from his best) just didn’t seem to tuned in. Leroy Sane, who came on in the second half, was another player who wasn’t sharp. Aside from one great dribble through a collection of Wolves players, Sane displayed poor passing and control with the ball at his feet.
With so many minutes to go around, particularly in the attack, maintaining everyone’s sharpness may be the team’s biggest concern going forward. City’s three substitutes today were Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, and Riyad Mahrez, all world class players and the bench will always feature players of that caliber. Unfortunately, none of them failed to make a discernible difference in this match. I know it’s not easy to do so in limited minutes but there is an adjustment that needs to be made when you enter the game as a substitute instead of starting it. Granted, these guys are professionals and should be expected to be ready to play in whatever role Pep asks. But how he rotates his squad will be one of his biggest challenges with so many players demanding minutes. Pep has coached at Barcelona and Bayern Munich previously, so this isn’t something he’s unfamiliar with. Hopefully this match was just a blip on the radar and won’t develop into a recurring problem.
Overall, I don’t think that Pep chose the wrong players or formation against Wolves. But, I do think he chose the wrong combination of players and formation. Saturday’s tactics didn’t maximize some players best skills and some readjustment would have helped. For example, I think this game looks a lot different if Bernardo is playing more centrally and Leroy Sane replaces Gundogan, playing on the right. Furthermore, this match also goes differently if Bernardo and Raheem Sterling change positions, allowing Bernardo to create behind Aguero while Sterling can get in behind the defense. This second guessing leaves us all with a sour taste in our mouth as City tries to put the pieces back together for next weekend. Hopefully facing Newcastle, a team that managed to only have 18% possession against Chelsea Sunday, will be just what Manchester City needs to get back on track.