There were moments during Manchester City’s 3-0 victory against Fulham that were so beautiful, I was nearly moved to tears. If you are trying to turn someone into a football fan, you show them this game. If it doesn’t convert them, then you shouldn’t be spending time with that person because what City did on Saturday moved me.
It was one of the those matches where everything seemed to just come together and the eleven guys on the field were clicking on all cylinders as a unit. The commentator on my television broadcast said it “could be 6 or 7 nil already” . . . in the 32nd minute! And that is not at all an exaggeration, City were actually that good in this match.
The perfect football match doesn’t really exist, you can find criticisms even within the greatest of performances. For City, the primary criticism you could make against Fulham was with their finishing, which is always the most volatile aspect of the game. Coaches are only able to set their team up to expose the weaknesses of the defense and put their players in good positions to score. There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola and his staff did just that when you considering how many high quality chances City created.
The Blues finished this game with 4.92 expected goals (xG, courtesy of UnderStat), which is a statistic that quantifies the quality of all chances created. It calculates how many goals a team should expect to score based on the position/context of the shots on goal, assuming average finishing. As far as expected goals goes, that is an absolutely ridiculous number. To put it in perspective, there have only been three instances this season in the Premier League when a team has even exceeded 3 expected goals! Those instances were Liverpool (3.88 xG) against West Ham, Southampton (3.08 xG) against Crystal Palace, and Manchester City (4.21 xG) against Huddersfield.
So this performance against Fulham was a full expected goal better than the best non-Manchester City performance in England. Even though the perfect match doesn’t exist, this was about as close as you’ll get to achieving it.
The question is, how did City dominate Fulham so soundly?
Well, for starters, Fulham were downright awful in this match and shot themselves in the foot so many times that there’s only a bloody stump remaining. Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has developed an attack-minded team and tried to play out the back often. But the combination of City’s press along with Fulham’s misplaced passing left his defense exposed regularly. Furthermore, fullback Ryan Sessegnon (who’s probably better as a winger) and Cyrus Christie routinely got caught too far up field, allowing City’s wingers to get in behind.
As far as Pep Guardiola’s plan, this was one of the most straightforward tactical setups we’ve seen from City since the Spaniard has been with the club. Guardiola brought his team out in a 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1 in defense) where all the players maintained the traditional positional roles for the most part. Fullbacks Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker were conservative in their attacking runs and didn’t invert into the midfield at all. Pep was so pleased with the shape of the team Saturday that when he brought on Ilkay Gundogan for Fabian Delph as a precaution, he kept the same formation but moved Kyle Walker to left back and pushed Fernandinho into the right back role. If you’re wondering why Pep didn’t just bring in another left back, his only option for that would have been Oleksandr Zinchenko, who probably doesn’t justify getting minutes over the rest of the bench right now and City were handling Fulham so easily it really didn’t matter.
With Jokanovic setting his team in a flat 4-3-3, Fulham sacrificed width in the midfield. City easily took advantage of this by setting up passing triangles along the touchline with the winger, fullback, and a midfielder. Sergio Aguero would often drop in as well to present another passing option. This drag a Fulham midfielder out of position, in addition to a fullback, leaving loads of space both down the wing and into the center of the pitch.
Though Pep got his tactics right, this result can just as easily be chalked up to City’s cohesion and superior talent against a Fulham team that seemed to forget what sport they were playing and who they were playing against.
The majority of the possession/buildup was one to two touch passing. The press was near flawless, funneling the ball into areas they wanted and always being quicker to pick up errant passes (and there were quite a few errant passes). The wingers were instrumental defensively, tracking back consistently and maintaining of their fullbacks position in case they needed to cover. The centerback partnership of Nico Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte stepped forward to thwart out counters when necessary and were strong in their recovery runs. Ederson only had to make 3 saves in this game, and none of those shots came from inside the box.
Quick sidebar: Fulham’s mentality throughout this match should concern their fans. I recognize that they have talent on the roster, especially considering the transfer window they just had. But this team was bad from the get-go and seemed to just collapse as City battered away at them. You could see them go from a team who came out thinking they could take the attack to City to one that was shell-shocked within minutes. This shock turned into hesitation, which subsequently became fear. Perhaps worst of all, their fear became apathy as they just seemed to lack life for most of the second half. Jokanovic has to pull his squad together if Fulham is ever going maximize their talent and reach their potential.
Anyway, evaluating City on an individual level, the Silvas shared the attacking midfield and were just their standard, incredible selves. Bernardo, when he wasn’t casually putting on juggling displays, continues to make things happen in every facet of the game. He easily could have had a couple assists and a goal of his own if the finishing was up to par. He gets a large chunk of the credit for David Silva’s goal despite the fact that he won’t get credited with the assist. I don’t even think we have to talk about David Silva anymore, he is fundamental in the majority of City’s buildup play whenever he’s on the pitch and Saturday’s match was no different. He is a club legend and you could see his fingerprints on this game more than any other player.
Fernandinho looked as fresh as ever coming off the international break. He did all the work on City’s first goal, intercepting a pass as Fulham tried to recycle the attack after a cleared corner. He drove all the way into the box and played an inch-perfect ball to Sane (he’s back!) for the opener. The Brazilian displayed how great he can be at his best, reinforcing the calls for his rotation to keep him fresh throughout the season.
The two players most of us are probably interested in discussing are the two re-introductions into the starting eleven: the aforementioned Fabian Delph and Leroy Sane.
The worry among the City fan base regarding Leroy Sane has been noticeable, and not without reason. He’s been left out of the 18 recently, criticized by Germany teammate Toni Kroos, and Pep has deferred to his Benjamin Mendy as his left-sided play-maker. This led some to believe that he would move on from the team after the season. Hopefully, this match squashed most of that concern as the German attacker reminded us all just how good he is. He went the full 90 and was fantastic throughout, providing quality service into the box, making incisive runs, and linking up with his teammates beautifully to get into dangerous areas. I think he’s going to be just fine.
Fabian Delph was equally impressive and made his case for more consistent minutes at left back. He may not be as flashy as Mendy, but he is good at literally everything. His passing skills as a natural midfielder make him a great fit in City’s ball movement system and he has developed a defensive acumen to the point where his positional transition is no longer a concern. You could make a strong case that Delph should be the first choice left back. Mendy is obviously a better crosser and likely beats him for pace, but Delph is more capable flowing within the team and operating in that inverted, support role Pep likes to use so often.
Granted, we’re still getting to know Mendy as a player so I hesitate to draw any conclusions based simply on this match. But the other benefit of selecting Delph is that it also lets Pep select Sane, who he’s previously said he’s unsure if he can play simultaneously with the French left back. City’s ball movement was better against Fulham with Delph and Sane in the game at the expense of Mendy, who’s strongest feature is something Guardiola’s style generally downplays. That isn’t to say Delph should always be the default choice, because Mendy’s skillset is clearly useful and he has a role on this team. This is what you would call a good problem to have. City has depth with a variety of skill sets that can be deployed given the nature of the opponent.
This was about as promising a performance as we could have expected going into Champions League play on Wednesday. It is unfortunate that Sergio Aguero picked up a knock but Gabriel Jesus should be able to fill in capably against Lyon if necessary. Whoever starts up front, this version of City are starting to coalesce into the force that broke the Premier League last year.