Not all victories come easy and that was definitely the case for Manchester City’s 2-1 win at the Etihad against Newcastle United on Saturday. There has been quite a bit of concern shown by City fans during and after the match that this is an indication on why Pep Guardiola’s team will fail to repeat as Premier League champions. I’d argue this sentiment is misplaced, especially considering it is based on the incredibly small sample size of the past two games. For as great as City were last season en route to the best season in the history of English football, they had several games and victories that looked just like this one against Newcastle. It’s easy to look past these challenges when considering last season as a whole, but difficulties like this exist for even the greatest of teams.
It is a fair evaluation to say that Newcastle are not a good team right now and because of this, many of us told ourselves that City should take the three points no problem. While this is an easy conclusion to draw, it cannot always be analyzed so simply. Even teams that lack talent but are well drilled in ultra-defensive tactics can stifle the best teams. Just look what happened last week when Newcastle faced Chelsea. Maurizio Sarri’s team prefers to play in a style similar to Guardiola’s, and it took them until the 87th minute to secure the game winner despite 82% possession.
Newcastle, for all their flaws, have a proven and intelligent manager in Rafa Benitez, who understands his team and opponent well, allowing him to implement the most pragmatic strategy at his disposal. Similar to their match against Chelsea, this strategy was to get as many players behind the ball as possible and look to strike on the counter. This presented Pep Guardiola with a difficult challenge, though not one that him and City are unfamiliar with.
The play that takes place around the opponent’s goal is usually the hardest aspect for a coach to prepare for. It relies on the creativity of the players, based on exploiting space and reading/reacting to defender’s movement to get into dangerous positions. Because of this, this dynamic develops in a game of patience with the attacking side trying to pull defenders out of position and run in the space behind. Meanwhile, the defending side attempts to suck the attackers deep into the attacking third, where there is less room for easy ball movement and they can overwhelm with their excess in numbers. Seeing which side will blink first was the story of this match.
Benitez set his team up in a 5-4-1 with Salomon Rondon as the release valve up top to be an outlet for when Newcastle regained possession. Their first priority was getting the ball out of danger before anything else. The counterattacking strategy did not rely on playing the ball out of the back at all. If Newcastle was able to get possession into the middle third, outside midfielders Kenedy and Ayoze Perez would step forward down the wings to create a three-pronged attack. Out of Newcastle’s 217 passes, only 44 of them (20.2%) had a target within their defensive third (with 39 clearances) even though most of the play took place in this part of the field. In fact, they were so risk averse in their own end that they only loss possession once in their defensive third and even that one time was far from goal.
Benitez’ gameplan was clear. Boot the ball clear of danger areas toward Rondon and only commit a few numbers forward if the Venezuelan is able to secure it. This approach neutralized City’s quick press, which is used to regain possession soon after it is lost. The attack can then be recycled immediately, going at a defense that may have momentarily switched off and/or is stretched out of position. Newcastle did whatever they could to avoid these vulnerable scenarios, even in possession.
With Newcastle bunkered, City tried a variety of ways tor break down the defense. The consistent components of the attack were Riyad’s Mahrez’ presence on the right touchline, David Silva floating to find space in between the lines, and the strike partnership (Sergio Aguero & Gabriel Jesus) dropping into the midfield to pick up possession. Aguero and Jesus were routinely in the midfield giving City a very interesting look with essentially five attackers along a horizontal line on the field. They’re goal was to pull one of the defenders with them, creating space for someone else to run in behind. Unfortunately, Newcastle rarely bit on this, maintaining their shape with good communication on trading off marking responsibilities for players shifting vertically into different lines of the defense.
City also tried getting the ball into wide spaces, giving an attacker space to run in behind the wingback and outside center back. Guardiola’s side was unable to get in on goal this way but it did isolate a defender for an attacker to take a run at. Gabriel Jesus created a fairly good opportunity when he was able to cut back onto his left foot, creating space from Ciaran Clark for a shot on goal that was unfortunately right at keeper Martin Dúbravka.
Recently, Mendy has owned the left touchline and Pep has chosen not to overload that side with a wide winger. Sterling did spend considerable time on the inner channel Saturday but this was always not the case, as he and Mendy shared the left side, alternating who was inverted. When Mendy was tucked into the midfield, Sterling would regularly draw up the sideline to receive the ball. In response to this, Mendy would run from inside to outside down the wing with the hope that Sterling would draw the wingback out of position. Once again, Newcastle were up to the task in thwarting buildup down the left but Mendy and Sterling did connect for the opening goal.
The play actually originated with Jesus trying to make a run outside of Newcastle’s right center back, which was expertly stonewalled by Clark. The ball was pushed back into the middle where David Silva, under heavy pressure, tried to move it forward to Aguero. His pass was off the mark but Newcastle center back Jamaal Lascelles’ first touch was heavy, essentially passing the ball to Benjamin Mendy who was occupying that inverted position. With Lascelles now out of position, right wingback DeAndre Yedlin was tucked in more than he usually would be and Sterling had space on the left where he received the ball from the City leftback. Lascelles recovered back into position but failed to hinder Sterling from cutting back. He was able to get to his strong foot and past both defenders, placing his shot perfectly into the side netting. This one of the few instances were Newcastle let their defense get chaotic and City made them pay for it.
Pep also tried a variety of things with his backline during possession with a common setup being a three-man backline with Kyle Walker on the right beside John Stones and Aymeric Laporte. There were also times when Pep pushed both Mendy and Walker into the midfield, giving the look of a 2-3-5 formation. As the game wore on, City shifted to use a four-man backline more often, getting into their traditional shape with each substitution.
Defensively, City dropped back into a 4-4-2 but were rarely in situations where they had to deal with prolonged Newcastle possession. They did have to defend in transition and held up fairly well, with the one very big exception of the lone goal for the Magpies. After a chaotic back-and-forth in the midfield, the ball made it’s way to Ayoze Perez on the left at around the half-way line. Kyle Walker was forced to step up with the midfielders scattered but was too late to prevent Perez from finding Kenedy up field, who subsequently found Rondon to his left with only three City players back. John Stones picked up Rondon at the edge of the box with Kenedy lurking centrally. At this point, some blame goes to Laporte and the rest goes to Mendy.
Laporte offered support to Stones in case Rondon cut back onto his right but probably was too far from Kenedy to recover if the ball was worked back to him. To compound this imbalance, Mendy was just standing at the top of the box in the general vicinity of Kenedy, who wasn’t even doing anything to get himself in a dangerous position. Not to mention, by this point, Walker had also recovered enough to account for any pass to the Newcastle attacker.
So just to recap, now we have the entire backline on one side of the field, focused on two players. Meanwhile, DeAndre Yedlin is flying down the right wing with Gabriel Jesus doing everything he can to track back. As you probably know, this sequence ends with a goal from Yedlin after Rondon is able to pass it through Stones’ legs. Mendy has been criticized for his lack of defensive awareness in the past and this is more fuel for that fire. He didn’t do anything to contribute in this situation and needs to be aware of the far post run. You can get on Laporte as well for over-committing as a secondary defender against Rondon, leading to two players half-marking Kenedy. Regardless, this Newcastle goal was a bad showing from the defense and needs to get cleaned up, especially against stronger opponents.
Overall, this was far from City’s best performance but it is encouraging to see them battle through to get the win. Kyle Walker’s goal was simply incredible and games like this can require moments of individual brilliance to get the job done. I feel bad I’m not spending more time talking about the game-winner but I assume most of you stopped reading a few paragraphs and it really does speak for itself anyway.
Pep’s squad definitely grew with this match and looked more fluid as the game progressed. In the first half, City fell into too many situations where they got sucked too deep into the Newcastle defense and lost their ability to move the ball freely. As I mentioned previously, this is exactly what Rafa Benitez wanted and City was losing the stand off. However, they developed to the point where they would possess around the edges of the final third, where they could maximize one-touch passing and pull on the defense little by little. This is something City was so good at last season too; taking the game into areas advantageous for them as opposed to getting drawn into the space a compact defense is giving them. Doing so didn’t create as many goals as we’d hope, but the Blues looked so much smoother in the second half.
On an individual level, Riyad Mahrez clearly still has room to grow with this team and under Pep. He wasn’t effective in this match at all and the attack tended to get stagnant when the ball got to his feet. Mahrez clearly has the quality so I’m attributing his struggles to normal adaptation to a new team, coach, and style. It’s not easy transitioning from a situation where he was the focal point of a counterattacking offense to the quick passing of City. He’s going to have to change his game in a multitude of ways but I have faith in his ability to do so. He’ll definitely have to quicken his decision making in possession and improve his movement off the ball. Right now, he just stands on the wing waiting for someone to pass it to him so he can dribble at defenders. He’ll get there, Pep will get him to where he has to be, but it won’t happen overnight.
It’s safe to constructively criticize Manchester City based on this match, but we shouldn’t come to rash conclusions based on it alone. It’s a long season and this team will have to power through these struggles. Some of these concerns may develop into problems that need to be addressed by the club and some of them will prove to be meaningless, but nothing we saw today should make us any less confident in City right now.