Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City handled Brighton & Hove Albion with ease on Saturday, defeating the Seagulls 2 - 0 at the Etihad. This game did very little to subvert our expectations, with the only real surprise being that City only scored two goals. Despite the modest scoreline, the Blues were brilliant in this match, exhibiting dynamism in addition to the necessary patience to take advantage of Brighton’s conservative tactics.
Brighton manager Chris Hughton set his team up in an ultra-defensive 4-5-1 formation with almost no ambition of getting numbers forward on the counter. The Seagulls only committed men into City’s half of the field from advanced static situations (i.e. throw ins & free kicks) where they were allowed to set up to not only get a potential ball into the box, but also handle a counter from City. Ironically, both of Manchester City’s goals came on counter attacking opportunities when Brighton abandoned their philosophy for just long enough for the Blues to take advantage.
The challenge Pep Guardiola faced in creating chances against a defense that often had 8-10 players in the box was the most interesting aspect of this match and it was one of City’s best performances in doing so. Within Brighton’s standard formation, there was a clear and obvious effort to consistently man-mark Bernardo and David Silva. It’s no secret that these players are City’s driving creative forces and both routinely had a defender with a couple arm lengths of them. This responsibility often fell to midfielders Yves Bissouma and Beram Kayal, who would track the Silvas within their layer of defense and pass them off to a defender (usually a full back) as they moved deeper into the attacking third.
It was at this point where defensive assignments would switch where City took advantage. The Silvas would make attacking runs in between the center back and full back, looking for the ball to be played right when the defensive assignment switched. This allowed them to get in behind at a full sprint while the defender to beat was starting from a standstill.
Brighton’s strategy keyed in on City’s attacking midfielders at the expense of the wingers, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. When Bernardo or David Silva would get in behind, it created space for the wing players to make inverted runs/dribbles with very little opposition. Furthermore, Pep Guardiola moved the Silvas’ standard positioning higher up the pitch (almost alongside Sergio Aguero) in order to settle them in between the lines of Brighton’s midfielders and defenders. At the very least, this interrupted Brighton’s defensive shape if they were to man-mark City’s attacking midfielders as tightly as was intended.
Floating in that space allowed the Silvas to find some space without having to work overly hard for it, and receiving passes there created strong opportunities to play one-two combinations with the attackers. Upon getting possession, Brighton would send two, sometimes three, players to close down, allowing Sane and Sterling to get into dangerous areas to provide service into the box.
Manchester City were operating within Brighton’s defense with relative ease by recognizing the defensive assignments and exploiting the openings they sacrificed. Chris Hughton tried to rectify this before the seemingly inevitable barrage of City goals occurred. He often did so by dropping his outside midfielders, Anthony Knockaert and Solly March, to defend City’s wingers, allowing for clarity in defensive assignments when the attacking midfielders would operate between the lines.
I’d argue that this change did not work despite the fact that City did not score when Brighton were bunkered in their own third. Pep Guardiola’s team still looked dangerous in this setup because Bernardo and David Silva were so far forward that City’s attacking force was essentially comprised of 5 players. With the outside midfielders dropping deeper, Brighton’s entire defense flattened out and allowed the Blues to have easy possession in areas right outside the box where they could pick out an easy pass or cross the ball into the far post.
Guardiola tucked his full backs, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko, next to Fernandinho in the midfield, creating what could best be described as a 2-3-5 formation for prolonged stretches. The full backs were regularly used by City to carry the ball forward through the midfield throughout the match with a clear strategy to keep center backs Nicolas Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte back, even if they had space to carry. With Brighton leaving a lone striker, Jurgen Locadia, up top as a release valve, having the center backs maintain around the halfway line cut out any chance of getting caught by a ball over the top.
Walker and Zinchenko were really used as utility players for the entirety of the game though. Much of the time was spent in the inverted role, but they were both reading their teammates positioning and making overlapping runs down the outside channel when City’s attacked flooded the interior.
All of this culminated in a strong performance from the Blues with a scoreline that does not do them justice. Upon City’s second goal, scored by Sergio Aguero in the 65th minute, the match came to a standstill. It was as if both teams agreed they were happy with the current scoreline and let’s just see this one out. For City, going into energy conservation mode benefits them with a Champions League matchup against Hoffenheim on Tuesday, while Brighton just didn’t want the floodgates to open.
The statistics bear this mutual agreement out clearly. When Aguero scored, approximately two thirds of the way into the match, City had an expected goal (xG) total of 2.66. The remaining 25 minutes plus stoppage time only saw the Blues create 0.25 xG (2.91 overall). For what it’s worth, Brighton only created 0.23 xG, all of it coming in the first half. This decline in City’s chances isn’t a knock on the substitutes or a lack of fitness, just an understanding to maintain easy, simple possession in low-leverage areas.
The ease with which City handled this match made me feel better about the decision to start Fernandinho and let him go 90 minutes. I’ve been fairly vocal about my preference to rest him as much as possible, with games like this as a perfect opportunity. And though I do still disagree with the decision to start him (even more so with the decision not to substitute him), this match was about the best case scenario you could find for keeping a player fit without a rest.
City’s recent winning streak has come against a collection of weak opponents, but it should be encouraging nonetheless to see the Blues get back on track after the loss to Lyon. Manchester City will need to be on top form with a challenging week ahead, with a trip to Anfield after the Champions League match. Even if Brighton didn’t put up as stiff a test as we should expect for either game upcoming, the fact that we saw a team and a manager operating at peak level should provide confidence for the City fan base.