I’m going to be completely honest with you, this will likely be one of the shortest tactical analyses I have ever written for Bitter and Blue. And I think anyone who has watched Manchester City over the past week can understand why. The Blues won two Cup matches by a combined score of 16-0 (!!!) against Rotherham United (FA Cup) and Burton Albion (League Cup).
Yes, you read that correctly. City won two games this week by scores of 7-0 and 9-0. It was absolutely unreal. I’ve definitely used the following gif before so apologies for the repeat, but nothing is more appropriate.
The results themselves aren’t all that surprising considering City played a Championship and League One side, but City’s sheer mercilessness does give reason for a double take. These wins were not a function of Pep Guardiola’s tactical genius though. Instead, the gap in talent in both matches between the two sides was so severe that City would have rolled even if I was the one devising the gameplan.
Now I’m certainly not implying that Pep had no tactical plans whatsoever for these matches. That’s just not in his nature, and you don’t get to be the best manager in the world by taking games off. But whatever tactics Guardiola did implement were clearly superseded by City’s excess in dynamism and skill.
There were some changes you could notice about City’s attack, though those could certainly be due to the ability of the opponent as well. The primary one would be the activation of the fullbacks offensively. We have seen these positions almost shunted in their attacking contributions recently while they were essentially additional wingers for most of last season. Guardiola unleashed them once again, allowing them to get forward, provide width, and make those overlapping runs. Now this was definitely more prevalent in the Rotherham match, yet there was definitely an increased freedom against Burton as well.
Furthermore, City made a conscious effort to narrow their attack and operate in those half-spaces along the horizontal limits of the 18-yard box. We saw a lot of chipped balls over the top from advanced midfield positions that put the wingers in positions to play low cutbacks as opposed to long crosses if they were attacking from wider angles.
As far as the opponent defenses were concerned, Rotherham and Burton alternated between some form of a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 in a low block with an eye to counter, though I don’t think either manager had any delusions of grandeur on how these matches would end. Either way, the Blues were able to pass right through them with ease, both sides unable to keep up with City’s quick ball movement. Rotherham looked more up for the challenge out of the two opponents, seeming eager to step out of their own half. Burton had a moment or two early but it seemed simply due to City’s nonchalance and their conscious effort to not be overly aggressive on the tackle in order to avoid a set piece or card.
All in all, these stress-free matches were a reprieve for all City fans after a harrowing holiday slate. There were plenty of good things to take away from these matches for individual players as well. Kevin De Bruyne looks like he’s getting back to his true, dominant form. Gabriel Jesus, after the finishing concerns somewhat resurfaced against Rotherham, buried four goals against Burton to squash all doubts. Kyle Walker was much sharper on the ball in his return to action after some shaky moments before his benching. Even Eric Garcia got another 90 minutes under his belt and Phil Foden found himself another goal. Philippe Sandler got his club debut as well!
It would take a real pessimistic mindset to find any real complaints with Manchester City over the past week. Pep chose surprisingly strong lineups for both these matches but you can’t argue with his selection in hindsight. The League Cup result against Burton has the added benefit of giving City a nominal rest day for the second leg as the schedule congestion continues. The Blues have drawn Burnley in the fourth round of the FA Cup and wait to see who they will face in the League Cup final from the opposing semifinal between Chelsea and Tottenham.
Manchester City are in the midst of a legitimate run at four trophies. This is clearly a challenging objective, but possible nevertheless, and that is truly something to be excited about.