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Manchester City Tactics : The Benefits of Proper Fullbacks

City started 11 players in their natural positions against Wolves, and the dividends paid off immediately.

Manchester City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

It’s been quite some time since Manchester City have had two natural fullbacks in their starting eleven. To be exact, the last match when this occurred was the Manchester Derby way back on November 11, when Benjamin Mendy was still fit.

In the two month span from then until now, Pep Guardiola was forced to continue pigeonholing Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko into the left back role with the additional absence of Danilo. Delph and Zinchenko deserve credit for their performance in the backline, but there were repetitive reminders that they were playing out of position.

Fortunately, Danilo has made his return to the team and has been in good form of late, spelling a clearly-exhausted Kyle Walker over a two match span. The two finally started together on Monday, with Danilo at left back and Kyle Walker at right back. Guardiola was immediately rewarded with a 3-0 victory against Wolverhampton for this decision.

This match was not strictly a function of having natural fullbacks on both sides, but it did infiltrate all aspects of City’s play. Guardiola’s squad have found their peak form recently and that continued against Wolves. Their passing was crisp and the “backup” striker, Gabriel Jesus, literally can’t stop scoring goals. Not to mention, the Blues played 70+ minutes up a man after Willy Boly was sent off for an ugly tackle against Bernardo.

But Manchester City just make more sense when the two fullbacks have spent their whole lives preparing to play in that role. The fit was clear.

Pep Guardiola has done a great job of tweaking his tactics to allow Delph and Zinchenko to succeed at left back. He’s inverted them into the midfield where they are more comfortable and provided them more than enough defensive cover. Fernandinho is well aware of their limitations and the often consistent selection of Leroy Sane must be in some part due to his ability to track back in transition at breakneck speed.

But their presence in the team has also effected the way Kyle Walker has been used. Delph and Zinchenko’s familiarity with defending from left back has forced the rest of the backline to lean in that direction. This has resulted in Kyle Walker looking more like an outside center back in a back three than the aggressive attacking fullback we saw last year.

I’ve praised Pep for his ingenuity with these tactics and have appreciated the asymmetry these lineups create. Though sometimes symmetry is just what is necessary, and it seems that this is one of those occasions.

Danilo came back into the first team against Wolves, and all the sudden, having a trustworthy defensive option at left back allowed the fullbacks to act like fullbacks again.

Walker and Danilo had a range of available positions they could take up, from the inverted midfield spot to overlapping runs down the flank. It was actually quite refreshing to see Walker get a chance to stretch his legs. Take a look at the difference in Walker’s heat map from the match against Everton, a team of similar skill to Wolverhampton, in December when Fabian Delph was the left back, to Monday’s match with Danilo.

Kyle Walker heat maps against Everton (top) and Wolverhampton (bottom).

The comparison is stark, not only did Walker play much further forward, but his participation in the buildup was more prominent. In fact, Danilo and Walker led Manchester City in touches, with 168 and 127, respectively. This match is a clear definition of why Pep invested so heavily in fullbacks, they are a focal point on both sides of the ball.

The renewed flexibility of the fullbacks also freed up City to move around their most dangerous players into vulnerable areas while Walker and Danilo filled the voids. Pep was moving Sterling and Sane around like chess pieces as the catalyst for attacking creativity. The fullbacks could then react to their movements to exploit space and pull defenders away from the attackers.

The wingers divided their time between the touchline and operating on the inside channel in between the Wolves wingbacks and outside center backs, an attacking location that has been very effective of late. For the last 5-10 minutes of the first half, Guardiola even vacated the entire right side and overloaded his attack left-central. Right winger Raheem Sterling won a penalty from a left-sided one-two combination and you wouldn’t be crazy to mistake him for a second striker for much of this match.

But the fullbacks response to the attackers positioning was crucial to unlocking the defense. The overlapping runs tended to come in transition while taking up a supporting position was common in stable possession within the attacking third, though a healthy variety existed in both settings.

Despite this return to attacking fullback play, you’d be hard pressed to recall a moment when either player was really caught out of position. The backline was hardly tested but both were excellent tracking back. Walker made one particular recovery against Jota in the 30th minute that stands out where he showcased not only his world class pace and strength, but his defensive awareness.

Manchester City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Wolves were down a man for the majority of the match, but their offensive ineptitude was ridiculous nevertheless. The expected goal tally saw the away side finish with 0.10 xG (compared to 3.12 xG for City), which is impossibly bad. That is tied for the lowest total of any Premier League side all season, matching Cardiff City’s number against the same Manchester City squad a few months back.

Boly’s red card actually had little impact on Wolverhampton’s defensive set up. Nuno had 5 defenders and 3 midfielders before and after, though there was one less option to press from behind and be an outlet on the counter. Regardless, City amplified their counter press to the highest level and crushed any thought of a counter before Wolves could even leave their own half.

The Walker-Danilo fullback combination will likely be the default we will see moving forward, and rightfully so. You could even make a case that it is even an improvement on having Benjamin Mendy at left back. The Frenchman is a fantastic player in many regards, but his value is focused primarily in his world class ability to provide service into the box. Mendy’s defense and capability as a stay-at-home left back can be less than impressive, and it isn’t worth having him out there if he’s not spending much of the match on the left wing. This often results in that previously mentioned shunting of Kyle Walker as compensation.

Danilo is an incredibly well rounded fullback much like Walker, with both players being solid in every aspect of fullback play. The Brazilian generally flies under the radar but provides a versatility that Mendy may not, given his two-footed ability and comfort in a variety of roles.

Kyle Walker just looks more dangerous and active when Danilo is his fullback partner. Though let me clarify, this is not an indictment of Mendy as a footballer, but it must be noted that he is quite different than Danilo. He’ s still far more preferable at left back than the likes of Delph or Zinchenko with his natural disposition there.

The question becomes whether or not Mendy’s value on the attack outweighs the adjustments that it may necessitate in defense, and whether that balance is preferable to a lineup featuring Danilo. This dilemma may be one of the defining components of this Manchester City team when (and if) they return to full fitness. It may be dependent on the opponent but it should go without saying that either way, the Blues reach a new level just by having proper fullbacks on the pitch.