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Arguing For A Return To The Two Striker System

Pep Guardiola was forced to play Aguero and Jesus together against Swansea City, but it may be useful before City is desperate for a goal.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus play simultaneously on a consistent basis. They both featured in the 3-5-2 that dominated early last season but Pep Guardiola’s use of that formation dissipated as soon as it was clear Benjamin Mendy’s knees were constructed with linguine. In recent memory, Aguero and Jesus have only shared the field when Manchester City were chasing the game and/or in desperate need of goal, such as their two goal deficit to Swansea City in last weekend’s FA Cup quarterfinal.

As the three competitions City are currently alive in wind down to their final stages, selecting both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus in the starting eleven may actually be Guardiola’s best bet against a specific caliber of opponent.

This suggestion is inspired by City’s success with it against the Swans, but even more so by the last three Premier League matches against West Ham, Bournemouth, and Watford. In each of these fixtures, the Blues were met by a heavily bunkered low block from the opposition. As a result, City were forced to scrape out two 1-0 victories, scoring only 5 goals across the three matches (1.67 goals/90) compared to 2.74 goals per 90 minutes in their prior Premier League fixtures.

In each of these games, it was clear from kickoff that the Blues would be challenged to break down the defense. They even had to rely on the bounce of the ball/call going their way in order to break the deadlock on more than one occasion, despite being the vastly superior team. It’s generally considered bad practice to play within these fine margins where one mistake could cost you points, especially given the nature of the title race, so City would be smart to do whatever they can to stay out of those situations over the next two months.

So why shouldn’t City begin their phase of “desperation” for the opening goal from the jump against opponents who clearly are going to park the bus (phrase used begrudgingly but it’s quite applicable) by starting two strikers?

With that long winded preamble out of the way, let’s talk about how the team would look with Aguero and Jesus playing together. There are obviously a number of variations possible, but the answer (at least in my mind) wouldn’t actually be all that different than what we are used to from City.

Swansea City v Manchester City - FA Cup Quarter Final Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

The natural expectation in a two striker set is a 4-4-2, but there’s a case it doesn’t necessarily have to be if Guardiola wants to maintain his defensive setup. Public service announcement sidebar: defining tactics this way (i.e. 4-4-2, 4-3-3, etc.) is admittedly a shorthand that downplays the complexity involved, but just go with it here because it’s easier.

Anyway, Guardiola should be able to maintain their standard 4-3-3 shape with Gabriel Jesus at left wing, a position he’s comfortable at by all accounts. The attacking upside is clear but let’s start with the main concern here: how Jesus could hold up defensively on the left side. Jesus would be forced into more high leverage defensive interactions on top of being required to provide cover for Oleksandr Zinchenko (presumably). We’ve never seen Jesus in that position, at least in a City kit, but his strong ability to track back lends credence to the idea that he’d be okay there. Yet Zinchenko, for all his recent improvements, is still adapting to left back and it would be a lot to ask from both players to control the left side of the field defensively, but nothing wrong with a little optimism right?

Despite this gamble, the defensive risks associated with playing Jesus and Zinchenko on one side of the field are greatly outweighed by the benefits City could take advantage of going forward. When the Blues get themselves into the final third, the presence of another player with a shoot-first mentality who’s first priority is to make himself a target near the six-yard box would do wonders. Having two poachers in the box alleviates some of the Blues’ natural predication to over-pass in search of the perfect shooting opportunity.

Within these tactics, Jesus would come central in the final third to create this two-striker system while Zinchenko pushes up the left to control the attack from that flank. The graphic below is a rough representation of how City’s shape would transform as it progresses upfield.

This attacking shape still facilitates combination play and triangle passing setups off the wings between Zinchenko-Silva-Jesus (left) and Sterling-Bernardo-Aguero (right). The non-Zinchenko defenders could then shift over to the left a tad to provide cover and cut down on the space vacated by the left back movement, while simultaneously creating symmetrical support for the attack. Moreover, Bernardo and Sterling could interchange and move freely on the right wing.

David Silva also has the ability to sit in a deeper position next to Gundogan where he could pick out a pass from less congested space with Jesus inverted. This was one of City’s biggest problems in the first half against Watford. Because they were able to walk the ball into the final third, Guardiola pushed Silva and Bernardo up to the front line alongside Aguero to maximize the attacking presence. Problem being, Watford was exclusively man-marking both players with Abdoulaye Doucouré and Tom Cleverley whenever in advanced positions, so the upfield overload just created more congestion without any desired confusion among the backline. It was no accident that City’s first two goals early in the second half came about when Silva dropped into the deep midfield.

With Aguero and Jesus now coinciding as central forwards, they can use the great chemistry we’ve seen between them in the past to interact in ways that confuse defensive assignments. The marking responsibilities could be muddied when one striker drops into the midfield to link up while the other runs into whatever space is opened up as a result. Furthermore, Aguero/Jesus have a tendency to play off the shoulder of the same center back before making differing runs. Even if this doesn’t confound the backline, it will certainly stretch the opponent’s shape in unintended ways to allow for runs from the midfield/wings.

This shape and movement is dependent on having an attacking fullback capable of providing accurate service into the box from whichever wing will be vacated by the second striker. Thus, putting Jesus on the left is the only way it makes sense given Zinchenko and Mendy’s ability of doing so. Walker, on the other hand, is probably not a good enough crosser from the right to flip the front three.

Regardless, playing with two strikers will create a more dangerous mentality in the box that is necessary when City will be spending two thirds of the match in the final third. It is a change that will make them more direct, but not at the expense of the natural foundations of their playing style. The names on the teamsheet could obviously change as well to reintroduce the players returning from injury and still work within the same methodology.

Middlesbrough v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

The two striker strategy does pose some inconveniences elsewhere which must be considered. For one, having Jesus, Aguero, and Sterling in the starting eleven leaves Guardiola with no central attackers on the bench and prevents the option of a like-for-like change. Granted, if City need to bring in another striker late in the game then this plan would clearly have failed and this article will look idiotic in hindsight.

Additionally, this lineup selection wouldn’t allow Pep to choose his strongest eleven, on paper least. Bernardo and Sterling are considered undroppable by most, including myself, so this situation would leave two of Fernandinho, Gundogan, De Bruyne, and Silva on the bench at the expense of Gabriel Jesus. This trade off doesn’t seem worth it in theory but certainly could be in practice given the right mix of circumstances.

And playing two strikers has only been presented within the package of a 4-3-3 but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Alternatively, the Blues could absolutely play in a 4-4-2 with Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling as the outside midfielders, which is exactly what they did in their comeback against Swansea City. Lining up this way would also alleviate some of the concerns about having a Jesus/Zinchenko pairing on the left side of defense. Even that formation could, and was, experimented with last weekend. At times it was a flat midfield line that could transform into a diamond depending on how aggressive David Silva was in the press. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Guardiola use all of these elements throughout match, in fact.

No matter how you slice it though, having two strikers as the core of the teamsheet might do the trick on putting these frustrating types of games away earlier and let all of us stress a little less. It’s not a system that should be used every match, but is more than appropriate against Premier League opponents who are a safe bet to park the bus, such as Fulham and Cardiff City coming up perhaps? Pep Guardiola discussed playing with two strikers after Saturday’s match and was certainly open to implementing it more going forward, so don’t be surprised to see Aguero and Jesus side by side again in the near future. It might just be the thing to get Manchester City over the top in their quest for trophies.