Manchester City were far from impressive in the opening minutes of last weekend’s match against Bournemouth. Eddie Howe implemented a more-aggressive-than-expected press straight from kickoff that threw the reigning champions off their game and led to a chaotic open. Yet it was the defensive tactics when City could stabilize possession through the press that was the true foundation of the Cherries’ early success.
Once the initial wave of his press failed, Howe drew his team back into a straightforward 5-4-1 where the outside midfielders/wingers, Ryan Fraser and Joshua King, were tucked inside to clog central passing channels and prevent City’s fullbacks from inverting. Simultaneously, striker Callum Wilson occupied the passing lane from the center backs to defensive midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, rendering him ineffective early on. Most important to Bournemouth’s gameplan were the center midfielders, Jefferson Lerma and Philip Billing.
It was one of these two players tasked with applying pressure on Aymeric Laporte and Nico Otamendi when they were on the ball, with Wilson and the wide players refusing to be pulled out of position. As Lerma/Billing jumped from the midfield line to badger a City center back, his counterpart would shift into the passing lane created by his absence.
Laporte is often the catalyst for City’s buildup, so this progression occurred primarily on the left side of the pitch. If Laporte took the bait and tried to slip the ball through to Silva as Lerma closed down, Billing would be in a great position to intercept or put in a tackle on the City legend like in the play above. Alternatively, the buildup would be forced to move through Zinchenko with limited options or with a low percentage pass up the field where the Bournemouth defense was keyed into their assignments.
This coordinated movement turned City’s buildup into unrecognizable disarray and Bournemouth created several turnovers as a result.
Yet it didn’t take Pep Guardiola and his team long to make the necessary adjustments to unlock this strong gameplan by Eddie Howe. The changes made weren’t dramatic, but just enough to neutralize the midfield partnership of Lerma and Billing. The first sign of a breakthrough originated in the 7th minute from a similar starting point as the progressions above but now when Zinchenko receives the ball on the touchline, Silva ran away from Billing and towards the corner. He finds a window for Zinchenko to slip the ball through while Sterling makes a corresponding run around Chris Mepham. Sterling’s cutback pass is unfortunately sent wide by Bernardo but it was City’s first strong chance after a shaky start.
In anticipation of Billing’s movement, Guardiola also began to flash attackers into the space he vacated. Aguero routinely dropped into these areas to lay possession off to a trailing midfielder who could flare it out onto the wings or look to chip the ball over the backline onto attacking runs. Kevin De Bruyne’s move onto the right wing paid dividends as well since his ability to collect a quick switch and immediately whip a ball into danger areas forced the Bournemouth defense to stretch horizontally even while City possessed on the left side.
Funny enough, City’s first goal came from a buildup where Billing turned off for one second and allowed Laporte to slip it through directly to Silva. But make no mistake, the small tweaks that Pep made certainly were a major factor in the Bournemouth players second guessing their movements. This is just another incredible example of the Blues identifying an opposing gameplan and creating adjustments to thwart it.
The Lerma/Billing connected movement worked to perfection several times in the first 6-7 minutes of the match, yet mere minutes later Guardiola had installed multiple variations to his buildup that led to the first goal and an easy victory for Manchester City. At this rate, it’s becoming hard to imagine there is much opponents could throw at this team that they couldn’t find an antidote for.