Manchester City's domination: Will the Blue Moon set this season?
As ironic as it may sound, the Blue Moon has well and truly risen to the top of Premier League football. There were signs of promise last season which saw City rack up a tidy 3rd place finish, after topping the table for the first 10 games, but little did we know that the upsurge could be this deadly! 52 points after 18 games is a colossal achievement, surely one that will take a huge amount of effort to replicate, let alone better it.
Though it's still just 18 games into the season, there are some who are convinced of City's claim to be the next 'Invincibles'. There are teams who have come close to snatching a point from City's grasp but have failed in doing so. What will it take to put a halt to the carnage?
Let's try to analyse and counter City's impressive approach which has left the Premier League awestruck.
While City's attack has been a notch above the rest, it's their work off the ball that requires equal recognition. This has been central to Pep's philosophy and success. His ideology revolves around befriending the ball and hustling and harrying to win it back. His team implements the high press when the ball isn't at their feet. The pressing follows a particular pattern, which on close observation is hard to bypass. It is important to note that the players implementing the tactic are as important as the tactic itself. A slight shuffle in the lineup will mean a different type of press, and it is this ambiguity that makes this press seem untamable.
Let's observe City's early season lineup (3-1-4-2)
Pep Guardiola, much like the rest of the league, experimented early on with the '3 at the back' approach. While the football wasn't as slick as what has been witnessed of late, the high press was beginning to take shape.
Playing in the 3-1-4-2 formation, this was the average position as observed through the earlier gameweeks, as per OptaStats.
Visibly, the defence kept a high line and was helped by Ederson in maintaining that throughout the game. City's backline aims to execute the offside trap and have done a decent job at it so far, but in the very few occasions when the opposition seemed to have bypassed the trap, the Brazilian would dart out of the box to great effect. While this can massively backfire as an infringement by a goalkeeper outside the box would lead to a straight Red, Ederson has been pretty comfortable in performing his duties as a 'sweeper keeper'.
Heading into midfield, we have the everpresent Fernandinho manning the centre of the park. While he isn't quite like the player Pep had in Busquets, the Brazilian plays a similar, vital role for Manchester City. His tireless contributions in central midfield see him snap at heels and draw fouls from the opposition on a regular basis. He doesn't seem to have any specific press direction but is usually given the task of handling the opposition playmaker in the spot around the centre-circle.
Pep Guardiola invested around £130 million on wingbacks, bringing in Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, and Danilo. And he used them as effective wingers early on in the season. Much of their play was centred in the opposition half; owing to City's dominance on the ball. Their press was along the wings, blocking off opposition wingers high up the pitch and giving them very little time and space on the ball to work their way out of the situation.
City's midfield is where it gets very interesting. Enter Kevin de Bruyne.
De Bruyne is, without doubt, one of City's most influential players this season. His technical prowess was there for all to see, but it takes someone like Pep to unleash a player's full potential.
While many believe Pep follows an authoritarian approach, he has given de Bruyne the freedom to roam around the pitch, not binding him to a particular position. This is similar to the role given to Messi at Barcelona, and to Thiago at Bayern Munich, all under Pep's tutelage.
David Silva is another player who is flourishing under Pep, and his work-rate off the ball has immensely improved. The position he occupies on the pitch is that of a deep-lying playmaker, who makes the darting runs into the opposition box to catch their defence off guard.
City's attack, in the initial stages of the season, was two-pronged, with Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero playing up top.
While Manchester City's fluent attack has been lauded, their defensive work off the ball requires a special mention. Manchester City well and truly, defend with 11 players all over the pitch.
To understand how this press works, let's consider a scenario.
Imagine the opposition goalkeeper receiving a back-pass from the defender. Gabriel Jesus will be hot on his heels, prompting him to look for a different avenue to release the ball. Sergio Aguero occupies the pocket of space between the two central defenders, blocking off the centre-backs as options for receiving the ball. Kevin de Bruyne doubles up for the secondary press in case the ball gets past Aguero.
The wing-backs are high up the pitch, blocking off the opposition wingbacks as options; while Fernandinho and Silva act as anchors, shielding the centre of the park and denying the opposition midfielders much time on the ball.
Otamendi and Danilo stay tight to the opposition wingers, leaving Stones as the spare man in defence to cover up for the occasional lapses in the high press.
This leads to a hurried clearance by the goalkeeper, whose distribution will not be accurate; meaning an easier chance for turnover of possession.
In a 4-1-4-1 formation,
Jesus and Aguero take turns in leading the line and perform the same role that was expected of them, applying pressure on the goalkeeper. Sane and Sterling take up the opposition wingbacks out of the equation, with de Bruyne and Silva handling midfield. The absence of an extra striker means Silva is employed much higher in the press, leaving Fernandinho with the centre of the park to himself.
However, unlike the previous instance, he now has two central defenders behind him to clear up if need be. The set up is pretty much similar. Mendy's injury saw the introduction of Fabian Delph at left back, with City switching to 4 at the back. This change coincided with the start of the stellar run they find themselves in. Raheem Sterling has been City's goalscoring hero this season, and this formation suits him better. Here too, City's high press has everything to do with their swift style of play.
Raheem Sterling's goalscoring form is down to the positions he takes up on the pitch. He is much more central, in contrast to Leroy Sane, who is more of a wide player. Raheem's shift to the central areas leaves Walker with acres of space down the right, explaining his position being more advanced, as compared to Delph. Sane's positioning too, is slightly deeper, given his defensive work-rate. He helps Delph on various occasions, double-teaming down the left to make up for his defensive frailties.
As seen above, it seems almost impossible to bypass City's high press. Opposition defenders are often found passing among themselves, stifling the service to the forward men. Any adventurous pass gives City a 50-50 chance to win the ball back and given their high defensive work-rate, they end up victorious in those midfield duels. Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and the rest, bar Everton, have failed to get even a point off of City, with Newcastle being the only team yet to face them this season.
While this may seem fail-proof, their approach is risky. Elude their high press, and you might find yourself with the numbers against City's backline. That being said, it is yet to happen this season.
The high intensity that Pep demands of his players may take a toll on the fitness of certain players, though that hasn't been the case as yet. But as we head into the busiest period of the season thus far, rotation will be key for Manchester City. Losing a player to injury now may present them with multiple headaches. A personnel change may mean tweaking the tactic and that may not always deliver the goods.
What can opposition managers do to counter City's style?
One approach could be to use a target man up front and play long ball football. A hoof up the field, to someone like Marouane Fellaini or Peter Crouch could lead to panic amongst City ranks with most of their outfield players high up the pitch. With the wingbacks too being slightly higher up the pitch, a target man could bring the ball down and play a pass down the wings, which could open new inroads to attack Ederson's goal.
Another approach could be to crowd the centre of the park and have a striker of the calibre of Jamie Vardy who could use his pace to make those menacing runs off the shoulder of City's central defenders. Ederson is bound to try and narrow the angle, but Vardy's incisiveness could be a huge factor here.
While it still remains to be seen if City can go an entire league season undefeated, it will take much more than just effort to overcome them at the moment. The players seem committed to the cause and they deserve every bit of the praise directed toward them. City's blistering start has overshadowed Manchester United's impressive start to the season, whose tally of 41 points from 18 games would have been enough to top the table in each of the last ten seasons.
Whatever be the outcome of this season, credit must be given to Pep for implementing his style of play in the Premier League, when everyone said it could not be done. But the one thing that differentiates the Premier League from the rest is its ability to adapt. It won't be long before someone figures out how to outplay Pep's Manchester City. Till then, all we can do is sit back and enjoy the thoroughly attacking brand of football on display.