The Premier League has been very unpredictable this season and a lot of sides are showing their quality in occasional bursts. No team has represented this more than Manchester City. The team seems to either get it very right or spectacularly fall to pieces.
One popular narrative seems to be that City’s players are just not good enough and make too many mistakes. This has more specifically been aimed towards Claudio Bravo and John Stones. However, it seems to me that the issues are actually being caused by a deeper tactical problem. The real problem comes from the style of play which Pep Guardiola has tried to implement in his first season in Manchester. Namely, the way in which his style of pressing has worked in different games.
The pressing game itself has been something Guardiola has brought with him from Barcelona through to Bayern and then to City. It’s a style which has gained him an awful lot of success but also brings with it a certain amount of risk. The problem doesn’t come when players don’t try to press, but rather when players press in the wrong areas or in individual efforts rather than as a group.
For it to work best Pep’s style of pressing involves suffocating opposition attacks by closing down the ball with multiple players in the central areas of the pitch. This can be very effective because when a Pep team wins the ball back they are able to quickly attack and move the ball forwards whilst the opposition players are out of position. This is how the pressure would ideally be applied.
However, when players push forwards individually they can leave space behind them. This is primarily a problem when using two deep lying midfield players who are not working in tandem. Against Everton for example, Zabaleta would push towards the ball and Yaya Toure would not follow quickly enough. This left a situation where the 3 players in Everton’s midfield were able to overwhelm either Zabaleta or Toure individually and get at the City defenders directly. This was represented well in the first two goals where there was clearly too much space between Zabaleta and Toure and it allowed Barkley and Mirallas to drive the ball directly at retreating defensive lines.
This problem lead to both defensive issues and a weaker attack which seemed more static because it wasn’t built on the back of quick turnovers of possession. The issue is probably a mixture of not having enough time to build the team in the way Pep wants it and also a lack of personnel with the injury to Ilkay Gundogan and the repeated suspensions incurred by Fernandinho.
On top of that, Ronald Koeman’s side was able to flood the centre of the pitch and attack the weakpoints in the City midfield. Plus, Everton finished clinically and scored with every shot on target. Although, John Stones didn’t have his best game in a Manchester City shirt it wasn’t solely his fault they were beaten and he often found himself vulnerable to an overload of attacking players. Claudio Bravo has now conceded 14 goals from his last 22 shots faced and it seems that the weakest aspects of his game are being showcased because of the fragility of City’s tactics at the moment.
With Spurs coming up in the league, Fernandinho out until the 2nd of February and few other options in the side it seems like City need to plug these gaps soon or risk losing a lot of ground in what is becoming a very congested top 4