It wasn’t surprising to see Manchester City take to the field at Brighton and Hove Albion with a formation featuring three at the back. It was perhaps to be expected. Pep Guardiola and his team used their pre-season to improve their grasp of a system they struggled to execute properly last year.
So bad was there failure to adapt to this system that the Catalan coach spent the majority of the year playing his team with four at the back. Playing with the same formation for most games may not seem out of the ordinary until you consider that Guardiola is a strategist known for his use of various formations and tactics.
Another of Manchester City’s failures last year, according to Guardiola, was that his team was simply not good enough in both penalty boxes on the field. His players were not clinical or decisive enough with their attacks in the opponents’ boxes and they were not efficient enough in restricting attacks in their own box.
“I have to be honest, I noticed we are having problems in the boxes and we didn’t solve it so I have to analyse it myself this summer,” Squawka quoted him as saying earlier this year.
Whatever his plan would be for the game at Brighton it was always likely to reflect the work he did during the summer of improving his team’s grasp of playing three at the back and devising strategies for addressing the issues of both boxes. Manchester City came away with a 2-0 victory against Brighton and a performance that showed promise for the new season.
The first thing that was obvious from his choice of players was that Guardiola’s priority was defence, despite the fact that City spent most of the game in attack. The wingers started the game on the bench with the coach opting to use wing-backs Kyle Walker and Danilo instead. Their role would be to carry out the functions of the traditional wide midfielders in addition to their defensive duties.
The reason for this choice was clear from the beginning of the game. Danilo and especially Walker both had the impressive pace and energy to constantly run up and down the length of the pitch. They balanced their attacking and defensive roles superbly to be available when needed at either end of the field.
In attack they proved to be worthy replacements for the wingers contributing to a number of dangerous combination plays, with Walker being the more impressive of the two through his movement and passing.
Their effectiveness in playing the roles of both wingers and defenders justified Guardiola’s selection. He was able to maintain an attacking threat on the flanks without sacrificing defence, allowing him to partner his two strikers Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero for extra punch in and around the Brighton box.
From a defensive perspective the Spanish head coach’s strategy was sound: two attacking wing-backs, who could quickly return to defensive positions, combined with three central defenders (John Stones, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi) and a holding midfielder, Fernandinho, to restrict Brighton from getting into threatening positions for most of the game.
It was a formidable defensive unit. On the rare occasions Brighton did get into dangerous positions the defenders were still successful in keeping a clean sheet.
This was a promising start to the season for Manchester City, who, while they often restricted teams from getting many goal scoring opportunities, tended to concede goals on too many occasions when their opponents did get into dangerous positions last season.
An example of Guardiola’s frustration at this situation came after a heavy 4-0 defeat at the hands of Everton last season. In a statement quoted by the Telegraph the City coach lamented:
“We lose in other circumstances that I cannot control. The opponent arrives the first time and scores after we miss a lot of chances. The second half we start and the second time they arrive and they score. Mentally for the players it is tough.”
But Guardiola is indeed trying to control those circumstances. Going to Brighton to play against, what most would consider, a much weaker side, with so much of his emphasis placed on defence shows that he is adapting.
All three central defenders and the holding midfielder mostly stayed away from the attacking play further up the field. This is surprising coming from a coach famous for an all-out attacking philosophy.
So, with his own box prioritised and protected as much as possible, how did Manchester City fare in Brighton’s penalty area?
Football is never simple and Brighton did an effective job of limiting City’s attacks with two lines of four implementing a low defensive line under relentless pressure. City were again faced with what has now become a routine problem for them in the Premier League – how to break down a compact, organised team playing with almost their entire team behind the ball.
Before opening the scoring in the second half, City had a few chances they failed to capitalise on, but for most of the time Brighton held them at bay.
The visitor’s two goals came from errors made by Brighton in possession. De Bruyne stole the ball from Brighton’s Dale Stephens at the halfway line to start a quick counter attack for the first goal by Sergio Aguero.
In the case of the second, the aforementioned Argentine striker lost the ball for a brief second a short distance in front of the Brighton box, but was tenacious enough to win it back right away and initiate a series of passes leading to an own goal by Lewis Dunk.
It was not just good fortune for City, but a reflection of their tenacity. Nevertheless, it was clear that City are still struggling to put away their chances.
It is not an easy problem to solve, but one might argue that his problem is now a “good” one compared to last year. For example, in the Brighton game he had a choice to make between starting with good wing-backs, good wingers, or some kind of combination of the two.
Last year, his choice would have been between good wingers and poor wing-backs, lacking in pace and well past their prime. Now he has more strength in depth through most of the positions in the team and it showed through his team selection and the changes he made during the game.
Guardiola’s new full-backs allowed him to properly secure his defence at Brighton before concentrating on attack. When it became clear that the Seagulls were still holding firm, he brought on Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva who could contribute something different.
Their pace and dribbling ability were yet another option to try to penetrate Brighton’s box and create space by pulling defenders out of position.
While these options did not directly create goals against a Brighton team that eventually succumbed to its own mistakes, it is hard to imagine all of City’s opponents successfully parking the bus on a regular basis against a team that can relentlessly attack in so many different ways with a variety of skill sets.
Brighton were effectively stifled for most of the game and it is undoubtedly the continuous pressure that led to their mistakes. City were patient throughout the game, showing very little frustration and, when Brighton made their mistakes in the second half, Guardiola’s men were still sharp enough to capitalise on them.
The speed of City’s passing was somewhat slow against Brighton but this can be expected to improve as the season progresses past the nerves of the opening day and the new players become better integrated into the team.
The game at Brighton and Hove Albion was a telling introduction to the new armoury that Pep Guardiola now has at his disposal. It showed that the Spaniard is prepared to use his new options to come up with creative solutions to challenges, both in attack and defence.
Brighton was not the runaway victory that many were expecting, but it demonstrated that whatever formation is used Manchester City are now better equipped to solve the problem and challenge for trophies this season.