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.
“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.
Has Leroy Sané been wrongfully dropped from Germany’s World Cup squad?
The 22-year-old will not be featuring in Russia.
It was today announced that the 22-year-old – who made Joachim Löw’s original 27-man provisional team – did not make the official 23-man tournament squad. This arguably comes as the biggest shock of the squad announcements so far.
Sané made 40 appearances this season in all competitions for City, scoring 14 goals and gaining 19 assists along the way in what was undoubtedly the best season of his career.
His performances and statistics were enough to gain him the Premier League’s ‘Young Player of the Year Award’ for the 2017/18 season, further adding to the surprise of his absence from Löw’s World Cup squad.
Germany’s record in recent tournaments is as unquestionable as the strength and depth they have within their squad. To make the final cut of Löw’s World Cup team is a feat within itself and Sané deserved that accolade this summer.
Making the squad at the expense of Sané; Mesut Özil (Arsenal), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich), Julian Draxler (PSG), Mario Gomez (Stuttgart) and Timo Werner (RB Leipzig).
Sané has similar attributes to these five players which is why it is difficult to comprehend any argument for the City wingers absence.
With the exception of Leipzig’s Werner, all of the above scored fewer goals last season than Sané and, on top of that, every player also had far fewer assists than the City winger, with the next closest to him being Arsenal’s Özil with 12 (seven behind).
In fact, if you add Rudy, Draxler and Gomez’s assists together (13), you’d still have six fewer than Sane’s. Combine all of the major statistics relevant to an attacking midfielder/forward’s role, Sané is ahead of every name on this list.
It obviously isn’t all about the statistics, however, and when you consider the calibre of attacking teammates Sané had to work with this season, it is understandable why his personal statistics are so high.
However, a World Cup squad should be the 23 best men at that time to represent their country.
When you consider the jaw-dropping football Manchester City played in this record breaking Premier League season – and Sané’s significant impact in that – surely it is inconceivable to think that he is not within the best 23 players of his nation.
It is difficult to second guess an international manager with the record of Joachim Löw. However, compile all of the statistical evidence with the eye test and it is difficult to understand how Leroy Sané will not be representing Germany in Russia this month.
Manuel Pellegrini’s poor China record should give West Ham cause for concern
The Chilean international looks set to join the Hammers.
With spells at some of the world’s most successful clubs, the Chilean is certainly an impressive acquisition for the Hammers.
Yet Pellegrini’s most recent coaching assignment has been nothing short of mediocre, a sign that should slightly worry West Ham supporters.
Pellegrini officially left Chinese Super League side Hebei China Fortune on Saturday, after just under two years at the club.
The Chilean was appointed in August 2016 and registered an unspectacular record at the club.
Pellegrini’s first season ended with Hebei in fourth position, yet the club missed out on AFC Champions League qualification by one place.
This year, the team has taken a dramatic step back in the opening months of the season.
Under Pellegrini’s management, Hebei China Fortune currently sit eighth out of the 16-team Chinese Super League.
The side has only picked up just 15 points from 11 matches to date, a disappointing return considering Pellegrini has talents such as Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hernanes, and Gervinho at his disposal.
As the Chinese Super League is a far less important and internationally relevant league than La Liga or the Premier League, Pellegrini can perhaps be forgiven for not taking his job as seriously as his past assignments at Malaga, Real Madrid, and Manchester City.
Yet, his Chinese struggles are worrying nonetheless, as ideally West Ham supporters would like to be acquiring the services of a manager who enjoyed success at his most recent club.
In all, the ex-Manchester City manager still has a Premier League title to his name, a fact that makes his recent tough spell in Asia less concerning.
Nevertheless, Manuel Pellegrini’s underwhelming time at Hebei China Fortune reveals that the manager still possesses flaws and should not be expected to work immediate wonders at West Ham.
Record-breaking Manchester City show Pep Guardiola was right not to change his philosophy
The Spaniard won his first Premier League title in swashbuckling style.
When Pep Guardiola was appointed as manager of Manchester City in the summer of 2016 it is fair to say that his arrival was met with a mixed reaction throughout British football.
First, there was obvious excitement throughout the blue half of Manchester. Guardiola was widely regarded one of the best managers of his generation after trophy-laden spells with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
He was renowned for the exciting, possession-based style of play that he implemented and the team that he built at the Nou Camp at the start of the twenty-first century produced some of the best football of the modern era.
Then there were the sceptics – and there were plenty of them. The comments were predictable and filled with clichés, unevidenced assumptions and meaningless jargon.
It was suggested that Guardiola had only won trophies with clubs where the race for the title was a two-horse race at best and that he had always inherited world-class players.
Furthermore, it was claimed that the Spaniard’s total-football philosophy would never work in the hustle and bustle of English football.
His technical style of play would come unstuck in the so-called ‘best league in the world’ and would not be effective on a cold, wet Tuesday night at places like Stoke City in front of a tribal, raucous home support.
In his debut season with Manchester City some of the negative predictions appeared to be coming true.
Despite winning all of their opening 10 games of the season under Guardiola, City experienced a poor run of form during the Christmas period that left them trailing their title rivals.
The team were unpredictable and inconsistent during the second half of the campaign and heavy defeats against Everton (4-0) and Leicester City (4-2) left many onlookers wondering if Guardiola had finally been sussed.
The Spaniard never shied away from the critics and he staunchly defended his philosophy despite some poor results and vowed that he would not change his style of play.
City finished the season without a trophy and the sceptics went into the summer proclaiming how they had correctly predicted Guardiola’s failure.
What a difference a year can make.
City’s last-gasp victory against Southampton on the final day of the season rounded off what has been a record-breaking campaign in which Guardiola’s team have swept aside all before them in the Premier League.
The list of achievements is remarkable.
City this season have set new records for most consecutive wins (18), most goals scored (105), most wins (32), most away points won (16), most points (100), the biggest goal difference (+79) and the biggest points gap (19).
Suddenly the sceptics are beginning to look incredibly foolish.
In truth, it is hard to remember a campaign in the modern era where one team has been dominant from start to finish in the way that City have been. Furthermore, not only have the won, but they have won with style.
Guardiola’s playing philosophy has clicked over the last twelve months, undoubtedly aided by effective recruitment during the summer, and the team have played with flair, energy, creativity, pace and innovation.
Opponents, barring perhaps Liverpool, have simply not found any way to combat City’s free-flowing football.
Critics will still point to an early exit in the FA Cup against Wigan Athletic, where City played most of the game with ten men, and defeat in the Champions League to Liverpool, where a poor first half at Anfield effectively ended the tie before it had begun, but the success of Guardiola’s style of play is undoubted.
No one is suggesting that the Spaniard needs to alter his philosophy to meet the demands of the English game anymore.
Instead, it is English football that will need to change in order to meet the challenge of Guardiola’s football revolution.
The concern for other Premier League clubs is that City are threatening to establish themselves as the new dominant force in the domestic game. There is nothing to indicate that Guardiola or the team that he has assembled will be loosening their grip on the Premier League trophy any time soon.
The future is bright. Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, John Stones, Leroy Sane, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte and Ederson are all under the age of 26. This is a group of players that is still improving and will be hitting the peak years of their career over the next half-a-decade.
Manchester City’s success this season is just the start of what could turn into a period of unrivaled dominance, further underlining that Guardiola was right not to change his philosophy.
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