English League Cup 2019/20: Oxford United vs Manchester City – tactical analysis
The midweek fixtures in this week were not continental competitions, instead, they were the English Football League Cup, also sponsored as the Carabao Cup. It was Oxford United to take on Manchester City at the Kassam Stadium.
Oxford did not have the best start of the season, it the first seven games, they only won one out of seven. Then, in the next eleven, they did not lose any. They were defeated by Milton Keynes Dons last weekend, however, they still threatened City’s goal.
City recovered from the United loss, in Croatia and against Arsenal, they played a very good game and secured both away wins. This was their third successive away matches, they may be tired, but at last, they managed to qualify to the semi-final.
Karl Robinson did not send his best players on the pitch. For the right-back, the manager chose Sam Long ahead of Chris Cadden; he partnered with Josh Ruffels, Rob Dickie and Elliott Moore. The midfield trio was Cameron Brannagan, Shandon Baptiste, and Alex Gorrin. Top goalscorer and assist provider James Henry was on the bench throughout 90 minutes; Matty Taylor played as a striker. It was a 4-3-3 formation.
Pep Guardiola also rotated his squad, Claudio Bravo started in goal. Youngsters had their chances to play, Taylor Harwood-Bellis partnered with Eric Garcia at the centre of the defence. João Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko got their chances to impress the manager as well, the Ukrainian played as a left-back, as the City academy buy-back player Angeliño moved into an advanced position. Raheem Sterling was the captain, he scored two today. They also played in a 4-3-3 formation.
Defence of Oxford
In the first half, Oxford defended high with a 4-3-3 block. They tried to disrupt the build-up of City by forcing Bravo played long. During the City build-up. Oxford front three matched the centre backs and goalkeeper of City, in a three versus three manners illustrated below. They understood Bravo was a good keeper on the ball, but not as good as Ederson. Therefore, there were chances force Bravo misplaced the pass by marking his short options.
In this situation, Taylor, Tariqe Fosu-Henry and Dan Agyei positioned themselves high to block the options of Bravo. Fosu-Henry’s position was wise as he kept a similar distance with Harwood-Bellis and Cancelo, marking both players. Despite Brannagan was the only player to cooperate the press (he was overloaded by Phil Foden and Rodrigo Hernández), both midfielders of City were covered by Taylor, Bravo did not take the risk. The Chilean was forced to play long and gave away possession.
In this cup tie, Bravo played 13 long balls, but he only managed to find his teammates on five occasions.
When defending deeper in the first half, Oxford placed nine men behind the ball. They left Taylor high up on the pitch in hopes of creating counterattack opportunities. As showed below, Oxford defended in a 4-3-2, Taylor was not here. The defenders and midfielders tried to stay compact to prevent any central penetration, they did not wish Bernardo Silva to exploit spaces between the lines.
On the other hand, Guardiola instructed his full-back inverted to the midfield alongside with Rodri in this phase. This explained the narrow structure of Oxford in their own half, as the midfielders were going to match the full-backs, as Baptiste on Zinchenko here. When B. Silva pinned Long, Angeliño was free on the left corridor. We think Oxford intended to let City go wide, as they were confident to defend crosses from City.
City played out from the back
The defensive structure of Oxford was far from perfect, despite under pressure, City could still build-up without many difficulties. Under seasons of Guardiola’s management, City players were able to pick the free player quickly to break the press. In this game, City had multiple ways to progress the ball upfield.
The first was to build-up from the left, this side was the attacking focus of City. Passing triangles were easily formed among Angeliño, B. Silva, Zinchenko and Garcia. Furthermore, they utilized the loopholes of the Oxford press to keep and move the ball. Below is the passing graph of City in this game, it showed City had a strong passing link among the players on the left.
Since the Oxford front three matched Bravo, Garcia and Harwood-Bellis, the mission to take care of Zinchenko fell to Baptiste. However, by positioning, both teams’ midfield trios should mark each other. Therefore, the Grenadian was on B. Silva for the first time, while Zinchenko got the ball, he left his position to press the Ukrainian. The distance was far for Baptiste to close off City’s left-back, so Guardiola’s team got plenty of rooms and time; when Baptiste arrived in front of Zinchenko, then B. Silva remained free to receive the ball. As a result, it was difficult for Oxford to win the ball high up on the pitch, as City always had a free player as a passing option.
On this occasion, B. Silva’s body orientation was closed, he knew Gorrin was behind of him; therefore, he immediately returned the ball to Garcia. Under other circumstances, City players could turn and progress the attack.
Guardiola had his requirements of the qualities of centre backs. Even as young as Garcia, the Spaniard could also play the ball comfortably. The talented 18-year-old possessed vision and passing abilities to penetrate between players. Therefore, when midfielders of Oxford focused on the full-backs of City instead of maintaining the defensive shape, Garcia could just pick his teammates with vertical passes.
We took the below case as an example. Baptiste’s positioning was imperfect, as he predicted a pass to from Garcia to Zinchenko, and he wanted to anticipate that pass. Therefore, he positioned himself slightly wider; as a result, the gap between the Grenadian and Gorrin was read by Garcia and B. Silva. Garcia passed through the gap without hesitation and City progressed their attack.
Apart from B. Silva, City also had another option for their central penetration. It was Sterling, who played as a ‘false-9’ in this game. The skipper of City dropped to the midfield to provide himself as a passing option. This often happened when B. Silva and Foden dropped to progress the ball (they left spaces in the midfield). Sterling filled those spaces since he was far from the defensive lines, centre backs did not chase after him, he was freed to receive the ball as no one was marking him. He progressed the ball forward to the final-third.
To briefly sum up the build-up approaches of City, they were able to progress the ball with different methods, and they were capable of doing that on the left and the centre of the pitch.
City in the final-third
On the left side of the pitch, City had Angeliño to provide the width. Therefore, Zinchenko could stay narrow to increase numbers in the midfield, overloading the centre. When the left flank cramped with Oxford players, City did not insist to penetrate in that area. Instead, they switched plays to the weak side.
On the right flank, Mahrez stayed wide to isolate himself from the defenders. The technically-gifted Algerian was authorized to take on oppositions himself. He was strong in one v one situations. When City switched plays to his side, he got spaces to create something, either cross for his teammates or a shooting chance for himself. In this match, Mahrez handed in a sharp performance, with eight successful dribbles out of 12; he also contributed nine progressive runs.
Under the below circumstance, Mahrez isolated himself, he also kept a distance with Ruffels. Sterling noticed the presence of the Algerian and he shifted the ball to the right side. Mahrez was readied to make forward runs to the box, hence, crossed to the six-yard box.
Below is the heatmap of the first goal scorer of City: Cancelo. It was intriguing to see the average positions of the Portuguese. Instead of staying wide and providing overlapping runs for Mahrez, Cancelo performed underlapping runs. The reason was because of the tactics explained above, City’s full-backs were inverted instead of providing the width, given to the presence of wide wingers. Furthermore, by adding an extra-man somewhere between zone 14 and 15, City could regain possession from clearances easier.
The best right-back in Serie A last season enjoyed joining the attack. He would make forward runs, in this match, his runs made an impact on the team’s quick plays. In the first goal, when Mahrez came inside and took away Ruffels, Cancelo read the space behind the Oxford left-back and exploit those spaces.
After the break, Oxford pushed forward, and their own half left more spaces. Cancelo joint the attack on numerous occasions, he made underlapping runs in attacking third and crossed, including this example. Mahrez was dangerous on the ball, he must be controlled by a player, therefore, when the Algerian got the ball, Ruffels would not hesitate to step out and close off Mahrez. When he left his position, on occasions, his teammates did not adjust their positions to reduce space between them, when the midfielders switched off and they did not track Cancelo, the Portuguese could enter the final-third easily. He also hit the post once with such runs in the second half.
Counter-press of City
City had a 66% of possession in the game, their domination also attributed to relentless counter-press when the game was even. Whenever City lost the ball, the players immediately compressed space and mark all the closest options around the ball. It was difficult for Oxford to create transition chances, thus, they only had two shooting chances in the first 45 minutes.
On this occasion, which Fosu-Henry retrieved the ball in his own box. City players quickly recognized their targets to mark, all short options were shut by City, except the goalkeeper Jordan Archer, but Oxford was not the team that would take this risk. Gorrin received the pass from Fosu-Henry, but Foden was around him, and former Reading man had to pass with his first touch. Under pressure, he placed the ball on the wrong foot of Ruffels, hence, Ruffels misplaced the pass, Rodri regained possession and ended the transition of Oxford.
City pressed high
Apart from the counter-press, City also pressed high in this match, especially in the first half. They pressed in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-4, just depended on the position of players. City committed numbers to match the back four of Oxford, hence, achieved numerical equality in Oxford’s half. When Archer got the ball, all defenders were marked, and they were not able to receive the pass.
Foden and Sterling were on the centre backs, at the same time, the 19-year-old youngster would press the keeper, by starting his run from the positioning of the centre back. Therefore, he could shut the passing lane towards Moore and give pressure to the keeper at the same time. Despite huge spaces left behind the first line of City defence, Oxford were not going to exploit those spaces, they attacked in a rather simple way by playing long.
Change of tactics by Robinson
We believe Robinson noticed the issues in the defence of Oxford, he adjusted his tactics to address the issues. Oxford defended deeper with a 4-5-1 midblock, and they did not press in the 4-3-3 shape as they did in the first half. They even allowed the City pivot, Rodri to hold the ball and face the goal. This helped Oxford to defend against the central penetration in the first half, as their players stayed compact horizontally to block that pass.
They still intended to allow City attack flanks, City could capitalize on it when B. Silva pinned Long. In this scene, Zinchenko went wide to provide the width, as Angeliño stayed in an offside position. City could still enter the final third without many difficulties. However, the majority of City attacks in the second half came from transitions, as Oxford committed numbers forward.
This was an entertaining and exciting game, Oxford did not back off when facing the Premier League winner. City, despite rotated their squad, their players were focused to win the game. The partnership between Harwood-Bellis and Garcia were solid, they were calm and comfortable on the ball, although both defenders could improve themselves in one v one situations, it was enough for City to progress to the semi-finals. City would hope to revenge on their neighbour, Manchester United in the next round.
For Oxford, they did even better than the last clashes with City in 2018, as Robinson said, their players gave everything. Maybe they could have scored more goals, but Bravo was quite reliable in this game, he denied Oxford players with five saves. The boys should not let their heads down, because they had another game to prepare at the weekend, the league game against Wycombe Wanderers.
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