During their last Premier League game against Everton, we pointed out that Pep Guardiola needed to work on the Manchester City defensive structure, as we were seeing a weaker performance in that aspect of their game lately. With the team conceding goals in their last six games.
On Saturday, we added the seventh game to this negative streak, but this time there was more than that, as Manchester City saw Crystal Palace hit them three times at their home stadium, granting Pep Guardiola’s team their first home defeat of the season. This pushed Liverpool four points ahead of Manchester City with Klopp’s band visiting the Etihad on January 3, in what could be a defining game for the Premier League.
It started as usual, but things took a different course
The game started as usual when Manchester City play at the Etihad Stadium, and most of the time also when they play as visitors. Crystal Palace started the game with a 4-5-1 tactical positioning, but more important than the numbers is how they positioned themselves and what their intentions were. The whole team stood in their own half without putting pressure on the defensive line of Manchester City.
Once again, and this is a trend we have been seeing as of lately, having five midfielders is proving to be an efficient way to reduce the offensive creativity of Manchester City. But is not the number itself, but the structure where you achieve numerical, and usually qualitative, superiority on both wings, with four or five players putting pressure on two or three Manchester City players that are closer to that location.
But this is not only about putting more players, numerical superiority, but also having them better positioned for the direction of the attack, qualitative superiority, something you can achieve even with fewer players. And a second aspect is the position of the centre midfielder, that is proving to be key as a free player willing to support any defensive weakness the team can have or cover the spaces that are left.
This defensive structure had a very interesting effect, even though Crystal Palace were not positioned high, most of the individual duels, where Manchester City are very strong, took place far away from Crystal Palace goal area. And that meant that the players that are usually creating more danger, as Sane, Sterling, Silva or Gündogan, were doing that with enough distance from their rivals’ goal to inflict real danger.
Influential in this was also Pep Guardiola’s lineup for the game, maybe not the ideal for a home game with a defensive rival. Apart from the four defenders, Walker, Otamendi, Laporte and Delph, Guardiola chose Stones as a central midfielder. Although the former Everton man was usually well-positioned to receive the ball with space, his creativity to search for his teammates and the offensive passes were not good, usually ending with simple short passes to the side. And given the defensive positioning of Crystal Palace, that gave space to the defensive line of Manchester City, meaning that most of the build-up phase until the last third of the pitch was the responsibility of the back four plus Stones. Not the ideal candidates when you have Silva, Sane or Sterling on the field.
Cross cross cross the ball, gently from the wings
The lack of creative ideas meant that Manchester City had few collective movements that generated clear chances. Instead, they started shooting cross balls into the area of Crystal Palace, usually a good situation for the defending team that see balls coming in front of them while the rival has to usually play with their backs to the goal.
According to Wyscout, in the last calendar year, Manchester City averaged 19.25 crosses per game, while in the game against Crystal Palace, they had 43 crosses, the highest number in that period of time. In one of those crosses though, Gündogan was able to find a space and head the ball home, scoring the first for the home team.
Just five minutes after, a very passive pressure by Walker allowed Schlupp to put the equaliser in and two minutes after that, Townsend scored what will be probably one of the top goals of the season, after a perfectly executed volley. Without looking to minimise the beautiful goal, there was poor communication between Silva and Gündogan just before the volley, that could have avoided that opportunity for Townsend.
Those were the first two shots by Crystal Palace of the game. They had two more after, the third goal and the header that lead to the penalty of the third goal. So, basically Crystal Palace visited three times, the Manchester City goal, they scored in all of them. The defensive side of Manchester City was very weak, led by Kyle Walker who had one of his worst games of the season, very imprecise when passing, and struggling defensively with no real pressure on the first goal. And fouling Meyer in the penalty area resulting in the third goal for the visitors.
Guardiola’s substitutions in the second half were a strong indication, as in the first two he put two offensive players (Agüero and De Bruyne) on for two defenders (Otamendi and Delph). That structure was closer to what you should have expected for a game like this, but even with that, Manchester City kept lacking enough creative to unbalance both individually and collectively, Crystal Palace’s defensive structure. The Belgian midfielder scored a precious goal and what seemed to be more of a new cross ball that ended up in the back of the net, increasing the emotiveness of the last couple of minutes but without changing the outcome.
The run is over, now what?
The unbeaten run itself is not relevant, it’s the performance of the team, especially defensively, that is more concerning. The next couple of weeks are key, as Manchester City are playing several games including a home game against the Premier League leaders, Liverpool. Defensively, Manchester City have not been performing well and this will be an issue when you face Firminho, Sane and Salah. But more importantly, you need consistency in your defensive performance if you want to be in the race for the title. And that is relevant for both Premier League and Champions League. In the former, you lose a game and you are still in the race, in the latter you lose a game and you are probably out.
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