Before the international fixtures, Manchester City played against Wolves at the Etihad Stadium. While most of us were expecting another routine victory for City, Wolves instead used their strong performance to keep City silent. They became the first team to grab all three points at City’s home ground in 2019.
In this tactical analysis, we will show you the tactical battle between Pep Guardiola and Nuno Espírito Santo. This analysis includes the defending of Wolves, how City attacked, and how these tactics resulted in the triumph of Wolves in the Premier League.
City played in a 4-3-3 formation and there were some changes from the Champions League game against Dinamo Zagreb. Benjamin Mendy was injured and this was the first time for João Cancelo to start as a left-back for City. Given the current injury crisis at the centre-back position, Fernandinho and Nicolás Otamendi partnered at defence. Kyle Walker was back into the squad, and since Raheem Sterling did not start on Tuesday, he took Bernardo Silva’s left-wing position. Kevin De Bruyne, John Stones were still injured and unavailable.
Wolves did not use their 3-4-3 formation. Instead, they played in a 3-5-2 formation with Adama Traoré starting as a right wing-back. Romain Saïss started as a left centre-back and partnered with Conor Coady and Willy Boly. One of the changes to the squad that featured in the Europa League victory in Turkey was Patrick Cutrone starting ahead of Pedro Neto. The others were Rúben Vinagre playing instead of Jonny Otto, and Leander Dendoncker was back into the starting XI.
Defence of Wolves
Wolves’ tactics were like the previous games in which they played a 3-5-2 formation. They defended nicely and their opponents found it difficult to break their defence. They usually did not press high but instead, they formed a midblock and defended in a compact shape vertically. When breaking down the defensive structure of Wolves, we can see them as a pentagon formed by the midfielders and strikers, and a five-man defensive line formed by the rest.
We’ll use the following example to illustrate the Wolves defence with their pentagon and the defensive line. As Rúben Neves dropped slightly deeper than the other midfielders, Wolves only allowed tight spaces between the lines – this prevented City players like David Silva from exploiting any of those spaces. Meanwhile, the pentagon was small which didn’t allow for any passes to go through, which meant that Ilkay Gündoğan below was not a passing option as he was marked by Cutrone and João Moutinho.
Even when City intended to overload the left flank, they failed as the pentagon was always maintained on the ball side. Wolves allowed City to switch plays only through the centre-halves, not Rodri.
Other than the defensive structure, Wolves also stayed alert to make City uncomfortable on the ball. Wolves usually blocked the centre which forced the ball wide. They then compressed space to win the ball back at the sides. Furthermore, Wolves did not only sit back to defend, but they also stepped early to press and force the ball back.
We’ll use the image below as an example: Riyad Mahrez receives the ball from Walker in a closed body shape. Vinagre was the player to put instant pressure on the Algerian while Boly stayed alert to follow Gündoğan. The passing lane to Rodri was blocked by Neves and as a result, Mahrez could not turn so he returned the ball. However, his pass was poor which allowed Raúl Jiménez to intercept it and Wolves started an attack through the transition.
The below example showed the difficulties City faced during build-up. The blues could not switch plays through their pivot Rodri due to the Wolves’ pentagon. In the below scene, Rodri was at the centre of the pentagon while Neves adjusted his position, moving closer to the Spanish international. This was a wise positioning choice since this disallowed Gündoğan to find the pivot. Meanwhile, Boly stepped out to press the German again, and the 28-year-old midfielder could not turn but only pass the ball back to Walker. With the defensive structure and pressing of Wolves, City found it difficult to build up smoothly.
City’s asymmetrical attack
Despite the good defending from Wolves, City still managed to create their chances. In this game, City attacked the flanks in an asymmetrical way. They committed a huge number of players on the left while leaving space on the right as the weak side. Cancelo was given the freedom to join the attack, making supporting runs or crosses.
First we’ll see how City countered Wolves’ defensive structure. City did not pass the ball inside the pentagon in their build-up but instead tried to stay out of the pentagon to start an attack. Gündoğan or Silva became the player to drop in the pentagon, which kept the block at the centre.
The below scene shows how City started an attack. Rodri stayed out of the pentagon, between Jiménez and Dendoncker, so he freed himself from pressure. Meanwhile, Cancelo provided width at the touchline. Traoré was unable to step out early since Sterling dropped to occupy both the Spaniard and Boly. With these positionings, City avoided getting trapped in the pentagon.
City also tried to exploit space behind the defenders. Since Wolves were a pressing team as mentioned, the City players kept dropping and pulling the defenders out. These moves created spaces behind the centre-backs.
The below example reflects this: we can see Cancelo occupying the left flank and pulling Traoré out. The pentagon of Wolves was still compact despite all four City players staying between lines, however, the key was for Sterling to drop deep and pull Boly out. Cancelo was a right-footed player, so he could pass the ball with his preferred foot to help Sterling exploit space behind the French international. City entered the box easily with this setup by capitalising the spaces behind Boly.
Unfortunately, this tactic did not work effectively after the injury of Saïss. Wolves centre-halves swapped their positions, with Boly moving to the left and Ryan Bennett coming on to the right. Bennett was a more cautious defender and he did not always step out as Boly did. He didn’t always follow the dropping player and this prevented City from continuing to exploit the space in behind.
City on the right
City’s attack on the right relied on Mahrez as the African Cup winner made numerous diagonal crosses into the box. They needed some magic from the Algerian, and in few cases, Walker made a supporting run. City usually got the ball on the right after switching plays, and when this happened, Wolves’ defenders had to readjust their positions. At these moments, horizontal gaps between defenders increase which City could capitalise.
The scene below was an example. Cancelo switched the ball to Mahrez, from the left to right. Mahrez got the ball on his feet and in this instant, Gündoğan also ran forward, with his ran bringing Boly away from Coady. It left Silva and Sergio Agüero facing the centre-halves directly. Both players were running into the box, getting behind Bennett and Coady. Mahrez attempted a cross but the cross was too low to find his teammates, as were most of the cases in the match.
There’s another point worth noting – City really miss De Bruyne. The Belgian could occupy the half-spaces and produce accurate crosses for his teammates. He wasn’t available that day and Gündoğan just couldn’t provide the same service. It meant City were easy to defend against in the final third.
The following image highlights this problem. Rodri played a cross-field ball to Mahrez as the Wolves players were readjusting their positions. In an instant, there’s a gap between Vinagre and Boly since the 20-year-old wing-back stepped out to close off Mahrez. Gündoğan had two running paths to help his teammates.
The first one was to utilize that short moment to exploit the half-spaces. There’s huge space between Vinagre and Boly, he made the run which could take away Boly. If Mahrez released Gündoğan, he could cross. The second option was a more conservative one – he could move closer to the Algerian to provide a passing option. This was the easy option as he could take the ball without pressure. Gündoğan chose the latter option and received the ball from Mahrez, but this meant City gave away a good chance to break the Wolves’ defence.
Wolves’ quick and direct plays
Despite not conceding a goal from a quick break in the last 59 games, Wolves still hoped to create their chances through some direct plays. That day City’s centre-halves were Fernandinho and Otamendi, and the reckless Argentine kept City exposed at the back. Other than making a poor tackle in the lead up to the first goal, Otamendi kept making the wrong decisions. Wolves gained advantages from them and had their chances.
City enjoyed most of the possession with 76%, so Wolves had to create chances as City pressed the ball back. They kicked the ball directly to bypass City’s press and left the aerial battle for the strikers.
The image below was an example where Otamendi failed to defend which led to a Wolves chance. Traoré kicked the ball upfield and City reacted poorly. First, as the only defensive midfielder, Rodri failed to anticipate and he did not close off Jiménez. But the real problem was the decision made by Otamendi. The Argentine followed Jiménez which would have been fine if he could win the ball back or delay the attack. It was the worst scenario if he failed to make an impact and the ball just got past both players and reaching Cutrone. This was a clear-cut chance which had an xG of 0.32. City were fortunate not to concede a goal in the first half.
In other cases where Wolves had the possession for longer, they tried to switch the ball to their right wing-back, Traoré. Traoré is a pacey player who also possesses strong physical attributes, and these made him very difficult to defend in a one v one situation. Wolves tried to utilize these and attack down the right flank.
As in the example below, Traoré got the ball. He faced Cancelo, who was more natural with his right foot. The Portuguese international was uncomfortable in making a sliding tackle with his left foot as many left-footed left-backs do. He could not stop Traoré for a couple of times, just like we can see below. Rodri should have helped Cancelo defend, but Dendoncker’s forward run brought away the pivot. The only unsuccessful dribble from Traoré in the final-third was from the one instance he faced both Rodri and Cancelo at the same time.
Despite Traoré making an impact on the right flank, City could still deal with the crosses.
We already explained the key elements of this game, and now we are going to explain what resulted in the loss of City. Oleksandr Zinchenko came on to replace Walker right after the break. Guardiola made this change because Walker had an infection in his stomach. City did not change much in terms of tactics. The turning points were the freekick from Silva which hit the crossbar, and Wolves replacing Cutrone with Matt Doherty.
After Doherty came on, Traoré was pushed to the striker position. Nuno wanted the pacey 23-year-old to create some trouble for City in the fast breaks. But the goal can be attributed to multiple errors from City – not only the sloppy pass from Cancelo but the poor decision made by Otamendi.
As highlighted below, Otamendi and Fernandinho were dealing with Traoré and Jiménez. It was a two v two situation, Wolves had a chance to score, but not an absolute chance. Otamendi’s poor decision was the key – he tried to tackle Jiménez but it was in vain, which then led to a two v one against Fernandinho. In fact, there were many more solutions for Otamendi.
Otamendi could have made a tactical foul since he did not carry a yellow card throughout the game, so fouling Jiménez would have been a good idea. Another option was he could just delay the attack by backing off. Cancelo was running back to defend, as were Gündoğan and Zinchenko. No Wolves players supported their strikers so City could have regained the numerical advantage. However, it was very disappointing to see Otamendi choose to instead challenge recklessly, and without even contacting the ball.
It was a great game to watch. Guardiola knew Wolves were dangerous in quick breaks, therefore he played Walker even though the right-back wasn’t fully fit. However, multiple errors made by players cost them the game. City also did not perform their best in the attack. They played at a slow tempo most of the time, and stubborn movements did not break the defensive organization of Wolves. They have to improve their standard after the international break – they were too sloppy at times.
For Wolves, they were a good team but struggled at the beginning stage of the season. However, their performance at the Etihad was good enough to secure a clean sheet. Nuno’s formation and philosophy required the concerted efforts of the players to defend together. If they could continue playing in the same quality as they did this match, they could challenge for the Europa League spots again.
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