Manchester City were on a mission to be the first men’s football side to clinch the first-ever domestic treble in England after Arsenal Women achieved that feat back in 2007. Last February, The Citizens won the EFL Cup title after beating Chelsea 4–3 on penalties; while about a week and a half ago City successfully defended their Premier League title after thrashing Brighton 1–4 away from home. Not only that, but City were also hungry for the FA Cup triumph because their last success in this competition was back in 2011.
On the other side, Watford came into this match with a series of bad results. Three defeats in their last four league games are the reason; their last victory was against Huddersfield in late April. However, Javi Gracia’s men had a mentality boost because this match would be their first FA Cup final appearance since 1984. The Hornets also desired for a positive result because this encounter would be Heurelho Gomes’ last ever game in professional football in between the sticks, and winning the FA Cup would be a great farewell for him.
However, City were way too strong for Watford. Despite controlling the first 20 minutes of the match and successfully shutting down City’s offensive game in the process, Watford were no match for City for the remaining 70 minutes. Pep’s side got a comfortable two-goal lead in the first half, superbly added another four in the second half, and bagged home the FA Cup as the result. This tactical analysis will break down how City crushed Watford by six goals to nothing.
Guardiola chose his preferred 4–3–3 for this game. Future Anderlecht player-manager Vincent Kompany started alongside Aymeric Laporte in the heart of City’s defence. In the middle of the park, İlkay Gündoğan was supported by David Silva and Bernardo Silva. Up front, Gabriel Jesus was chosen ahead of Sergio Agüero to lead the frontline. Names like Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sané, and John Stones had to start the game from the bench.
Meanwhile, Gracia opted to use 4–1–4–1 in order to shut City down. Kiko Femenia and José Holebas started as Watford’s full-back pairing. In the engine room, there stood the trio of Will Hughes, Étienne Capoue, and Abdoulaye Doucouré. Ex-Juventus Roberto Pereyra and ex-Barcelona Gerard Deulofeu were tasked to support Troy Deeney as Watford’s attacking trio. In the bench, there were names like Isaac Success, Andre Gray, and former Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley.
Watford’s lockdown defence
Watford showed a neat defensive display in the game’s opening. As City enjoyed more possession, Watford happily sat in 4–5–1 off the ball. By doing so, they sat in a low-block and allowed City almost no space due to their defensive compactness. This approach forced City to send a lot of crosses into the box; which they didn’t want to do due to their attackers’ lack of size.
One interesting aspect in Watford’s defence was how they take care of City’s offensive midfielders, Silva and Bernardo. Gracia instructed Hughes and Doucouré to man-mark both of them in their respective half-spaces. In the process, Hughes and Doucouré were able to stop the City’s duo to get involved inside the final third by preventing them to receive; which they did by closing passing lanes to them.
Furthermore, both Hughes and Doucouré would happily leave their initial position to follow their respective men. Sometimes it made them had to join the defensive line due to the high positioning of both Silva and Bernardo; which changed Watford shape into 6–3–1.
Hughes and Doucouré did their defensive job very well, even though their offensive contributions had to suffer because of that specific task. In the other side, the specific instructions given to them had another negative side: Capoue would have a huge space to cover with the minimum quality of defensive support from Deulofeu and Pereyra. This man-marking approach proved effective since it successfully limited the offensive threats of both Silva and Bernardo … at least for the first 20 minutes.
The Hornets swarmed like bees
Although they didn’t attack regularly, Watford were somewhat threatening in that aspect. Their main scheme was to play the ball directly to Deeney, who was served with long balls from the deep by one of the defenders. Just in the time when the ball arrived to Deeney, Watford’s attackers would tuck themselves in so they could get closer to Deeney. They did this to offer themselves as lay-off options for the skipper.
One fascinating feature from this swarming approach was Doucouré. The 26-year-old was tasked to make offensive runs in behind from the midfield line in order to win the second ball from Deeney. Doucouré would start his run when the long pass was made and continued his run beyond Deeney to receive the lay-off in an advanced area.
Not only Deulofeu, Pereyra, Deeney, and Doucouré, this approach also included Hughes and Femenia at times. As the attackers came narrow, either Hughes or Femenia would wait at the right-hand half-space just behind them. The main reason was for them to be another lay-off option and to carry the ball into the right-hand side flank left by Deulofeu. Another reason was so they could get the rebound had Deeney or the attackers lost the main duel.
To be honest, City looked dull in the opening 20 minutes. The cause was their attackers’ lack of movements and rotations, which allowed Watford to control them easier. Guardiola then instructed his forwards and offensive midfielders to rotate their positions and vary their movements more often.
Some of the changes including Bernardo making runs in behind, Gabriel Jesus drifting very wide, Riyad Mahrez moving inside the half-space, and even Gündoğan arriving at the penalty box. The changes bear good fruits as it disrupted Watford’s defence for more and forced them to sit even deeper. It’s also good news for City, as The Hornets once again decreased their offensive threats in order to protect their goal.
Watford’s possession issue
If City enjoyed more of their attacks after the tactical change, Watford felt the opposite. Their attacks become a bit rushed and eventually made them less dangerous. Watford’s issue in possession was down to one main thing: poor structure.
In their attacking schemes, Watford would gladly send bodies forward (as explained previously) as soon as possible and left their defenders almost alone. They completely abandoned the option to play out from the back and chose to send a long ball into the attackers directly from the deep. This approach contained an issue for Watford’s build-ups: the players were poorly positioned and gave little if no passing options to each other as the result.
The poor structure in possession showed by Watford in their build-ups lead to another problem: allowing City a huge space between the lines had they lost the ball. This was the main reason why City got their first goal from Silva’s left-footed strike.
Blind spot runs
A key aspect in City’s final third movements this season is a lethal combination of low-cross from one side, which will be finished by the targeted attacker from the goalmouth after making a blind spot run from the other side. In this match, Guardiola also utilised blind spot runs in order to create clear-cut chances for his attackers.
The first evidence was Gabriel Jesus’ opening goal. In this sequence, the Brazilian striker had already switched positions with Sterling before making his run. The 22-year-old drifted wide and placed himself right behind Femenia. This smart positioning was really a nightmare for Femenia: he had to choose whether to keep an eye on the ball or to mark Jesus.
On top of that, Gabriel Jesus started his run very late, just in time before Bernardo released the ball. This confused Femenia even further because if the striker had started running earlier, he would be more noticeable for Femenia.
Another evidence was Sterling’s first goal. When Bernardo started his dribble in the left half-space, Sterling was still in the exact opposite side of the box; completely unnoticed by Holebas and Cathcart. Seeing both defenders focusing on Bernardo, Sterling started his run from their blind spots.
Sterling’s run went completely unseen as Holebas kept focusing on the ball, rather than turning his head to see what was around him. The England winger continued his run beyond Holebas and arrived first in the goalmouth to attack Bernardo’s low-cross. 5–0.
Bend it like De Bruyne
The Belgian midfielder came into the match 10 minutes after half time for Mahrez, yet he was pivotal to three of City’s four goals in the second half. Such superb performance by the blonde maestro earned him the man of the match award ahead of Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. What made him special?
First, let’s take a look at how his crosses added another dimension to City’s attacks. Previously, City’s right-sided attack was filled by left-footed in Mahrez and Bernardo. The same tendency from both players to cut inside and use their preferred foot was more predictable for Watford. After De Bruyne came in, the situation completely changed as City’s right-sided attacks become more creative.
De Bruyne and Bernardo often rotated positions between themselves in the last 30 minutes. Bernardo’s inside runs, with or without the ball, especially in transitions, allowed De Bruyne to be in the flank at times. In that position, De Bruyne was given so much time and space to make his trademark crosses and cutbacks into the box. One of them resulted in City’s last goal.
The man, the myth, De Bruyne
Another feature of De Bruyne’s game was his high football IQ combined with supreme technical skills. The Belgian possessed a great vision and superb ball-carrying ability which allow him to create chances for his teammates; not to mention his resistance to pressure in tight spaces. On top of that, De Bruyne was also able to play in multiple midfield or attacking positions, which make him a very valuable asset for Guardiola’s side.
After he came in, he played as an offensive midfielder in a 4–3–3 and pushed Bernardo wide. As mentioned above, we can see that both rotated their positions at times in order to disrupt Watford’s defence. Later in the game, Guardiola gave De Bruyne more attacking license as he often was found next to Gabriel Jesus in City’s transitions.
For a lot of times, Watford were very naive and put their defensive line very high without making any proper offside trap attempt. By placing De Bruyne higher, it enabled him to combine with Jesus more easily in order to beat the defenders. On top of that, his vision and clever movements did punish Watford’s defensive naivety as shown by City’s third and fourth goal.
Ten goals in the last two matches; six of them being in the FA Cup final. Who would have expected that? Despite being shut down in the opening part of the game, Guardiola’s City showed that they are way too strong for Watford. Well, not only for Watford but for the entire English football this season.
Pure dominance. Maybe that’s the fitting phrase to describe The Citizens for the last two years. Last summer, Manchester City stated that they want four trophies, yet they managed to secure three of them. It is visible for everyone that they are still hungry for European football’s grandest prize: the Champions League trophy.
Can they finally bring The Ol’ Big Ears to the Etihad Stadium next season? Let’s see.
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