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Anatomy of a Man City goal - How Guardiola altered his attack

11:00 EAT 10/12/2021
Pep Guardiola Manchester City GFX
Without a striker, the Premier League champions have changed their style to reflect the flexibility and intelligence of their squad

Bernardo Silva has two early entries for December's Goal of the Month – a sweet first-time volley on the run against Aston Villa and a delicious curling strike against Watford.

They highlight the brilliant individual talent of the Manchester City forward and his ability to react and make the most of opportunities.

Both were scored on the break away to sides with the bravery to attack City – Villa after back-to-back wins under Steven Gerrard and Watford after impressive performances against Manchester United and Chelsea.

But what happens in those matches when they face a team that have no interest in trying to play on the front foot?

It's been a recurring theme during Pep Guardiola's time that a good percentage of sides come to the Etihad Stadium purely with damage limitation in mind.

With City dominating possession and the ball predominantly in the final third of the pitch along with eight, nine or sometimes 10 defenders, they have to find a way to break through.

There used to be a classic way that City scored in the early years of Pep Guardiola's six-year reign.

It usually involved one of the speedy wingers, either Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sane, breaking beyond the backline, getting close to the byline and squaring a ball for a team-mate from the opposite flank or for Sergio Aguero to finish.

Relentlessly practised on the training pitch, City seemed to move their opponents around like chess pieces until they found the right opening and with players like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, they knew when to play the killer pass.

Virtually unstoppable when they worked it at their best, it helped turn City into the Premier League's top scorers for the last four seasons including two where they scored more than 100 goals.

But with Aguero leaving at the end of last season and no striker arriving in the summer transfer window, Guardiola has had to come with another plan.

They still score that trademark goal but they are less common with a different style of player offering a different alternative.

City would generally play with a fairly orthodox 4-3-3 system – a striker in front of two number eights – although, like now, there was still some fluidity in changing positions.

Now they often line up as a 4-2-4 with two false nines but the movement makes them very difficult to pigeonhole into positions.

Whoever plays in those false nines, whether it's Bernardo, De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan or Phil Foden can be the furthest player forward one moment and shorlty after, picking up the ball alongside defensive midfielder Rodri.

The wingers, meanwhile, play high and wide to stretch sides that want to remain compact through the middle of the pitch, helped by full-backs playing higher up.

While they are not slow, the emphasis on the wingers is more about dribbling than pace with Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez, Foden and Sterling able to beat opponents if they are isolated and the presence of Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker gives them an extra threat.

The form of Cancelo as an attacking force has been instrumental in City's success this season in tight games.

The Portuguese defender has six assists so far this season, including five in three matches over November, with a couple that illustrated City's new attacking dimension.

After a hat-trick of assists in the Champions League victory at Club Brugge he had a hand in both goals in a dominant victory in the Manchester derby.

The first was a whipped-in cross that Eric Bailly sliced into his own net but the second showed the new style of City's attacking.

Just before half-time, United were desperately hanging on to get through to the break a goal down and had eight defenders and the goalkeeper around the box as City moved the ball around in front of them.

Cancelo had the freedom to move forward unmarked and Bernardo quickly switched the ball across the pitch to change the direction of the attack.

While Gabriel Jesus offered an option to attack the left wing, Cancelo cut inside to curl a ball over the top to pick out Bernardo who had continued his run from a wide position into the box.

United defenders Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw were culpable for failing to cut out the pass but Bernardo knew exactly where the ball was heading and managed to squeeze in a ball at the back post.

Returning after the international break, Cancelo played a similar ball to get the crucial breakthrough in the 3-0 victory over Everton at the Etihad.

Again, he had options with Bernardo, this time taking up a left wing position and Foden offering a short pass as a way through.

But with a little gap between Everton's back-four and three shielding midfielders, Sterling was the only player making a dynamic run, again from a slightly wider position and arcing his run through the centre.

Cancelo's pass with the outside of his boot was sublime and delivered perfectly behind the defence and far enough away from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford that only Sterling could reach it and the England star's first-time finish was equally impressive.

Three days later, Paris Saint-Germain were surprisingly defensive at the Etihad, attacking mainly with their menacing front three of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar while mainly defending in numbers, particularly after taking the lead.

On the hour, the home side found a way through. Starting on the right wing with Walker, City shifted the ball sharply sideways via Rodri, Ruben Dias and Cancelo before back inside to Rodri.

Walker held his position on the right side as the PSG drifted inside, it gave him the opportunity to sprint along the plain of the backline and dash onto Rodri's chipped pass.

A little wider when the ball arrived, his first time cross could have been scored by Gabriel Jesus before Sterling finally poked the ball in at the back post.

Those moments were well planned but also dependent on the options and intelligence of the players and hard work on the training pitches.

Rodri and Laporte are adept at switching the play early from deep positions to pick out high attacking wingers. Bernardo, Foden, Grealish, Sterling, De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan are so adaptable that they can interchange positions smoothly to bamboozle their markers.

Cancelo, De Bruyne, Rodri and Gundogan know where and when the runners will come from and when to play the pass.

“We don’t have tall strikers for the headers, not even when Sergio was here, but at the same time we are a team and have to play in a certain rhythm and sometimes you need players who can play in that position to help us," Guardiola said recently.

“But in some games we need guys who go in there, in the box. Gabriel was there from the cross and Raz (Sterling) was there to score a goal [against PSG], sometimes they arrive in the right moment. It depends on the quality of the players.

“But we cannot deny that playing with a player type like Bernardo, Cole [Palmer], or other typical midfield players, we feel comfortable, we cannot deny.”

Guardiola is right to praise the brilliance of his players, but it helps when they have a tactical mastermind knowing how to exploit their talents.