Manchester City went into Saturday’s game against Chelsea well aware of the stakes. A loss would turn the already large 9 point deficit between them and Liverpool into an astronomical 12 points, but fortunately for Guardiola and the sky blues, they came out on top courtesy of a 2-1 victory.
The game was as close as the scoreline suggests, and also presented an odd scenario for Pep Guardiola, for this was a game where his side failed to monopolise possession of the ball as they so often do; City had just 46% of the ball. A measly total by their standards.
This lack of possessional dominance is not just one that raises eyebrows due to its rarity, but it also places a spotlight on the off-ball work that the blues put in for the 90 minutes. It’s no secret that possession is an entity of the game which Guardiola’s philosophy orbits around, so how exactly did City play without dominating the ball?
Before we delve deeper into this it’s important to acknowledge the shape his side set up in when not in possession of the ball. While City are of course known for the 4-3-3 with the duo of 8’s and the pivot 6, they don’t play like this when out of possession, and in this game they chose to switch to a 4-4-2, with David Silva going alongside Sergio Aguero in the ‘striker’ position, and the midfield quad of Sterling, De Bruyne, Rodri, Mahrez. This is what it looked like in theory:
BLOCKING THE PIVOT.
Of course, the two shapes, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 are not congruent with one another, and a numerical imbalance occurs in the middle of the pitch, with 3 Chelsea midfielders outnumbering City’s two. We saw this a few weeks ago at Anfield when De Bruyne formed the 2 at the top of the 4-4-2, and this time Guardiola aimed to manage the presence of the extra man in the middle third.
He did this by delegating one of the two strikers to slide in behind the other to block off the number 6. Usually, this pivot player was Jorginho, a player with a reputation for a good passing range and vertical play. Look at this image below for example, where the ball side player (Silva) presses his centre-back whilst Aguero tucks in to cover the pivot man. In essence, this is Guardiola looking to pick his poison, saying that he would rather the duties of progressing the ball through his defensive lines fall to one of the opposition centre backs, goalkeeper, or even full-backs than allow the pivot man to get the ball and do what he does best.
For good measure, image 3 highlights another example of City deploying this method of pressing but marking the pivot player, as David Silva opts to tuck in and cover Jorginho rather than pursue retention of the ball of the centre back. (image courtesy of @MindFootballNes).
This was something City looked to do throughout, and to be completely honest this is a more passive approach to the way they play without the ball. There’s a number of factors that contribute to the adoption of a more passive block, one being the injuries City have sustained, particularly at centre-back, where Guardiola may be led to believe that collective defensive integrity is the best way of making up for the missing Aymeric Laporte. Another factor is the opposition they were up against. To be fair to the opposition Frank Lampard has instilled a possession-based philosophy into this young crop in his debut season in charge of Chelsea, and maybe the desire to play out from the back led City to respect the opposition a little bit more
All in all though, this approach of cutting off passing options as opposed to squeezing the spaces and pursuing the ball indicates something a lot more significant to the overall play of City without the ball in this game, and that’s that they were looking to prioritise the solidity of defence and shape as opposed to relentlessly pressing. Perhaps this is best illustrated in this timeline of PPDA throughout the game, which very clearly shows that while Chelsea’s press was aggressive and sustained, City’s fluctuated in it’s aggression, and didn’t reach the levels of their opponents in aggression.
Another important element of how City played without possession against Chelsea is how compact they were. This is something of a buzz word amongst the most defensively disciplined sides in Europe, see Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid as a perfect example, and City were very compact between the two banks of four and the two up top.
This was something that Guardiola looked to prioritise when his side didn’t have the ball, and this wasn’t something that was adaptive to the game situation. In high or low blocks Guardiola wanted his men to maintain their compact shape whilst still looking to win the ball back, and this was evident throughout the 90 minutes. This is because when teams play compact they deny the opposition space between the lines, meaning it’s harder for creative players to thrive since they have less space and passing options.
Take, for example, Image 5, taken in the latter stages of the game where Phil Foden had been brought on for the injured David Silva, and also took his place alongside Aguero in the 4-4-2 shape. Look at how tight the back and midfield four are with one another, as City look to push Chelsea back in order to initiate the higher version of their press.
Image 6 is an even better example, with the City block having shuttled the ball wide they still remain tightly packed together so that space doesn’t open up to allow Chelsea to play through them.
BEING AGGRESSIVE IN THE WIDE AREAS
Another facet of Guardiola’s out of possessional play was the play in the wide areas of the pitch. We’ve already looked at how City looked to block off the pivot midfield player and remain compact, but one other element they displayed was the desire to play aggressively on the wide areas, looking to win the ball back with more intensity in this region of the pitch than others.
Of course, this is because the conditions for pressing are a lot more straightforward in the wide areas. The offensive player has less space to pass or dribble into and it’s easier for the player defending him to cut angles off, and this is evident in this image taken from the early proceedings of the game. In this picture, City are able to play with a man to man press, which makes for a much more intense effort to win the ball back than having to worry about numerical inequalities between the two teams In this scenario, the pivot man doesn’t pose that same headache, and City can be more aggressive with their defending, which is, of course, the preferred methodology of Guardiola.
City’s desire and intention to up the levels of aggression that they invested into wanting to retrieve the ball once it reached the wide areas was particularly well illustrated in the map of attempted tackles that they logged throughout the 90 minutes. This map shows that a lot of the City tackles that were attempted throughout this game (orange dots) tend to congregate around the wider regions of the pitch.
Perhaps the characteristics of the opponent also factored into Pep’s decision to have his players initiate a more aggressive press once the ball went wide, since Chelsea spend the majority of their attacks on the wings (40% on the left side, 34% on the right side). This may have led to the City manager wanting to make life as difficult as possible for Chelsea to attack down the sides.
All in all, this wasn’t the most dominating display of football that we’ve seen City produce over the past few years, and was a far cry from some of the high-pressure overwhelming games they’ve put in front of us. However, it was interesting to see Guardiola adopt a style that was more passive in possession, with the priority being to maintain shape and deny the progression of the ball, rather than winning the ball back with immediate effect. It’s an effort, in my opinion, to aggregate the loss of center-back general Aymeric Laporte, as well as others around the squad. And as winter comes and the games stack up, we’re bound to see more creativity from Pep.
This article was first published on All About Libero
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