Plenty for Pep and the fans to be pleased with as a heavily rotated side drew with an improving Celtic side who are really hitting their stride under Brendan Rodgers. Pessimists may point towards another game at home without a win, but valuable rest was given to key players as well as valuable Champions League game time being given to some promising young talent.
Celtic arrived at the Etihad at full strength; on-loan City winger Patrick Roberts started for the Glasgow outfit with the promising Moussa Dembélé spearheading the team. Rodgers set his team out in a 4-1-4-1 that became a 4-1-2-3 as the team attacked. It should be noted that the role of Stuart Armstrong dictated the numeracy of their formation. He often dropped deep alongside Scott Brown to offer more security in the build up play whilst allowing Rogic and the full-backs to occupy spaces higher up the pitch.
The Guardiola guessing game was in full flow before game (again) as everyone was wondering if any young players would be given the chance to play in this “dead rubber” Champions League tie. Tosin Adarabioyo and Pablo Maffeo were both given opportunities in the starting line up with Kelechi Iheanacho and Leroy Sané also joining them in the team. Fernandinho and Agüero did not feature despite their upcoming domestic bans, some may feel this is Pep “punishing” them for their actions against Chelsea but there is little evidence to suggest that this is the case.
New Structure on Display… Kind of
We’ve seen plenty of structures and formations used by Pep so far this season as he searches for the most optimum combination of players for any given match day. Last night Pep set his team out in a 3-1-4-2, a structure that we have seen before. Although it has only been used towards the end of games when the team has been chasing a goal to get a result. Therefore, I haven’t been able to assess the structure in any great detail.
When defending, the team was instructed to operate with a rotating back four depending on the positioning of the ball. What I mean by this is that whenever the ball was in a wide area the ball-near wing back would advance and contest the ball carrier whilst the ball-far wing back would drop alongside the centre backs. The ball-far wing back and the centre backs would then shift across to the ball side forming a temporary back four to safeguard the pressing of the team. This created a 4-4-2 structure, something that the players are used to as Pep almost always asks his team to press in this shape whenever a back four is used. An example of this can be seen below:
The same shape was also used by the team at times when they pressed higher up the pitch:
The main reason for Pep asking his team to do this is because it allows the team to have better access to the ball when pressing as it facilitates having more bodies around the area of the ball. This is vital when defending as if players are given too much freedom from pressure (as evidenced by some of the goals at the weekend) then the defence is much more susceptible to passes being played in behind them due to the high line the side employs.
On the attacking side of things City most often found themselves in a 3-3-4 orientation once they had established possession in the Celtic half:
This structure was created through Maffeo and Sané pushing as high and wide as they possibly could and thereby stretching the opposition defence. Nolito and Iheanacho occupied the central defenders although the former was most often found searching out space between the lines (more on this later). This meant that the trio of Gündogan, Fernando and Zabaleta had plenty of space to dictate play from the midfield.
An interesting feature of City’s attacking play was the role of Pablo Zabaleta. A lot of people unfairly claim that he’s not as industrious as he has been in seasons gone by, but last nights display should go someway to quashing that opinion. On the right of the midfield three he could often be seen making penetrating runs from deep, attempting to break beyond the Celtic defence. It worked successfully on a few occasions, but could have been even more fruitful for City if better passing and ball control had been on display.
Nolito Roaming Between The Lines
A key component to City’s attacking play was the positional intelligence of Nolito. Whenever City instigated a dangerous attack or forced the Celtic defence into action it was often due to the presence of the Spaniard between their defensive and midfield lines. The main example of this can be seen below:
This is of course the moment before Nolito plays Kelechi through on goal to equalise early in the first half. In the build up to this moment Nolito is permanently searching for space and passing lanes between Celtic’s defence and midfield. He receives the ball free from pressure and is immediately able to drive the ball forwards. What this demonstrates is a principle passed down all the way from Johan Cruyff. He once said that the best way to create space and passing options for team mates is not to move towards them but to move away from them. This exactly what Nolito does as he remains patient and trusts that his team mates will find him.
The contribution of Iheanacho should also be noted. By keeping himself on the shoulder of the Celtic defenders he creates additional space between their defenders and midfielders, which means there is more space for Nolito to receive the ball in. The relationship between the two was effective all evening with Kelechi pushing the defence back meaning that Nolito was constantly able to receive the ball between the lines and instigate dangerous plays by causing the defenders and midfielders to collapse on his position.
Whilst the result won’t grab any headlines, I believe we should all be encouraged by the performance of the team. Not only can we have faith in the young players rising through the ranks but we can also remain confident that the less essential first team members are also capable of putting in performances when called upon. Depth is vital when competing to win a title and it is comforting to know that the likes of De Bruyne and Silva can be rested and the team will still grind out results.