The build up to the game had many people with wildly different predictions for the starting line up for City (as has been the case recently), but Pep still managed to spring a surprise. He opted for a back four with Fernando slotting in at right-back, although the rest of the team was as expected. Many (me included) presumed Pep would continue with a three man back-line, but being the innovator he is, he managed to find a way to experiment and to win.
West Brom offered little in terms of surprise selections with Evans moving into the holding midfield role being a slight change. This is something Pulis has done on several occasions though, not a radical move from the Welshman.
Pulls set his side up in a deep 4-1-4-1 block when defending. They had great compactness and looked to restrict space around the edge of the area rather than press deep into the build up. It’s a very passive approach, but one that we will see used against us more often than not this season.
City returned to the 2-3-2-3 (or 2-3-4-1) positional structure they used during the first part of the season. Fernando and Kolarov acted on the second line with Fernandinho and more often than not stayed deep in the half spaces rather than overlapping the wingers on the outside. Silva and Gündogan played as tens with Sterling and Nolito reprising the roles of the wingers and Agüero leading the line.
Fernando at right-back. He was a surprise selection (I believe he was added to simply add height and physicality for set-pieces and the inevitable long balls) and delivered a surprise performances. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t extraordinary – just better than I was expecting. He displayed good composure on the ball, contributed reasonably well to ball circulation and didn’t look massively uncomfortable defending out wide. Most importantly though, he was good positionally. Very rarely did he find himself on the same line as Sterling or blocking the passing lanes leading to Sterling. Time after time he intelligently moved his marker out wide or into the middle to allow Otamendi or Fernandinho to find Sterling with passes to feet.
The overall positional structure. I think we can all agree that players looked a lot happier and comfortable playing the 2-3-2-3 than the three at the back variants we have seen as of late. This is due there being an extra player in the midfield line and one less player in the defensive line. Due to this extra man, City were much more comfortable playing through the midfield and as a result we saw much improved performances from the attacking contingent. All of these factors contributed to better spacing overall from the team (particularly in the first half) as whenever a player received the ball he was guaranteed a passing option – something that we haven’t seen all that frequently in recent games.
The application of a key positional play principle: move the opponent not the ball. Although not occurring as frequently as Pep would like, it is happening. An example of what the principle means can be seen with the first goal. The ball was played on the right hand side of the pitch and the entire West Brom midfield was gathered around the ball. Fernando and Gündogan combined in order to access the space that the opposition midfield had vacated and ultimately Agüero was released in the box and finished the move.
A slightly clearer example of the principle being applied can be found in the 37th minute as Agüero, Gündogan, Fernando and Sterling seemed to be aimlessly passing the ball between themselves without advancing – despite being offered an abundance of space and time do so. What they were doing is trying to invite a press from West Brom or makes them shift to the ball side of the pitch (move the opponent) instead of simply trying to pass through a defensive block that won’t move (not the ball).
What Didn’t Work?
I’m not going to be overly negative here, as it was a good performance. But the defensive side of the game still needs some work. Too many times our transition defence (and overall defence) was poorly coordinated and is something that could well be punished against opposition of a higher quality. It may just be because the players knew West Brom wouldn’t pose too many troubles, but they should be sharper nonetheless.
Good result, good performance. Hopefully this is the start of normal service being resumed and we can all look to the Barcelona game with a lot of positivity.