Fatigue and complacency – a miserable combination that soured the end of a great week.
Middlesbrough came to the Etihad making only one change from their victory against Bournemouth; de Roon in for Ramirez. Whilst clearly a defensive move from Aitor Karanka, de Roon ended up scoring an injury time equaliser to snatch Boro a point.
Pep opted to rest Otamendi and Sterling after their exploits against Barcelona; other than that City lined up as expected. All four of Gündogan, Fernandinho, Silva and De Bruyne started the game as the search for the optimal structure to include all of their strengths continued for yet another game.
After foregoing possession in favour of transitions against Barcelona, City returned to the 2-3-2-3 structure they employed against West Brom and pressed in their usual 4-1-4-1/4-4-2 variant. To combat this, Middlesbrough defended in a deep, passive 4-1-4-1 of their own. They took the approach that many smaller sides will do when they face Pep’s team this season; they looked to restrict space within their own half rather than try and interrupt City’s build up. As a result of this, City were able to transition very smoothly into their attacking shape but struggled to play through a very compact block once they moved into the opposition half.
Same System, Different Emphasis
Whilst City made use of the same positional structure that brought them success against West Brom last week (and against other teams earlier in the season) they took a different approach to chance creation against Middlesbrough. Instead of trying to break through the centre of the pitch, there was an increased emphasis on creating scenarios to cross the ball. City crossed the ball 13 times against West Brom compared to 33 attempted crosses during the game today. Part of this is probably due to the personnel available; Navas’ skill set is far more limited than Sterling or Sané’s and so it would be a waste to ask him to fulfil a role that is beyond his reach. Another reason for this is that Pep will be aware how defensively tight Boro are under Karanka and looked to take an easier (albeit statistically less effective) route to goal.
The change in emphasis was reflected in the role of De Bruyne. Although he started centrally he would make frequent movements to both flanks, a move by Pep in order to maximise his dangerous crossing ability. This paid off for the team as a Kevin De Bruyne cross lead to the opening goal as Agüero tucked away his 150th for the club. His ability to cross the ball and Pep’s desire for him to do so was further shown as De Bruyne and Silva swapped positions for the second half until Nolito was introduced. Another cross offered the best opportunity for City to put the game to bed as Navas found Agüero in the box in the 84th minute only for the latter to fire over the bar.
Difficulty Breaking Down the Block
Once again City found it difficult to generate good clear opportunities against a resilient deep block. A lot of credit must be given to Karanka and Middlesbrough though. They were both vertically and horizontally compact; shuttled across to the ball side quickly and maintained their speed in doing so across the full game.
How often did we see scenarios such as the ones above? Time after time City just could not find a way inside the defense. There was just no space. That is not to say that things could not have been done better though. A distant lack of energy could be seen when it came to creating passing options and connections between players. It was far too easy for the Boro midfielders to keep Silva/Gündogan/De Bruyne (particularly Gündogan) in their cover shadows and prevent passes from reaching them in advanced central areas.
The lack of presence in central areas could be a side effect of the increased emphasis on crossing or vice-versa; it’s tough to say without knowing the intricacies of match strategy. What is clear though, is that despite recent improvements there is definitely still a lot of work to be done with this team.
Whilst not as bad a performance as many will surely label it, there was a definite hangover from City’s European exploits. As the game went on more and more players began to look leggy and complacency and failures in communication crept into the game. This was typified in the hesitation and lack of coordination in moving to apply pressure to George Friend before he provided the cross for the equalising goal. Any one of Garcia, De Bruyne or Zabaleta should have moved to generate access to the ball but instead glances were exchanged between them all and the left back had all the time in the world to pick out de Roon at the far post. A fresher City team will undoubtedly offer an improved performance after the international break. That’s something we can all look forward to, at least.