A poor result with an equally poor second half performance will leave a sour taste in the mouths of City fans as well as Guardiola and his coaching team. Despite winning five of their last six matches and drubbing West Ham in their last outing, City slumped to a resounding defeat to an inconsistent at best Everton side.
One of the criticisms of Pep has been that he rotates too much and today he did the opposite and named the same outfield players that played against West Ham. The sole change was Bravo returning to the starting lineup at the expense of Caballero, who appears to be City’s designated “cup ‘keeper”.
Koeman also opted to keep the changes to a minimum as Mirallas for Valencia was the only change to the side who succumbed to an early FA Cup exit at the hands of Leicester.
City Progress The Ball Easier in New Shape
City’s starting lineup was not altered before kick off and neither was the positional structure they looked to employ throughout the game. The diamond midfield was clear for all to see and its use solved a recent recurring problem for City: their build up.
Far too often in recent games City have been easily forced to kick the ball long (predominantly by forcing the ball back to Bravo) but the diamond in midfield allowed them to build from the back in a more stable manner.
The main reason for this is that the diamond structure allows for more players to support the second line of play ahead of the central defenders and goalkeeper. Alongside the full backs, any one of Touré, De Bruyne and Zabaleta could be found making themselves available to receive a pass behind Everton’s first line of pressure.
The effect of this is twofold. Firstly, it allows City to retain the ball under pressure instead of having to try and play more difficult longer passes in the air. By being forced to play these aerial passes it allows the opposition to read the flight of the ball and apply pressure to the recipient before the ball reaches them. Moreover, one of Pep’s beliefs is that the faster the ball is played forward the faster it comes back at you. In order for his team to build their play effectively they must be able to control the ball and advance as a team into the opposition half. This cannot be achieved if they are being forced into long passes from the back.
Secondly, by having more players in deeper areas the opposition midfielders and defence are attracted higher up the pitch in order to apply pressure and restrict passing options. This means that should City beat the press there is ample space for the attackers to move into and create from. This is something that happened frequently in the opening exchanges with De Bruyne, Silva and Sterling finding opportunities to dribble directly at the Everton back four once the initial press was bypassed.
Positional & Transitional Issues
One of City’s main problems so far this season has been their inability to manage their transition from attacking to defending. Too often players either switch off or take too long to react to the fact they now need to fulfill their defensive tasks instead of their offensive ones.
This indecision is not helped by some of the structural issues that the team are also having. I am referring to a very specific problem as well: too many players ahead of the ball. The reason this is such a huge problem is that if there are five players waiting on the Everton back-line then that means the team can only defend any resulting counter-attacks with five players. Meanwhile, the opposition can easily generate overloads and advantages due to runners from deep positions who will always beat the City players downfield due to the head start that they receive.
The game against Leicester is perhaps the most important example of just how dangerous a problem this can be and the team clearly have not learned from the harsh lesson that was given to them that day. The good news is that this is something that can be “coached out of them” for lack of a better term. Whilst it is painful in the moment, as the players acclimatise to the complex model of play that Guardiola is seeking to implement we should see the errors in team positioning be reduced.
Everton’s Attacking Strategy
Whilst a lot of the blame must be taken by City for how the game played out, a lot of credit must be given to the strategy devised by Koeman and his team.
It was clear very early on that Everton were going to target the space vacated by Clichy when they looked to transition following a City attack. This role was carried out by numerous players, but most frequently it was Romelu Lukaku who looked to drive into this vacant space. It was a method of attack that was used again and again and City had no answers to the questions it posed.
This movement causes a chain of events that prevents City from defending effectively should Everton be able to retain the ball after playing it into this space. Firstly, it forces Stones to abandon the centre in order to contest the player with the ball. This means that for a small period of time there is a huge opening right at the heart of the City defence. Moreover, on several occasions there was momentary confusion between Otamendi, Touré and Clichy as to who should be filling this space. As a result of this, Everton players had the opportunity to receive the ball in dangerous areas in front of and behind the City defence relatively free of pressure.
City defended this poorly all day, and this deficiency was summed up in the rather unfortunate events leading to the final goal. John Stones is unable to clear his lines once the ball is played into this channel and… we know the rest.
Sterile Second Half
What will be most displeasing for Pep and his coaching staff will be the lacklustre performance that followed a first half from which his team should arguably have had a better return. As Everton sat deeper and deeper due to their ever increasing lead, City were tasked with breaking them down.
I’ve already discussed why having too many players ahead of the ball is dangerous from a defensive point of view in terms of transitioning but it is equally dangerous when attacking. I say this because if there are too many players ahead of the ball then the team cannot circulate the ball and probe for passing opportunities with any efficiency.
Having players in deeper positions is essential to not only retaining the ball but it is also vital to two other things:
1. Switching the play
2. Provoking the opposition to widen the space between their defensive lines.
Without players deeper in central areas it means that the team must go all the way back to the defence in order to switch the ball and attack the other side of the pitch. Whilst this can be beneficial at times, it is a hinderance when looking to exploit an overly compact defence. The aim of switching the play is to find a free player with a forward facing field of vision and provide them with time to create. This cannot be achieved if the ball has to travel backwards and be circulated among the defenders as it allows the opposition to reset their defensive shape.
Moreover, by having so many players on the last line of play it only creates spaces in front of the midfield, not behind it or behind the defence. This is a vicious cycle as those spaces cannot be fully exploited due to a lack of players in deeper areas. This immediate contradiction of ideas clearly goes some way to demonstrating why City fashioned almost nothing against the Everton defence in the second half. Had City positioned only one or two more players in front of the Everton midfield so much more space and time could have been generated for their team mates due to the opposition midfield having to advance in order to maintain access to the ball.
Lots of mistakes were made today. There’s no getting away from that. The key thing to remember is that coaching is a form of education, for both the coach and the players. Players must learn to adapt to the demands of a new coach, whilst the coach must adapt to the profiles of the players he is teaching.
It is a process that cannot and should not be rushed, especially in the face of a poor result. Philosophies and models of play are not formed and perfected in a matter of months. It is a process that takes time and patience from the fans, players and coaches.