Another game, another set of surprises regarding team selection from Pep. Claudio Bravo’s exile from the starting eleven continued as Caballero started for the second consecutive league game. Fernandinho also started, although not where I, nor many others, expected that he might: as a highly flexible full-back. Otamendi also dropped out of the side with Kolarov taking his place and Clichy slotting in at left-back.
On the other hand, Swansea remained unchanged from their impressive midweek win over Southampton that gave them back to back wins, and perhaps suggesting that Clement may be dragging them to safety.
Return to Old Ideas
The structure of City when they had the ball bore striking similarities to ideas implemented by Pep early in his City reign and towards the end of his time at Bayern.
Firstly, De Buryne and Silva returned to the roles we saw them fill at the start of the season. In the last couple of games they’ve been more frequently playing ahead of the opposition midfield in order to create space for Sané and Sterling to dart into.
Today, however, Sané and Sterling acted as much more orthodox wingers looking to hug the touchlines and force Swansea’s backline to cover a much larger area of the pitch. As a result of this, Silva and De Bruyne played as a pair of “Number 10s” sticking very closely to Gabriel Jesus and looking to receive the ball behind the Swansea midfield almost exclusively. The purpose of this is to create a numerical overload in front of the opposition defence as well as providing numbers to be available for combination play to penetrate the last defensive line. Both De Bruyne and Silva were able to find time to receive the ball (primarily in the half-spaces) thanks to the width provided by the wingers and as a result they were able to dictate and pin Swansea into their own half for large periods of the first half.
In order to support the advanced positioning of his attackers we saw Pep revert to a system that served him while during his last eighteen months in Munich: the 2-3-5.
As the attacking contingent looked to pin the Swansea defence and midfield deep into their own area the rest of the City players needed to be positioning in order to guard against the counter attack and circulate the ball should the attack be unable to advance. Clichy, Touré and Fernandinho were responsible for maintaining ball circulation and applying frontal pressure to Swansea ball carriers to ensure that any potential counter attacks were nipped in the bud.
In Munich these roles were most often filled by Alaba, Alonso and Lahm. Pep’s experience with this system and the hours spent honing it on the training ground showed through, as it was successfully transplanted onto the City team to devastating effect.
City Dominate Through Brazilian Balance
Two Brazilians made the difference today, one will grab more headlines (Gabriel Jesus) while the other’s performance will most likely fly under the radar as it always seems to do (Fernandinho).
Both players had a very similar role in the dynamics of City’s attacking play: to provide balance.
Firstly, it cannot be understated how impressive the footballing intelligence of Gabriel Jesus is. Over the course of the game he showed a willingness to rotate with any of his four attacking comrades in order to pull defenders away from them and as a result of this City’s attacking was unpredictable, flexible and able to slice through the Swansea defence at will. His ability to react to the runs of his team mates and ensure that balance, width and depth was maintained in the attack was absolutely vital to the efficiency of the attacking structure.
Moreover, he consistently showed a great ability to read his marker and move deeper to show for the ball so that a team mate can move into the space behind him – resulting in a great chance for Silva midway through the second half.
Fernandinho also exemplified a tremendous talent for ensuring the attack was balanced at all times. Over the course of the game he could be seen deep in the half space, holding the width on the right and even playing close to Jesus on the edge of the box. This flexibility and ability, as Pep says, to play any position on the pitch allows the attackers to interchange at will without the fear of disrupting the overall structure of the team. It was clear today that they knew Fernandinho would already be moving to secure and maintain the team’s positional structure, which made breaking Swansea down look like a comfortable task.
In the end, City fully merited their win and will be able to savour the fruits of their labour after they failed to truly punish Swansea despite their unbelievable dominance in the first half.
Yet again the team’s performance faded as the second half wore on, but the fact the players were able to rally late on and clinch the win is vital. Not only does it restore faith amongst the supporters it should also deliver a great boost in confidence to the players. It is these kinds of results that will spring to the players minds when faced with future adversity (yes, there will definitely be more) and provide the strength and composure to realise that they are capable of overcoming any setback.