Manchester City’s spending spree in this year’s summer transfer window will leave the team unfairly stocked on options for almost every position. Offensively, the team looks scary deep on options since the likes of Bernardo Silva joined other superstars by the names of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and several budding stars in the forms of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. And the summer isn’t even over, Guardiola and co. are said still said to be working on a deal to bring in Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez to the Etihad. With his addition, Manchester City are surely front-runners for the Premiere League this year, but with offense of such high prestige and a reinforced defence, how will other team’s even prepare to limit City’s attack? What strategies can other teams employ to limit City’s offensive power, we will take a look.
Before we begin; we are in-part using our creative-spirit on this one, as both the deals for Benjamin Mendy and Alexis Sanchez are still under negotiation and may not even take place. Nonetheless, assuming that both of these transfers go through, we will look at the potential line-ups Pep Guardiola can work with this season and what opposing teams have to watch for when playing against Guardiola’s men.
If Pep chooses he can continue with the modern standard 4-2-3-1, playing with a back-four, two holding midfielders and three more offensive minded midfielders supporting the lone front-man. With his new additions, Pep will have more fire-power on hand than ever before in his career. Arguably, only his record-breaking Barcelona team could match his present-day (partially fictional) City squad. Therefore the first step will be to limit Pep’s main orchestrators. This start’s at David Silva, who we can assume will either be playing a deeper-role in comparison to last year since he doesn’t have the pace to twirl defenders around as he did in his previous years with the club. This arguably makes the Spanish midfielder even more dangerous as he will be tasked to create and dictate play from a deeper role using his superb technical ability and vision. This will allow Kevin De Bruyne to push up and effectively form a 4-1-4-1 when in possession moving forwards and is the first problem opposing teams will face. When the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne are storming down the field, what do you do? Try and tackle the ball-handler? Cover each man? Neither or. To limit such a break-away, opposing defenders should look to cover space.
Ideally, a 4-3-3 counter approach would suit opposing teams well against the large array of offensive talent that Manchester City possesses. In this scenario, when City comes storming in with those five opposing midfielders, we know any type of man-on-man defence will result in the defender being beaten and the City offense having a clear path towards goal and a four vs. three situation. Therefore, covering the space that the attackers seek to exploit is the safer option. This will require the team to hold a slightly lower defensive line, and also be aware of the position of either Aguero or Sanchez as the front-man. Since almost every City midfielder is capable of delivering a killer-pass to set up Aguero through on goal, the first step is to buy the defenders time to cover the space that the attacker’s seek to exploit. Here the goal is not to win the ball back, but to slow down the attack. Similarly, the wingers have to retract to their defensive position to cover any potential bursts forward from either Mendy or Walker. This in turn forms two lines of four man defenders, with an extra central midfielder, who attack’s the ball handling player. The second part of the defensive regime would be to limit Manchester City’s passing game, a feat few have achieved. This is most dangerous when City have the ball in zone marked by the box. From that central position, playmakers such as De Bruyne and Silva will carve out paths for their team-mates to exploit. This is where the defenders have to be careful. Like before, when City is possession they are looking for two things, space and a team-mate who can exploit that space. In almost all cases, the City attackers will be a step ahead of opposing defenders and see the runs that are created by Silva or De Bruyne’s movement of the ball. In turn, the best strategy to defend someone who is two steps ahead of you is to know what he is looking for, and that is the space marked by the box. If neither midfielder is allowed to enter that space without either being attacked by two men, then you have the upper hand. This would then result in either playmaker to pass the ball backwards, or side-ways. If he passes backwards, you have your striker press the opposing defenders, if he spreads the ball wide; you have the space covered by your winger. In sum, defending against a team like Manchester City is not about winning the ball back by provoking mistakes, as that is fairly unlikely to happen, it is about making it as difficult as possible to cover the area they want to exploit. By any means, this is easier said than done, and requires both discipline and knowing your role, and that of your opponent. If one of these players does not fill his position, it leaves enough space for a team like City to make a killer pass and score a goal.
If Pep were to choose to play with a three-man defensive line, it would provide even more troubles for opposing defenders through the additional options out-wide providing confusion for full-backs. Hence, opposing managers must look to both avoid having their fullbacks ending in a 2-vs.-1 situation against either wing-back or winger, and/or having a central defender/midfielder exposing space in the middle by coming to help the struggling full-back. The best way to avoid number two is to avoid the first mistake.
Similar to first scenario, one player should seek to disrupt the flow of the City attack allowing the defenders to form two lines of four. BUT, unlike in the first scenario, we have a central midfielder play the role of ‘stopper’, used frequently in the 1960s. The ‘stopper’ who in theory plays the role of a centre-back, but looks to go at the man, while the second centre-back covers the space behind him. In a situation where you’re going to be facing a 6 vs. 4, the best bet is to secure the middle. This brings me to the second problem, covering the middle is actually the wrong move here. Should Manchester City find their space covered in central position, width provides the easiest method to provoke a mistake from opposing defenders. It also takes away any potential counter attack from the wide area, due to the fact that the winger’s must tuck in behind that first line of defenders to make sure that space in the middle is covered. As previously stated, your worst enemy in this scenario would be any central player helping your full-back. Last but not least, your striker will have to abandon any chances of chasing after a clearance as he is required to fill in for that ball-chasing midfielder. Having your striker fulfil this role basically takes any offence away from you, but in turn, you will not abandon space to those creative central playmakers.
Again, as previously stated, to avoid conceding a goal against such a side filled with attacking talent, it is about error minimization and discipline. In almost all cases, it will be impossible for defenders to not fall for a step-over and get beaten, or forget to mark their man, and mistakes will happen – it is human nature.