Brentford – Manchester City: Champions Outlast The Game of Attrition (0-1)
The margin for error hasn’t been smaller in Premier League title races, none know it better than Manchester City. When others fall, they take advantage. Brentford nullified the Pep-machine unlike most, and yet City still found a way through.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Man City are at the stage where title runs look effortless. The elasticity of their midfield has enabled them to slalom through defensive blocks with alarming ease. Seventeen goals in their past three matches had showcased their offensive threat, and whilst Chelsea hit a rough patch and Liverpool stumbled at Leicester, Guardiola’s side was gifted a chance to break away from the pack.
They were up against Brentford, who have been a thorn to the side of the established elite throughout the campaign. Thomas Frank’s team had gone through a major rebrand once promoted, now much more focused on compactness and transitions. Defensively, they’ve reaped benefits, only Brighton and the top three had conceded less Expected Goals; whilst in the attack, they are a lot more reliant on set-pieces.
Frank made three changes, to the team that lost to Brighton on Boxing Day. Mads Roerslev Rasmussen came in at right wing-back, whilst Frank Onyeka started in the midfield, as Christian Nørgaard was suspended. Yoane Wissa returned to replace the injured Bryan Mbuemo.
Guardiola would make four changes to the team that smashed Leicester, with Nathan Aké coming in to make just his fourth start of the season, as Oleksandr Zinchenko dropped to the bench. İlkay Gündoğan, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez were all replaced by Gabirel Jesus, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden.
Early swarm out of the nest
Brentford and Manchester City had already set the tone for the tempo, as Pep’s team broke into slow possession control from the get-go. The hosts sat deep to sink any City buildup phases in their low block, but after ten minutes, they bucked this trend to create good chances.
This evolved from well-calculated counterpressures, which put the Champions in trouble on a few consecutive phases. In the middle third, City built up in a 3-3-4/3-3-2-2 formation, with Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo on the same line as Fernandinho, whilst Aké was the third center-back. As the City midfielder farside sat higher up and Brentford’s three midfielders worked so close together, this enabled the hosts to overload the left channel.
11th minute: Brentford counterpressure led to turnover and transition. Dias was forced backwards and pinned towards the sideline, whilst the proximity of midfielders created an overload. Frank’s team resembled a 5-2-1-2 shape when they counterpressed.
Onyeka’s early chance resembled this. Rúben Dias was uncharacteristically forced backwards on the ball, which triggered the press forward and Shandon Baptiste moved infield to track Fernandinho. A loose pass forward produced an excellent three-man combination to put Onyeka behind the defensive line, once he had overlapped.
His shot was less effective than the move, but City remained loose on the ball whilst Brentford’s high set-up forced them out of possession on their right side. They created another transitional move, this time with the team a lot further afield and encouraging the City defenders to engage in aerials, which catered to their frontline. Wissa hanged in the defensive line to make an opening as Dias was forced to track Ivan Toney, whilst the center-back’s block, of the cutback, almost caught Ederson out between the sticks.
City had lost control against a contrasting style which put them under enormous pressure. Brentford threatened from the resulting corner, as Kevin de Bruyne’s hastily left Wissa a free man on the knockdown. Nevertheless, Toney was agonizingly close to giving Brentford the lead, a few inches taller and the bouncing ball would have been perfect
Foden fires in calmer waters
Despite the match tilting quickly, City rode the waves and immediately responded by putting themselves ahead. One common issue with the 5-3-2 shape is the overloads that can be created from opposition switches, and although Brentford did manage to reset once Jesus had controlled the ball, it can see the midfielder marker drop deep to mark the run and not anticipate the free man left in a prime crossing position. A player you don’t want to leave free is De Bruyne and as Onyeka followed the pass into Cancelo, he was left free to put the ball into Phil Foden for the smoothest of finishes at the front post.
Nevertheless, this was the height of City’s shot creation in the first half, as Guardiola’s team dominated 81% of the possession but registered just one more attempt after Foden had scored. In possession, their 3-3-4 formation converted more into a 3-1-6 or asymmetric 3-2-5 shape if a player dropped to connect.
City was left orientated, which was not a major surprise as three of their most ball-heavy attackers were located down this side of the field. Silva, Jack Grealish and Foden constantly rotated amongst themselves. Silva was often deepest out of the three, whilst Grealish sat more in the halfspace against a Brentford block who was highly organized in maintaining the defensive shape and not pulled out by the carousel of movements and short passes down the left.
20th minute: Man City’s problems in their 3-1-6 shape. Rotation down the left doesn’t pull or distort Brentford’s defensive line. Silva moved forward but not beyond the defensive line, whilst both Foden and Grealish encouraged the ball to be played towards them.
Guardiola’s team had camped in the opposition half, but couldn’t create openings for several reasons. Firstly, filtering the ball into the halfspace was a difficult task once the ball was on the wider channel as Brentford didn’t engage in pressing far out. Neither of the wide center-backs was encouraged to wander out of the defensive line and the rotations from City’s left were more designed in recycling possession, rather than progressing into the box.
Secondly, their passing phases down the left was not met by hard runs down the opposite channel or the center, which could have distorted the backline a lot more. Such movements were a lot more prominent when the ball was on the right, as Grealish, Foden and Silva all committed themselves in the penalty area.
Such variables led to many muted passing phases from the Champions. Not even the switch to the opposite flank was a progressive action, as Brentford weren’t pulled out of their position and space was easy to close down as the shape shifted to one side.
One could argue that City was not urgent to create openings with the lead intact. However, this was already seen before they had scored and Brentford constantly offered danger by pumping the ball towards Ivan Toney on the left side. Frank’s team broke up play with the threat of transitions and won a lot of free-kicks due to their physicality created in high balls.
Move back to make openings forward
We all know that Guardiola is not one to set on his laurels and the slight adjustments in roles produced a lot more openings for Man City at the start of the half. They reshaped more into a 2-3-5/2-3-2-3 formation, with Aké and Cancelo in the same line as Fernandinho. Although they resembled this shape on several occasions in the first half, this was a lot more fixed with Foden as the figurehead in the center, whilst Grealish and Jesus maintained the width.
Such pinning enabled more flexibility from De Bruyne and Silva, to make movements around Brentford’s wide center-midfielders. With more carrying being offered from the likes of Cancelo and Grealish, the opposition block was pulled around a lot more than what it was in the first half and this was showcased in the number of openings they made, as well square passes being a lot more accessible in the second phase of the attack.
45th minute: Buildup to Foden chance. Cancelo was given space to carry as De Bruyne moved outwards, which enabled Onyeka to stick to the carrier whilst Jensen followed the pass out to Jesus.
City came close inside the first minute of the second half, in a very similar pattern that got them the lead. Cancelo and Jesus carries forced more bunching from Brentford’s left side, whilst De Bruyne moved out of Onyeka’s blindside and hugged the touchline. Mathias Jensen went to press Cancelo but followed the pass to Jesus and Onyeka dropped into the box. De Bruyne was left free to cross, but Foden’s header crept just wide of the far post.
With more runs from deep, City was able to move the opposition midfielders into their last line and made space on the edge of the area for shots or crosses. Foden would head the ball into the net, but a slight mistiming in his run saw the goal chalked off.
In this period, Pep’s team had also shut down transitions a lot smoother, with the 2-3 able to maintain their positions and close space for the attackers very quickly. They produced their most dangerous attacks, up until just after the hour mark: this phase of the game finished off with De Bruyne left on the edge of the area, this time on the left side with Grealish’s dribble in the halfspace taking Baptiste in with him. His shot smacked the foot of the post.
Sting still lingers, but no substance
Brentford had phases late on in the match where they were able to circulate the ball across the backline. Pontus Jansson and Mads Bech Sørensen split between the goalkeeper, whilst Ethan Pinnock sat in the fullback space on the right. City sat in their 4-2-3-1 higher set-up, without engaging their press, but the results weren’t pretty.
Frank’s team were able to move the ball down the left and had worked the ball into winning fouls. Though they managed to get the ball into the opposition box, these set-pieces had very little substance outside the first fifteen minutes and reliance on such methods isn’t always functional. Brentford work dead ball situations effectively, but Man City had a comfortable time defending them as they had to rely on a second or third touch before an attempt at goal could be made.
Man City wasn’t comfortable in these phases but wasn’t exactly threatened either and after their opponents looked like they were going to create, it was followed by Pep’s team bathing in control once more. Guardiola didn’t turn to his bench throughout the game, but it’s worth noting that his best retention specialists were all on the field and recycling within the system was enough to see them through. Aymeric Laporte was denied a late goal a few minutes from time, just offside according to VAR.
This felt more like London Irish and less of Brentford, however, there is a lot to take from how good they were off the ball. Frank’s team weren’t opened up in behind or through the halfspaces, they were only opened by City having to work backwards in the first place. A spirited, highly organized defensive performance, that had nullified one of the world’s best attacks and with a lot of their players unavailable.
Though not the prettiest of performances, it’s winning in ugly circumstances that makes the champion. This was a significant step, not just because the other front runners stumbled, but they got the job done in conditions that Chelsea have recently struggled and a team that Liverpool couldn’t conquer. Once again, City enters a new year as the top dog.
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