Brighton – Manchester City: Early Scare Cannot Hold City Off Premier League Title (1-4)
Brighton were no match for Manchester City, who crowned themselves Premier League champions for the second season running. This game served as a prime example of how we will remember most of the domestic matches by Guardiola’s City: demolishing an opponent that sits back in a low block with positional play, quick combinations and dribbles in the final third.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
The last match that Brighton won in the Premier League came in early March. Going into this game, they had scored only two goals in their last seven outings. Having already secured another season of top-flight football – thus having nothing left to play for – they genuinely looked like cannon fodder for a hungry Manchester City team side in need of one more win to secure the Premier League title.
Football is a funny sport however, and Manchester City have some firsthand experience with games like these getting out of hand. Remember Kun Agüero’s legendary injury time goal against Queens Park Rangers? Right. Not to mention what an early Liverpool goal in the simultaneous fixture at Anfield might do to their composure and calmness.
As he has done for most of the season, Brighton manager Chris Hughton lined his team up in a 4-3-3 formation, even though most of the time, his team was defending in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1 shape. Single pivot Teams vary in the number of midfielders they place in defensive positions during buildup. In systems like a 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2, usually a single midfielder plays closer to the defense, for protection, but also for buildup play in the center of the pitch. The player is called the ‘single pivot’, to contrast with the ‘double pivot’ in systems like a 4-2-3-1. Beram Kayal was flanked by central midfielders Yves Bissouma and Pascal Groß. The wingers Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Anthony Knockaert tracked back and acted as de facto fullbacks, leaving striker Glenn Murray isolated up top.
Pep Guardiola decided to stick to his preferred 4-3-3 formation, albeit with a subtle twist. Ederson in goal, Kyle Walker, Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko in defense. İlkay Gündoğan as the number six, flanked by David Silva (not a surprise) and Raheem Sterling (surprise) as the midfielders. Even though City played so attacking, Sterling played more as an inside right winger than as a genuine central midfielder. Guardiola decided to field Bernardo Silva as the wide right winger, Agüero up top and Riyad Mahrez on the left.
Sterling and Bernardo get surprising roles in Pep’s 3-2-5 formation
Against teams that form a 4-1-4-1 formation, City have very often responded with a 3-2-5 or 2-3-5 shape. This is done to stretch the opposition’s defensive block A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. as much as possible both horizontally and vertically, and thus creating as much space between the lines and on the flanks as possible. Whenever the ball is lost, all players press the ball immediately, often resulting in a new possession and an opponent that grows more frustrated by the minute. And if you can get out of the press? City will just foul, seventy yards away from goal. Counterattack gone.
In this match, the 2-3-5 formation was in play, albeit with the aforementioned twist of playing Sterling on the inside and Bernardo Silva on the outside. Here is how it looked in the first phase of play. Look at Sterling’s unusual position, as he is positioned as right midfielder.
City’s 4-3-3 formation in the first phase of play. Tenth minute, ball displayed at the feet of Gündoğan.
When City had played a few passes amongst each other and Brighton were pushed back into a low block, A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. the 2-3-5 formation came into play. Sterling took up a higher stance than Silva, almost as a second striker, while the Spanish playmaker was roaming more freely in the entire left side of the field.
City’s 2-3-5 shape, that has featured so often this season.
One variation of City’s play in possession would be that Walker or Zinchenko would come on the outside, the winger would go inside, and the central midfielder would cover up in case the ball was lost. These moves were more frequent on the left than on the right. Exactly the speed and the diligence in which all these movements are performed is what sets City apart from the rest.
Besides a few of Bernardo Silva’s genius glimpses – caused by Sterlings positioning – City did not create all that much in the first thirty minutes. They were however given an early scare in the ninth minute, when Jahanbakhsh was launched on the counterattack, only to cut inside, shoot and miss the goal by a couple of inches.
In the 27th minute, against all odds, Brighton opened the scoring, briefly filling Liverpool fans’ hearts with hope. From a corner kick that stemmed from a throw in, Glenn Murray was able to head in the opening goal of the game. After the match Guardiola would comment that because City have so little tall players, defending is their one true weakness.
Guardiola says City do have an obvious weakness: set-pieces. “I’m the tallest guy (at City). So when it’s a set-piece you go to the church to pray.”— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) May 12, 2019
Agüero comes through once again
For a brief moment, City’s fans went very silent. Guardiola feverishly took off his coaching jacket and took his intense gesticulating to another level. Little did they know all their stress was unnecessary. Ninety seconds after Murray’s opener, the game was level again. A hard pass into David Silva found Agüero, who netted the equalizing goal with his left foot.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have set a whole new level of consistency, and if we will remember this era, we will first think of them. It is hard to overlook Agüero when compiling that ‘second tier’ of players however, below Messi and Ronaldo in their era, but world-class for nearly a full decade now.
Ten minutes after Agüero’s leveler, City took the lead. A beautiful corner kick routine that involved Kompany and Agüero made way for Laporte, who calmly headed in City’s second goal of the day.
City were about as dominant as can be from the halfspaces.
City calmly see out match and collect Premier League title
In the phase after the two opening goals of the match, Guardiola had changed things around a bit. The attacking 3-2-5 was kept in place, yet Sterling was moved to the left, Mahrez to the right and Bernardo Silva played as the right central midfielder. This improved the play on the left most notably, as most of City’s danger had come from the right.
In this formation and style of play, Manchester City continued as they had done in the first half. There were no different tactical nuances to point out, no ways in which Brighton manager Hughton tried to react. This is symptomatic for how mid-table and lower end sides have tried to get a result against City: sit back and see if they can win the lottery. Often, this is not the case.
More City goals ensued, however. In the 63rd minute, Mahrez – who had lingered centrally after a deflected corner – got on the ball thanks to a successful third man combination A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. with David Silva. He used his trademark fake shot and cut the ball with his left sole, to powerfully fire the ball with his right past Brighton’s goalkeeper Matthew Ryan.
Ten minutes later, Gündoğan took care of a free kick twenty yards out. Almost nonchalantly curling the ball over Brighton’s wall, marking City’s fourth goal of the game and ending all speculation about who would go home with the Premier League trophy at the end of the day.
Gathering 98 points is massively impressive, as is Liverpool’s 97 for that matter. One could always argue that City got one point more than Liverpool and thus deserved this title. In a low-scoring game like football, it can be valuable to consider the concept of repeatability when making statements about who ‘deserved’ a title.
Underlying metrics imply Manchester City should right about be on 98 points, whereas Liverpool have scored more goals than their expected goals would suggest. Yes, the margins were fine in the title race, and it is fair to point out the incredibly close goal at Manchester City – Liverpool, that seems to have decided the title race. On the other hand, Mahrez missed a penalty at Anfield with five minutes to go.
City also had some personnel issues in this season. They missed their best player – Kevin De Bruyne – for a large chunk of the season. Their supposedly irreplaceable player Fernandinho was perfectly replaced by Gündoğan for most of the business end of the season. Guardiola played with the squad’s third left back – Zinchenko – for a undesirable amount of time as well.
All together Manchester City are a football machine, and it is hard to envision any other champion next season in the Premier League. Their opponents can only hope Guardiola wears out, as he did at Barcelona after four seasons and at Bayern Munich after three. With him at the helm and the club constantly backed by the money of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, it is probably time to accept that this is Manchester City’s Premier League era, and we are all just living in it.
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