Manchester City – Aston Villa: Blue Moon Descends Over English Shores Once Again (3-2)

City have a robust tradition around final day drama for a club with ‘no history.’ Indeed, the events of a decade ago are in a league of their own, but always willing to entertain, the reigning champions produced a stressful spectacle with a stunning scoring spree to retain their crown.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

A faithful man will abound with blessings. Steven Gerrard might have never won the Premier League with his beloved Liverpool, but a trip to the Etihad may enshrine his legacy in the red half of the city.

Manchester City are in another two horse race for the Premier League title that has gone to the wire. The trophy might have been theirs if they won at West Ham United, but the allure of final day drama was too much to resist. A draw in East London kept the initiative in their hands, but a repeat of that outcome could be costly with Liverpool, only a point off the summit, waiting in the wings to strike.

As fate would have it, Gerrard’s Aston Villa are the only outfit that can stop City from claiming their fourth league title in the last five years. The incumbent manager took on the reins from Dean Smith in November 2021, steering the club toward the middle of the table. Their form in the new year has been reflective of an anticlimactic campaign, so what better way to wipe the slate clean than with a victory?

Pep Guardiola made two changes to the side that drew 2-2 last time out. Fernandinho began his final City game as a central defender to the right of Aymeric Laporte, filling in for Rúben Dias. Oleksandr Zinchenko dropped to the bench, making way for João Cancelo at left back. John Stones then put his body on the line again with a premature return from injury to feature at right back. Gabriel Jesus led the line ahead of Phil Foden, operating as a left winger in place of once Villa talisman Jack Grealish.

Gerrard also brought two men into the fold off the back of a 1-1 midweek draw to Burnley. Robin Olsen stepped in for Emi Martínez between the posts. Ahead of him, Calum Chambers filled in for Ezri Konsa, whose knee injury will keep him out of action for a few months. Further afield, Philippe Coutinho replaced Carney Chukwuemeka. The Brazilian, joining the club permanently earlier this month, sought to offer a second creative outlet next to Emi Buendía off of lone striker Ollie Watkins.


Villa concretize their central presence

Since arriving in the Midlands, Gerrard has often used a narrow setup without the ball. Switching to a 4-4-2 diamond formation complicated the challenge for Liverpool, but the manager went for a 4-3-2-1 shape in this clash. City camped in Villa’s half, hoarding 74% of the ball during the first 25 minutes.


13th minute: defensive sequence from Villa. Buendía blocks access to Bernardo, forcing Laporte to play the ball to and get it back from Cancelo. Watkins follows up the press, prompting a loose pass.


A compact, central block from the away team was tough to crack. To either side of Watkins, Buendía and Coutinho shielded the halfspaces, cutting off access via the middle of the pitch into the double pivot. If the central midfielder on the side of the ball moved out from the block to close down City’s fullback, the attacker to his inside could drop into the gap between him and Luiz, blocking diagonal and lateral entries from the flank. From time to time, the 4-3-2-1 system morphed into an asymmetric 4-4-2 shape, where Coutinho dropped back to the right of Jacob Ramsey to keep an eye on Stones.


Static City made to sweat

City’s plan of action carried on the trend of recent weeks. From their initial 4-2-3-1 shape off the ball, Bernardo Silva stayed deep in the left halfspace. Rather than roaming higher between the lines, he fulfilled a less aggressive role, supporting the progression of the play with Rodri. Cancelo had the freedom to move higher up the touchline than Stones on the right, prompting Foden to rotate inward as part of the generation of overloads that Pep’s men tend to create on that side of the field.

Yet, the congestion in the middle of the park nullified City’s play in the final third, where Cancelo and Mahrez inverted from the flanks. John McGinn and Calum Chambers were careful to track underlaps through the inside left channel, while de Bruyne seldom threatened from the right despite his roaming movements. In the end, it was Villa that broke the deadlock. From a rare attack, Lucas Digne whipped a delivery to Matty Cash, who slipped away from Cancelo inside the box to put the away team ahead.

By half time, Aston Villa had kept up their part of the bargain. If not for the resistance of Wolves at Anfield, the title would be in the hands of Liverpool. Pep had his work cut out. Indeed, City’s manager shuffled the pack after the break. Zinchenko entered the fray in place of Fernandinho to play at left back. Cancelo moved to the right of the back four, and Stones shifted inward to the right of Laporte.


Substitutes shift the playing field

From the off, the dynamics on the left flank had altered. As a right footed fullback on the left wing, Cancelo’s movement patterns tended to come inward before searching for ways to penetrate. On the other hand, Zinchenko, as a left footed fullback, could stretch the pitch with new passing angles, managing to break the lines in front of the back four. Pep then changed the outlook of the right flank.


59th minute: offensive sequence from City. Zinchenko drives a diagonal line breaking pass to Jesus, who breaks free while Foden and de Bruyne offer deep runs from the left halfspace to pin the back four. The striker swivels to find Cancelo, whose threaded pass is too long to find Sterling’s underlap.


Raheem Sterling came on for Mahrez. Immediately after his introduction, the right winger came onto the inside shoulder of Digne while Cancelo stayed out wide. From here, as a secondary right footed forward on his natural side, he made runs in behind the left back, creating new problems in the final third. Regrettably, the shot count cooled off at this stage, and more issues were to come for the hosts.

Watkins was the thorn in City’s side once more. Flicking on a goal kick from Olsen with his head, the forward sent the ball into the path of Coutinho. The former Liverpool flair man showed his timeless class, twisting past Laporte before slotting an effort into the net. Had Villa thwarted City for good?


Gündogan cashes in

Just before Coutinho’s goal, Ilkay Gündogan replaced Bernardo. He would be the man to make City fans dream again. Lurking at the far post, he drifted free from Cash to guide Sterling’s delivery into the net, halving the deficit. Less than three minutes later, the contest was all square. Another run from the substitute drew Luiz away from the edge of the box, pinning him deeper to give room to Rodri to let fly. His teammate obliged, placing home the ball with the side of his right boot in the 78th minute.

Guardiola’s switch to wide wingers on their natural side was decisive. Conversely, Villa’s low block with the introduction of Marvelous Nakamba could not resist the pressure. In the 81st minute, Cancelo struck an ambitious pass into the final third that Mings intercepted to hold up the onslaught. However, de Bruyne made up the yards on Ramsey and Luiz, galloping into the penalty area. He daggered a delivery across the face of the goal, where Gündogan nipped in front of Cash to score. Three strikes in six minutes completed the comeback. The Premier League is staying with City.



Takeaways

For 70 minutes, Villa had City on the ropes. Their management of the end of the contest proved to be costly, but the lion’s share of the display showed again what this outfit could produce if their form were not so indifferent. To be on top of your game from start to finish against City is tough to demand from any team, but Gerrard will strive to guide his men into the top half of the table next campaign.

The class and consistency of City would render a season without a trophy a bitter pill to swallow. Indeed, bagging their fourth league title in five years, Guardiola’s men have stamped their authority on this era of football in the Premier League. It took time for all the pieces to mesh together at the final reckoning, but it was fitting that a midfield controller made the difference in the attack. Will Haaland tip the scales decisively away from Merseyside? We eagerly await the start of August.



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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]

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