Manchester City – Brighton & Hove Albion: Asymmetry Crucial To A Smooth Stairway (2-1)
When taking the stairs, you don’t notice that every step is even to work easily. Pep Guardiola’s key ritual is zonal spacing, and to give Jérémy Doku the one-versus-one isolation he craves, an important tweak was made to the box to control Brighton & Hove Albion.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
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The last meeting in May pitched both these teams amid a fever dream. City were on the verge of treble success, whereas Brighton’s transformation was rewarded with a Europa League spot. Come the new season and both have faced challenges that require solutions.
Three defeats in a row whilst Rodri-less has put a spotlight on the major reliance that the City team has on the Spaniard. Perhaps the bigger worry is in the limited shot quality that Pep’s team have registered over recent weeks. Less than ten shots against Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Arsenal, 0.94 xG from twenty-three shots at Wolves and the cyborg looking slightly more human without a goal in the last three games.
Facing Brighton in their current state was a good chance to lay doubts to rest. More teams are establishing themselves in a 4-3-1-2 formation against their buildup structure, a shape that can put the opponent high up the field and still overload the areas that Brighton wants to play into. Roberto De Zerbi put Pascal Groß between the center-backs to try and alleviate problems, but they need to find a better way to break lines when facing the set-up.
Guardiola made five changes to the team that lost at Arsenal, the return of John Stones and Rodri to the set-up, for the first time since the Community Sheild final, is critical for the efficiency of City. Stefan Ortega took Ederson’s place between the posts, whereas Manuel Akanji and Jérémy Doku were also included.
De Zerbi also made changes, from the side that drew to Liverpool at home. Jason Steele was back in goal and James Milner started in the right-back spot after a month out with a muscle injury. Danny Welbeck was also included, as Bart Verbruggen, Joël Veltman and Evan Ferguson all came out.
The Álvarez pocket builds the stairs
City’s new additions have all been recognized for their fantastic ability to carry the ball forward, so it’s no surprise that Guardiola has geared his team into working into ideal dribbling situations. Stones and Rodri established the possession control from early on, but City tweaked their box arrangement against Brighton who aimed to step up on them aggressively.
Álvarez positioned himself in the space between Rodri and Stones, and often dropped to be part of the rotation that the situational double pivot partake in. Igor did not follow Álvarez deep in City’s buildup unit, and as a result, City could circulate the ball around the high press with organic rotations. The Argentine sitting in a more central position created the verticality towards the left side, with Bernardo Silva positioned in the halfspace and Doku the widest player.
This verticality was the ideal situation for Doku to receive in, not only positioned and isolated against James Milner, but the fullback being detached from the defensive line. Even if Álvarez didn’t make the pass, room was created for Phil Foden to dribble down the inside-right space and switch to Doku in plenty of space, he would take the first shot of the game.
4th minute: Buildup to Doku chance. Akanji broke lines towards narrow Álvarez, positioned within the center circle. Baleba tackled and created the loose ball, but Foden was in the ideal position to pick the ball up, with space to move into and with options vertically to funnel the ball towards Doku.
A few minutes later, City took the lead after a few passing phases down this channel. Silva provided the aggressive halfspace run to manipulate the defensive set-up and Doku could dribble around Groß who had moved to fill in the fullback spot. The spatial awareness of Álvarez is key when he moves towards the ball in buildup but is highlighted more when he is around the box, as Erling Haaland forces opposition center-backs to drop deeper or drags them towards the back post. Álvarez was positioned perfectly for the cutback, and even though he scuffed the shot, the ball went over Steele for the first goal.
11th minute: How City were able to play through Brighton’s pressure. Central position from Álvarez stopped Baleba from sweeping and Stones created the passing angle behind Brighton’s line of pressure, with Brighton’s defensive line pinned deep.
City constantly worked the ball asymmetrically. In their deep buildup, City could quickly change the dynamics by the space left behind Kaoru Mitoma and Welbeck when they pressed. Álvarez’s central position stopped Carlos Baleba from sweeping towards this channel and with both Igor and Solly March pinned to the defensive line, it created plenty of space for John Stones to carry the ball forward or Foden to spin and play the ball back inside. Silva and Álvarez fed Doku, who constantly moved the ball into the box.
Before twenty minutes, City doubled their lead. A messy exchange from a throw-in put Haaland in a dangerous spot. Although the shot was from outside of the box, with Lewis Dunk and a goalkeeper still to beat, when Haaland is running with the ball towards the goal and with time, very few strike the ball with such venom.
Center-midfielders higher than wingers in the press?
Teams have put Brighton under immense pressure by remaining narrow and congesting the space for them to rotate in, but City had a slightly different take. Against Brighton’s 4-2-4-0 buildup, City’s 4-4-2 high press had a twist, depending on the positioning of Silva and Rodri.
Silva was always positioned just behind Haaland and Álvarez, in the first line of pressure, but Rodri could also join him to provide further pressure against Baleba and Groß. With the two center-midfielders positioned so high, surely this would be ideal for the Brighton forwards to drop to connect? Firstly, the high central positioning blunted Brighton’s patterns when playing out, City pressed just as aggressively when dropping onto Baleba or Groß, as they did when stepping up on them.
City constantly aimed to press outwards on Brighton, which forced them to keep the ball down one side and unable to spread or switch play to alleviate some of this pressure. If Baleba moved the ball to Igor, Rodri was comfortable stepping out of a deeper position to encounter the left center-back, pressing outwards towards him and forcing Brighton to stick towards the left side of the pitch.
43rd minute: Pressing scheme from Man City was able to win the ball back. Outwards press stopped Brighton from playing infield and Walker intercepted the pass towards the forwards.
If Evan Ferguson, who replaced the injured Welbeck in the first quarter of the game, or Pedro dropped to try to connect, Stones was extremely comfortable in following his man out of the defensive line and keeping the space between them to stop the forward turning to build the transition. City kept the pressing intensity, regardless of what line the ball was positioned within their off-ball set-up, but continued to press outwards on their opponent to corner them to one side of the field.
Brighton’s best hopes would lie in Mitoma occasionally getting onto the ball to carry the ball forward, something that Kyle Walker struggled to deal with on some occasions. The first half was controlled by City, just one shot was registered by Brighton and Doku’s mazy dribbles constantly caused massive problems, even if City weren’t producing a high amount of shots.
Loss of intensity gave Brighton hope
City continued to restrict Brighton when they pressed aggressively, but when the intensity was dialled down Brighton could move the ball in their desired manner. Without the forwards collapsing back, Groß was given the freedom to support the up-back-and-through that De Zerbi’s team loves to produce and Mitoma’s influence on proceedings started to grow more. Now the center-midfielders behind above the wingers started to look much more of a gamble, as Brighton could move the ball into this spot and the semi-transitions could start to grow.
61st minute: The high position of the center-midfielders, without the pressing intensity, looked more of a risk as Mitoma moved inside to receive the ball, with Foden chasing from a difficult angle. Brighton failed to create enough of these scenarios.
Brighton kept the ball for longer periods and established intensity off the ball as well, Ortega’s long kicks were cut out by Simon Adingra on a few occasions and even slipped Groß through, five minutes into the second period, but off-balanced and under pressure from Rodri was enough for a poor angle and shot that went wide.
De Zerbi gambled with his substitutes, Pedro and Baleba were replaced by Ansu Fati and Billy Gilmour, but just as Brighton looked like they could threaten, Haaland nearly bagged a third after Foden carried on the counter.
Brighton produced another chance on the transition, a long ball from Lewis Dunk met Fati within the center spot and with Mitoma already positioned behind Walker. Mitoma was put through but produced a tame shot against the on-rushing Ortega, the visitors still had momentum. Mitoma headed close from a corner before they eventually pulled a goal back with fifteen minutes still to play.
Álvarez nearly scored from range, with Steele miles out of his line but three defenders near the goal line. From this attempt, Fati and Mitoma took the ball forward and the Japanese winger had the advantage over Walker once again. In-then-out, Mitoma skipped past Walker and poked the ball back towards the center of the goal, Akanji stuck his leg out to block the route to Ferguson, but Fati was positioned to squeeze the ball at the near post.
Guardiola brought on Rúben Dias and Jack Grealish to try and regain some control and City ended Brighton’s momentum by controlling more of the ball themselves. After Fati scored, neither team produced another shot and Brighton’s woes were aggravated when March was forced off on a stretcher. Manuel Akanji was sent off at the death of the game, perhaps an earlier dismissal would have created a more thrilling conclusion.
A game that hardly answered the doubts prior towards this game. Man City dominated the first half, and although the early goal affected the game state, just five attempts in the first half is still a very low amount for the treble winners. Regardless, Stones’ hybrid role and Rodri’s position alongside gives Pep the most control and City have big games ahead of them to control these type of games better.
An away trip to the champions is going to be difficult to solve tactical issues, but De Zerbi can be encouraged by some phases in the second half (obviously, with Mitoma involved) and alarmed with two injuries to regular starters. Another option at left-back is out for the foreseeable future and it is hard to evolve a team without the availability of key players. Up next are two Premier League teams that beat De Zerbi’s men at Brighton last season.
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