Manchester City – Fluminense: Manchester City Position Themselves As World Champions (4-0)
For the first time in a fair few years, the Club World Cup final felt like the much-awaited spectacle it ought to be. Manchester City versus Fluminense was not only a match between the best teams from Europe and South America, but it was also built up represent a wider clash between two differing approaches to football.
Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.
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The positionism-relationism discussion has been prevalent in football analysis circles throughout 2023, so this match seemed a fitting way to cap off the year as the two chief bastions of either approach squared off. Of course, we must be wary of framing this too dichotomously because positionism and relationism are not two opposing styles of play as much as they are two sides to a spectrum.
Putting tactics aside for a moment, we must acknowledge the fantastic year both Manchester City and Fluminense have enjoyed. Pep Guardiola’s side finally won the treble they so desperately coveted and they thoroughly deserved it on the pitch as they were unquestionably the best team in England and Europe. Fernando Diniz’s side did not quite manage to win all the competitions they would have liked to, but they did lift a much-awaited first Copa Libertadores title. Moreover, they won something you cannot place in a trophy cabinet – the hearts of fans and neutrals alike thanks to their free-flowing style of play.
Considering the absences of Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Jérémy Doku, Manchester City named a near full-strength lineup. Ederson started in goal behind Kyle Walker, John Stones, Rúben Dias and Nathan Aké. Rodri was at the base of midfield, whilst Rico Lewis, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Julián Álvarez made up what would be a presumable fluid attack.
Fluminense named their side in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Fábio started in goal behind Samuel Xavier, Nino, Felipe Melo and Marcelo. André and Matheus Martinelli started in midfield, whilst Jhon Arias, Paulo Henrique Ganso and Keno started behind Germán Cano up front.
A series of unfortunate events for Fluminense
The match got off to the worst of starts for Fluminense. They conceded in about forty seconds when a questionable crossfield pass from Marcelo was easily cut out by Aké, who drove forward and fired from range. His curler was somehow tipped onto the post by Fábio, but Álvarez was at hand to force the rebound home.
The Brazilians did well to settle and started to get in their groove in the next ten to twenty minutes, but they suffered another setback thereafter. Before the half-hour mark, Manchester City went two goals to the good as Phil Foden’s attempted cross deflected off Nino and went into his own net.
Of course, both of these goals involved some good attacking play from the European champions as well as some mistakes on Fluminense’s part, but they both also had huge elements of fortune in the shape of pinpoint deflections that favoured Manchester City. That was a real shame for the Brazilian side and neutrals alike as the game state was skewed from the get-go, undoubtedly changing City’s approach and intensity as they never had to go looking for a goal.
Fluminense stay true to their style
One of the big concerns Fluminense followers had ahead of this match was how they might cope against Manchester City’s high press. Both domestically and in the Copa Libertadores, they have largely come across teams that tend to drop back and defend in a more settled block. Of course, they have faced some high pressing sides too, but none of them have been quite as intense and well-drilled as Manchester City.
Despite that and the aforementioned setbacks, the South American champions did not disappoint. They continued to play their way even under intense pressure, with long passing sequences in and around their own box even as multiple opponents came in and put them under pressure.
44th minute: A typical Fluminense buildup situation where they massively overload the ball-side. On the ball, Martinelli decides the best option is to carry across the face of goal.
Truthfully, a still snapshot does not do justice to what Fluminense do, so it is worth watching some of their work.
In the process, Fernando Diniz’s side violated a number of cardinal rules that many if not most coaches hold, such as never playing a pass across goal under pressure or certainly never carrying the ball across the six-yard box in such a situation. To their credit, though, they never gave away an overly dangerous turnover and certainly retained possession extremely well in their own third.
In fact, there were a number of occasions when they cleanly broke through Manchester City’s press and got forward, often through a free player in midfield carrying the ball. At this point, though, all of their moves broke down. The decision-making and execution of their forwards were quite off-form, so they lost possession needlessly in the opposition half whenever they got there.
In this respect, there perhaps also was an element of the game state impact. Whilst Manchester City did press high and with good intensity, they never over-committed by trying to win the ball back too desperately and ensured they had enough players back to defend a break. Without the first two goals, this might not have remained the case throughout the match, but as the game panned out, the English side never felt too uncomfortable even against minute-long possession sequences.
Defensive disparities prove decisive
Whilst all the intrigue surrounding this match focused on two differing in-possession approaches, it is important to also focus on how the teams operated out of possession. From a tactical standpoint, this is where the two teams had the biggest difference.
As discussed above, City deployed their typical high press with serious intensity that often pinned Fluminense in and around their own box for long periods, but they also ensured they were never too light at the back. Fluminense’s high press was also quite good and they often forced their opponents to go long, but their settled defensive block was far from the best.
After they had to drop back, the Brazilians could no longer restrict City and found themselves either dropping all the way to their own box to getting sliced through. They attempted to collapse into a compact 4-4-2 block, but the players were not disciplined enough to maintain close distances between the lines and the midfielders in particular did not support their back-four enough to prevent them from being troubled by the overloads created by Manchester City’s front five.
Main problem OOP for Fluminense in the first half pic.twitter.com/ChoOGGN1hw— Marco Lai (@MarcoLai_23) December 22, 2023
On another day, Pep Guardiola’s side could well have punished such a weak defensive setup much more harshly. Possible because of their congested fixture schedule, the different climate in Saudi Arabia and the fact that they had played just a couple days ago having only just flown in, their possession-play was not nearly as intense as it could be. Nevertheless, they managed to add a couple of further goals late on to beef up the scoreline.
Does this match or result tell us anything about the idea of positionism versus relationism? Absolutely not. These teams are not official representatives of either but simply popular practitioners, so a match between them should not be used to draw overly grand conclusions (not to mention that a solitary match is too small a time-frame to draw almost any conclusions at all).
Furthermore, we must remember that there is a lot more to football than just tactics, and the players remain the most important part of the game. The quality of the players in a team is dictated by a number of factors including recruitment and – above all else – financial resources, and this is where the greatest disparity between the two teams exists. In the current climate, the European champions (let alone the state-funded European champions) are almost always going to be qualitatively superior to the South American champions, and this will be reflected in a match between them regardless of tactics.
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