Manchester City Newcastle United 2-0 FA Cup

Manchester City – Newcastle United: The Frailty Of Narrowness (2-0)

To be narrow is to be compact in the center, but spaces out wide can force you out of the shell. Newcastle United tried to establish their intensity in a changed shape but was left chasing shadows from Manchester City’s flexible forwards.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

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The off-ball intensity from Eddie Howe’s team has caused Man City problems in the past, but Pep Guardiola had already rearranged his buildup to get past Newcastle twice this season.

In August, both Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish occupied positions that the Newcastle scheme did not cover, and Foden filled in the gaps that opened up in between. Foden was utilized again in the return game at St James’ Park, but in that game, City reversed their aims in a different structure: much more narrow, with positional rotations to take apart Newcastle’s man-marking midfielders.

Howe may have found a way to stop his team from losing more regularly, since the start of the year, but the drop-off in quality has been substantial. Progress in the FA Cup would provide a positive spin on their season, but City are in a stride that feels inevitable. 

Five changes were made to the City team, from the 1-1 draw against Liverpool. The injured Ederson was replaced by Stefan Ortega, whilst John Stones and Nathan Aké were replaced by Rúben Dias and Joško Gvardiol. Kevin de Bruyne missed out due to a groin injury, so Mateo Kovačić came in alongside Jérémy Doku, who came in for Julián Álvarez.

Injuries continue to plague Newcastle, Tino Livramento the latest to be affected. Anthony Gordon also picked up an injury against Chelsea in the last game but started in this match. Jamaal Lascelles and Jacob Murphy were the two replacements for Livramento and Miguel Almirón.

Narrow defense risks space out wide

Howe made a bold call with his team’s shape – switching them from their usual 4-3-3/4-5-1 defensive structure into a 5-2-1-2/5-2-3 system. Murphy positioned himself as the right fullback and Newcastle situationally pressed high against City’s deep buildup. More direct play through the lines from City saw more medium block versus passing structure, and City found it easy to play through their opponents’ defensive set-up.

The problem for Newcastle was the narrowness of their formation. City kept both Kyle Walker and Gvardiol out wide so neither Dan Burn nor Murphy supported the first or second lines of the press. This encouraged the ball-sided striker and center-midfielder to press outwards, and City disabled the effectiveness of the press through their midfielders, dropping towards the defensive line to build overloads around the ball. Kovačić was responsible for the left side, Bernardo Silva on the right and as Bruno Guimarães stepped up to encounter Rodri in the center, it resulted in spaces between the outside midfielders becoming further.

9th minute: Common buildup pattern for City to exploit Newcastle’s center. Kovačić dropped out of a wide position to support Akanji and was allowed to take the ball into a more central position. Foden had moved laterally to create the passing lane and the Newcastle midfield was disconnected from the defensive block.

Positional freedom for Kovačić and Silva supported the deep player on the ball, and progressive routes were accessible once City got behind Gordon and Alexander Isak. From there, one of two events would occur: Doku or Phil Foden would be fouled, or different positional attacks would be created with either two carrying, and the other attacker running into spaces alongside Erling Haaland.

Even when Newcastle was able to reset into a deeper defensive block, spaces still opened from their narrowness. City attackers on different lines disrupted Newcastle directly stopping attacks from developing up the field, but similar dynamics in their shape inflicted problems on themselves. Sean Longstaff and Joe Willock were too narrow and this enabled Pep’s team to drive the ball against the center-backs, most notably, Silva positioned outside of Willock down the right side. Five minutes in, Silva discovered that he could dribble the ball into the Newcastle box without much interaction, City changed the axis onto that side and Silva laid the ball to Walker, his low-driven cross cleared from Fabian Schär.

City kept working the ball in a similar fashion: Kovačić dropping next to Manuel Akanji, Foden’s lateral run connecting behind the Newcastle midfield and Doku in a position to receive facing play to dribble or changing angle of the attack once again.

It did not take too long for the hosts to take the lead. Newcastle had reset but space opened up for Silva to dribble into the box again. As Guimarães moved up to encounter Rodri, Willock kept close to Haaland in the center and Silva was in a position to take the ball into the box. His shot may have deflected off Burn’s outstretched leg but the ball looped over the goalkeeper and into the net.

12th minute: Buildup to Silva’s first goal. Overcrowding around Haaland stopped access to the Norweigen but left plenty of spaces for City to exploit. Willock and Botman remaining narrow left Burn dealing with a two-versus-one and Silva was given free rein to carry the ball into the box.

Direct has a reserve effect

With spaces being open, City were comfortable in holding possession, even when Newcastle attempted to step onto them more intently. As they were limited on the ball, Newcastle had to utilize it as quickly as possible, but the lack of mechanisms made this a difficult challenge.

The arrangement of their buildup tried to find Guimarães deep to make a ranged pass behind the defensive line, or just try and get the ball into that area from the center-backs. Although these dynamics are capable of stretching City, actually building chances from them is a difficult task. Guimarães put balls down the right side of the Newcastle attack, but with the attack being so distanced from one another,  plenty of balls ran towards Ortega between the posts.

Once more, Newcastle was not in a position to counterpress directly onto the ball or on the next receiver, so City could move into a three-versus-three against the Newcastle center-backs in quick fashion. As Doku received deeper on the field, this dragged Lascelles away from his defensive partners and pockets were being made for Foden and Haaland to run. City may have not directly combined for shooting opportunities, but getting into this position constantly got them higher up the field and enabled more control to be gained higher up the field.

27th minute: After a long ball from Schär, Dias was able to recover and head the ball towards Akanji’s path. Newcastle were in no position to counterpress against an overload in the City midfield. Doku received and took the ball around Willock and Lascelles, before being fouled by the English center-back deep in the opposition’s half.

Just before the half-hour mark, City got into this position through their patterns on the left side. As Rodri carried around Guimarães, he continued further without the ball and the lane opened for Gvardiol to connect with Doku. The Belgian carried the ball forward and play filtered out onto the right side of the field for the City attack to continue, this time circulating in the attacking third. This time it was Dias who disrupted Willock’s positioning and Silva moved in from the right channel to exploit it. Cutting back onto his left foot, the shot deflected from Sven Botman and past Martin Dúbravka again.

Howe did not fix the tactical deficiencies and City continued to move forward in the same manner, but Newcastle was able to find one moment of fluency. Ortega’s pass to Rodri was just a little too heavy and Howe’s team had the ball up the field. Murphy’s cross was knocked down by Burn and the low shot from Isak was palmed away by Ortega, the only shot that Newcastle registered in a weak first half, but it was a great attempt that could have got them back in the game.

A second half that wilted

Without anything changing in Newcastle’s game plan, they were always going to struggle to get back into the match. City were not attacking at full throttle but the connectivity between Foden and Doku continued to dazzle. Just two minutes into the second period, a one-two combination took out four Newcastle players and Foden slipped Doku into the box. The angle was tight, but he still forced a good save from Dúbravka.

City continued to circulate the ball in impressive fashion, overloading outwards before Foden or Doku sparked into life in the center of the field. Guimarães was still the only hope that Newcastle could look towards in order to create anything, a long ball around the shoulder did put Isak up against Akanji and Isak’s layoff towards the left side of the box should have created a better shot at goal, only for Burn to knock the ball past a flat-footed Willock, before Burn bundled Walker over in frustration.

Howe opted to change four of his personnel just after the hour mark, all like-for-like, all having little effect on the proceedings. An unusual moment of Silva giving the ball away would create the final glimmer of a Newcastle attack. This created a four-versus-two against City’s center-backs, but a poor first touch from Isak took the opportunity away. This indirectly led up to Newcastle’s second and final shot of the game, a header that cleared the crossbar from Botman.

Overall, Newcastle did not do enough to change the direction of the game. City continued to comfortably connect on the ball, had the dribblers to be fouled on half-baked counterpressing moments and had different positional attacks arranged behind their opponents’ midfield. Only five second-half shots were taken from City, in comparison to the eleven they had in the first half, but the job was already done.


City manoeuvred in a similar fashion to the last time they took on Newcastle. The shape may have been different, but Howe’s commitment to his midfield being more drawn to where their opposite numbers are have ultimately made their defense weaker as a result.

Pep and his team will come back from the international break with huge games on the horizon. Three of the top five to face within a few weeks, as well as Real Madrid in the mix too. Howe needs to find solutions if Newcastle are to remain in the mix for European spots.

Match plots will be added as soon as possible.


Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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