Manchester City – Watford: How A Thrashing Can Show The Way To Defend Against Manchester City (6-0)

It is difficult to give a coach or a team credit after losing 6-0, especially in a cup final. However, against this extremely dominant Manchester City team, any kind of new ideas on how to defend are significant. Javi Gracia, who proved himself as one of the most successful coaches of the season by overachieving in the league as well as reaching the FA Cup final, had an interesting solution to stop Manchester City. However, after a few decisive moments went wrong, it all fell apart.

Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.

The FA Cup final! Saturday, late afternoon, Wembley. Another edition of the final of the most iconic domestic cup in the entire game. Watford’s path to the final included Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Still no easy task, but still a lot more enviable than having to play multiple top clubs. Manchester City’s most difficult opponents were Brighton and Burnley. Wolves did the heavy lifting for them, knocking out both Manchester United and Liverpool, while Tottenham Hotspur tripped over Crystal Palace.

Pep Guardiola went for one change from his title clinching game against Brighton, with Gabriel Jesus replacing Sergio Agüero up front. He went for his accustomed 4-3-3 shape. Javi Gracia picked what can be considered his strongest starting eleven, in the nominal 4-4-2 shape. He had them lined up in very different roles, both in and out of possession which caused changes in the overall shape. In possession Watford operated in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré as a double pivot, Will Hughes as a number ten in front of them flanked by Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu, and Troy Deeney up top. Out of possession, their man orientations almost made them look like a 6-3-1 shape.

Man orientations by Hughes and Doucouré

Arguably the most important players for Manchester City to unlock defenses are their advanced central midfielders. Mostly consisting of left sided David Silva along with right sided Bernardo Silva or Kevin de Bruyne. The advanced positioning of these players are the key to threaten the space between opposition fullbacks and center-backs.

They either engage the fullback onto themselves to open gaps for the wide forwards, or find space themselves into dangerous positions. They are also the main source of creativity in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. often providing the key passes into goal scoring positions. Bernardo Silva has been particularly excellent this season in doing that, and it is understandable Guardiola called him the best player of his team earlier this season.

Most teams find it hard to take specific precautions to these players, as their high positioning makes them almost impossible to mark by midfielders, so the best most coaches can do is to stay compact as possible, maintaining tight distance between their defensive line and their midfield. Javi Gracia had other ideas.

Gracia instructed his number ten Hughes to drop into a right-sided defensive midfielder role, in order to man mark David Silva. Doucouré was instructed to man mark Bernardo Silva. It was still a 4-2-3-1 formation on paper, as only Hughes and Capoue switched roles. The implication of their man marking tasks however were that, at times, Watford had these two players positioned right next to their center-backs, making the formation look like a 6-3-1 shape. The wingers Deulofeu and Pereyra tucked in, creating a sort of defensive diamond that shifted to the ball side, with Deeney also active as ever out of possession.

We have seen 6-3-1 defensive formations before, when underdogs let their wingers mark the opposition fullbacks. Making two central midfielders drop into the back line was quite unique and extreme by Gracia, most notably the level of commitment to man mark shown by Hughes and Doucouré. This allowed Watford’s fullbacks to stay wider to defend against City’s wide forwards.

Situation in the first half, Mahrez in possession. Doucouré and Hughes very tight to their man, forming a 6-3-1 shape. A  defensive diamond formed in the midfield block, that shifted to the ball side to deny passing options.

City score the opener and the game is effectively lost

In the opening stage, Watford executed their defensive plan brilliantly. City failed to find any space in the final third and could not find the usual areas to exploit as they are very accustomed to. Watford also attacked the spaces with Deulofeu and Pereyra immediately when they win the ball. After a poor City giveaway they had an excellent chance to go ahead, as Deulofeu set up Pereyra for a one-on-one situation. Ten minutes later, after a very good buildup from deep, Watford came very close to scoring, again only to be denied by Vincent Kompany’s arm.

In the 26th minute, all of Watford’s good work was undone – after Doucouré gave away the ball in a poor spot, City got into a dangerous position, few lucky bounces found David Silva who fired home. Twelve minutes later, Bernardo Silva played a Messi-esque pass to find Gabriel Jesus, who took advantage of Gomes’ poor attempt to collect the ball and made it 2-0.

The xG plot Watford actually did a nice job in the first half.

Second half: total City domination

Watford, like the first half, had a positive start to the second half but in completely different terms. This time they pressed high against City and put them under pressure in the first ten minutes of the half. This might have even inspired Guardiola to a substitution, bringing on De Bruyne for Mahrez, moving Bernardo Silva to the right. Gracia’s defensive plan was binned, in search for goals. Despite having a good spell, Watford’s identity does not consist of such an approach, and their defenders simply aren’t good enough to deal with the threat City attackers pose, with space in the back.

After one set piece that City launched the ball forward, the bounce was won by Jesus and all of a sudden City found a two-versus-one situation, which de Bruyne converted. After that the game was a no contest and City ran away 6-0 winners, in a harsh result for Javi Gracia and Watford. For Guardiola, it meant the domestic double, having also won the League Cup and the Community Shield.


To beat this Manchester City side, you need a perfect game – a good tactical plan, key moments to go your way, no mistakes, and a bit of luck. Watford had a very good tactical plan but everything else went against them in this final. The final scoreline was harsh for all the good work Javi Gracia did throughout this special Watford season, and he actually did a good preparation for this game. Gracia’s defensive setup against City in the first half was unique and innovative – it can be a good template for Premier League managers next season.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side continues to be consistently dominant and excellent, it will be interesting to see how he further improves and evolves his team next year. Another example of excellence here was Bernardo Silva – despite having Doucouré, one of the elite midfielders of the league on him with a man marking task, he managed to find moments of brilliance yet again even in that first half. He momentarily escaped his attention with a run to create the game’s first danger for City, and then his wonderful lobbed pass to Jesus against a low block that was well positioned.

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