Manchester City’s Magnetic Field

As a kid, the first time you see a magnet, it just fully grabs your attention. An object that immediately pulls another object without any tangible connection in between. Magic! Just like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on their day.

Written by Ahmed Walid.

As you grow older, you learn about magnetic forces and magnetic fields. You learn that said field is invisible but it is responsible for the most notable property of a magnet and that’s attracting ferromagnetic materials such as iron and repelling other magnets.

Similarly, you might think that Manchester City are playing with an extra player that magically appears in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. but it’s the sequence of the passes and movements that creates the extra player.

The absence of Kevin De Bruyne this season means that Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan have mainly filled the central midfielder positions in City’s shape, which they have done brilliantly in all aspects, but mostly in the goal-scoring department. Between them they share around 31% of City’s goals in the Premier League this season and 18% in all competitions. 

Yet there is another aspect in their displays that have benefitted City heavily, and that’s their off-the-ball movement in the final third. A good example would be the Manchester derby. The initial positioning of Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne and their off-ball movement was key to how City got inside United’s block and created chances. More importantly, these movements allowed City to control the game as they constantly provided free passing options for the player on the ball.

Another example can be seen in City’s second league game of the season at home to Norwich City. Here, Bernardo Silva’s high positioning forces Kenny McLean to drop with him while Gabriel Jesus is taking small steps away towards the touchline.

Then, as City move the ball to Bernardo Silva’s side of the pitch, the Portuguese drops deeper while signaling to Kyle Walker to play the ball into Jesus whose movement in the previous shot pulled Bali Mumba out wide.

That’s because when Bernardo Silva dropped, attracting McLean with him, it created a space between Mumba and Ben Gibson through which Walker played the ball into Jesus’ path.

Walker’s line splitting pass found Jesus, who squared it to Raheem Sterling against an empty net. This was the build up to City’s fourth goal on the day, and the catalyst to that move was Bernardo Silva’s off-the-ball movement, which created a gap through which the decisive pass was played.

Utilizing the width has always been a key part in Pep’s book, and in the last couple of games there’s been a certain type of movement from Bernardo Silva and Gundogan that helped City enable their wide players.

By making a run towards the fullback or between the fullback and the center-back, they pin the full back thus creating space for the wide players as is the case here. João Cancelo is shaping up for an in-swinging cross and Gundogan positions himself towards the far post to force Nuno Mendes to pick him up, leaving Riyad Mahrez totally free.

Or here on the other side. Mahrez is shaping up for an in-swinging cross and immediately Bernardo Silva makes a run in-front of Achraf Hakimi and towards the far post. The idea is that instead of making a central run between the center-backs, this way the run forces Hakimi to react, leaving Raheem Sterling unoccupied.

The fundamental part of these runs from Bernardo Silva and Gundogan is the timing. They time the run perfectly so that the fullback has to react to them, leaving the wide player free. We can see this in the first goal against West Ham United.

At first, Bernardo Silva is far away from Aaron Cresswell and supposedly picked up by Arthur Masuaku…

…..but as Cancelo receives the ball on the other side, Bernardo immediately makes a run in between Cresswell and Kurt Zouma. Forcing Cresswell to move inside and mark the run, which as a result leaves Mahrez completely open to receive the cross-field pass from Cancelo.

It is also important to note that Gundogan’s run as well – into the mirrored space, between Craig Dawson and Ben Johnson – ended up with the German being the player who put the ball into the net.

This type of run from Gundogan and Bernardo Silva have factored into other City goals as well. In the buildup to Sterling’s goal at Vicarage Road, you can spot where Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are. Bernardo’s positioning helped Cancelo play the diagonal pass into Sterling, and despite Sterling losing the ball City retrieved it back.

Before they did though, Gundogan was dragging Kiko Femenia inside the pitch with Phil Foden lurking behind….

…so that when City wanted to switch the play again to the other side, the fullback (Femenia) is already dragged inside the pitch because of Gundogan’s run. From here, Bernardo Silva played a cross field ball into Foden who easily crossed it to Sterling into the box.

In addition to the goals against Watford and West Ham, the game against Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad was an exhibition of how these runs off the ball worked.

In the equalizer it was Gundogan pinning Mendes, with Walker meeting Rodri’s floated ball behind Mendes….

…..before City’s right back squared it back across the goal for Sterling to eventually put it into the back of the net.

Then the winner was a mirror image. Jesus’ positioning pinned Hakimi as the fullback had to move inside to mark Jesus, which left Bernardo Silva unmarked out wide. Mahrez’s cross found Bernardo Silva….

….who played it back to Jesus to score the winner.

It will not be surprising if we see teams playing against City with a back five out of possession to try to nullify these runs. But for now, these invisible runs from Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are manipulating the opponents’ defensive line by creating their own magnetic field.


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