Newcastle United – Manchester City: De Bruyne Brings The Bite To Troubled Toons (2-3)
Having found a way to strike its prey, Manchester City still needed its sharpest tools to puncture through. Newcastle United had worked its way into a valuable lead, but Pep Guardiola deployed Kevin de Bruyne where all of their creativity had been flowing.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
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The matchup between two of the Premier League’s richest owners has substantially grown in importance, but this felt like the two teams were on different trajectories.
Seven defeats in their last ten matches do not reflect Newcastle’s ambitions. An injury-stricken squad is struggling to recover and FFP regulations are restricting their abilities to relieve such problems. Eddie Howe has attempted to solve defensive issues within their 4-3-3/4-5-1 arrangement, by making his midfield more man-orientated off the ball, but this has seen them carved open much more often against adaptable buildups.
Keeping Man City quiet was going to take a big task. They had left the league for the Club World Cup with a lot more questions looming, but whereas Arsenal and Liverpool have both shown limitations, City have more resources to sustain momentum. Unlike their fellow title challengers, they are not affected by two major international tournaments taking place over the next month and with Kevin de Bruyne taking place on the bench, inevitability is back in the air around the City camp.
Eddie Howe was forced to make one change, to the team that beat Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby. Joelinton is set for six weeks out of the team, due to a thigh injury. He was replaced by Lewis Miley in the midfield.
Ederson had replaced Stefan Ortega, but his injury just a few moments into this game would see him changed. Kyle Walker and Nathan Aké returned to the defensive line, from the team that beat Huddersfield last weekend in the FA Cup. Rodri was also back, whilst Bernardo Silva and Jérémy Doku came into the attack.
Silva opens the Foden pocket
Pep made a big change to the way we are used to seeing City build. Gone was the box, replaced by City operating in a 2-3-5/2-5-3 structure. Rúben Dias and Aké were a narrow center-back duo, with Rodri, Mateo Kovačić and Bernardo Silva as a midfield trio. Silva was given the most freedom in his positioning; although all were able to move towards the ball, Silva moved laterally onto the left as well as covering the right side of the attack. Pep usually moves Silva deeper within the buildup as a safety measure, but this was all about angles to move through Newcastle’s center.
As Silva moved and adapted his position, Doku and Phil Foden were the two central players behind the midfield line, ready to receive on the turn. As a result, the visitors constantly worked into three-versus-two combinations and if there are any midfielders you could trust to put disguise in their passes, it is Rodri and Silva. Although Newcastle where in a passive medium block, trying to break into a high press, their midfield was eager to jump forward, most notably Bruno Guimarães who often moves ahead out of the deeper central position to man-mark his opposite number. City could easily disrupt their staggering through their movements, even in a narrow space.
12th minute: Access behind Newcastle’s midfield line through central movements. Silva roamed to the opposite flank, Gvardiol was free to receive the ball. As Álvarez moved laterally, away from the ball, Foden moved forward from a deeper position and opened the passing angle back inside.
It’s this narrowness that put Newcastle in an uncomfortable position. Joško Gvardiol and Kyle Walker often sat in the same line, but neither was responsible for holding the width at all times. Walker did rotate into the attacking space on the right between phases, but Dias also made aggressive movements out of the center-back spot to join the attack at the back post, and Walker held more narrow and deeper positions within the buildup phase. Gvardiol also moved into good areas around the box, when Doku moved wider or Kovačić had come towards Aké to receive the ball. With City in a narrow on-ball shape, they had the compactness to nullify the chance of a Newcastle counter early on, often counterpressing and pushing them back in their usual 4-4-2 structure.
Shots started to appear after fifteen minutes, as the lane to Foden was constantly open for the English attacker to receive on the half turn and attack the defensive line at pace. Foden and Doku’s positions also had a big effect on how Miguel Almirón and Anthony Gordon took up their defensive positions. They were just as narrow to compact the center, but this left wide access to City’s high fullbacks – Rodri made more switches to Walker as the half continued.
Not your usual Man City passmap. Very narrow passing structure, but a healthy amount of access to the central forwards.
Smart buildup methods from City eventually led to an extraordinary opener. Almirón and Miley stopped Doku from turning towards the box, but they did not stop him from slaloming back onto his right foot to open up play from the deep left halfspace. On this occasion, Walker held width and moved into a great position to plant the ball just in front of the six-yard box. Silva stayed behind Sven Botman and ahead of Fabian Schär to deliver an incredible backheel that gave City the lead.
Newcastle found its counter
Martin Dúbravka tipped Silva’s driven half-volley onto the post shortly after the lead, but sloppy phases can often lead to sparks in momentum. Poor control from Kovačić and delayed reaction from Ortega in buildup phases, nearly had Alexander Isak pouncing within the penalty box.
Before this point of the game, Newcastle tried to launch early balls into Almirón, but a very aggressive defensive line was reliable in catching attackers offside and the hosts struggled to force issues after the first few moments in the game. However, Howe’s team are strong at building counters, even from deeper positions, and knows how to hit the edges of the penalty area from both channels simultaneously.
Doubling up the right side, when trying to start a counter, would give Newcastle plenty more options, but also saw Walker take up a very narrow defensive position from the opposite flank. Walker may have the recovery pace, but leading Newcastle’s attackers onto their stronger right feet, to aim for the goal, may not have been the smartest of options.
33rd minute: Buildup to Newcastle’s first goal. City committed too many bodies onto the left side of the pitch, without pressure on Guimarães, as Schär was able to move the ball back inside towards the Brazilian.
Newcastle used similar methods for both their goals, just minutes apart. Schär stopping Aké from receiving in the box, before tackling Doku, would be the type of scenario needed for them to exploit Walker’s narrow position. As Miley moved ahead of the ball, Schär was free to pass infield to Bruno Guimarães, with Isak and Gordon on the far side, ready to support. His ball put Isak one-versus-one with Walker, but Isak was able to cut inside on his right foot and finish expertly.
The second goal was less flashy in its build but a similar dynamic was created. This time, Schär tried to switch and although Dias dealt with the initial ball, Isak pressed and Burn put Gordon through down the left. Another poor opportunity conceded by City, but another excellent finish that put Newcastle in front.
Stopping Newcastle from running down City’s left side from deep continued to be a problem, Miley found Isak between Aké and Dias, but his shot was saved by Ortega. Trippier thought he found Almirón in the box, but the defensive line had stepped up a few moments earlier. Ultimately, Howe’s team had a much better attacking foothold at the end of the first half than they had maintained earlier in the game.
City start to pin Newcastle
The start of the second half was a reset after a more hectic finish. City wasn’t just back in control of the ball but was able to stick their center-backs ten or fifteen yards further up the field. Now Newcastle were pinned in their half and more identifiable patterns started to creep into their play.
This was mostly visible with Rodri; as opposed to switching the play towards the wide-right channel, he was now able to whip a faster ball, behind the defensive line as Walker made a curved run around to try and connect. City looked more dangerous and had more of a tendency to build down this side, Gvardiol was a lot less aggressive than his fullback partner down the left, whilst Doku peeled out wide to combine more, but without the halfspace runner, he wasn’t as eager to beat the fullback and sprint down the channel like he usually does.
A lot of halfspace passes from Man City, but a lot of access into the box as well.
Another part of City’s play was Rodri appearing between the tens to receive a wall pass, to run at the defense. This helped Walker receive the ball in more space, as Burn tucked in to deny Julián Álvarez, who would move onto the right of Botman as attacks were being made in the center of the field. Chances sparked in more transitional moments too, Walker charged into the box and knocked the ball around the goalkeeper, but it was behind Foden and with Newcastle’s defenders recovering.
A sloppy pass from Trippier to Guimarães sparked another transition as Rodri intercepted, Doku put the ball back towards Álvarez but his shot was saved by Dúbravka. City had certainly built up steam, but Burn squared the ball back to Isak after running in behind Walker, Ortega closed the space quickly when Isak shot. However, this didn’t unravel City’s backline, like the lengthy period before the halftime whistle.
De Bruyne flips City’s fortunes
Silva would be replaced by De Bruyne, his first Premier League appearance since the first game of the season. City’s main gateway remained on the right side, where Walker would overlap around or make a curved run into space, so putting your most creative and aggressive attacker into a similar area would make perfect sense.
Rodri was now moving the ball towards Foden, now positioned on the right, whilst De Bruyne wrapped runs around before driving passes into the penalty area. But De Bruyne’s influence was not just felt on the outside, but on the inside too. Foden picking up the ball on the half turn, inside an opponent’s block, can have devastating effects on separating a backline, but De Bruyne doesn’t just have the creative output, he probably has one of the best shots from outside of the box too.
73rd minute: Buildup to City’s second goal. Lateral movements from Rodri and De Bruyne open up the passing angle through the Newcastle midfield. The backline is too far away to suppress De Bruyne, who received on the turn and charged towards goal.
Minutes after his entrance, City started to circulate the ball laterally in front of Newcastle’s midfielders once more, before they became too bunched together. As Sean Longstaff stepped up to encounter Rodri, De Bruyne moved at the opposite angle, behind Guimarães. De Bruyne drove the ball towards the box and his choice of shot captured his quality: almost passing the ball into the bottom corner, from twenty yards out. Class is always permanent.
De Bruyne continued to make moves within proximity of Foden when in possession, to continuously provide low, driven balls towards the edge of the six-yard box. Not only that, but he also partook in coming towards the center-backs to receive the ball, which helped Rodri charge through, between Miley and Guimarães, before his low shot was palmed away by the goalkeeper.
City were getting the ball in dangerous areas but had not found the right connection just yet. The time ticking into the ninety, De Bruyne took the ball in the same line as Kovačić, with the same openness as we usually see with his classic cross assists. Oscar Bobb, who replaced Doku ten minutes earlier, twitched and moved around Trippier to get on the end of his ball. Exquisite control took the ball away from Dúbravka’s outstretched foot, Bobb moving the ball from his left and finishing with his right.
A game of sensational goals and big narratives, a classic script for a prime-time Premier League fixture. Newcastle had good spells, and the xG plot reveals a closer game, but this was not reflected in how City were able to play through their midfield. Newcastle doesn’t just need the next two weeks to recover but needs to find tactical tweaks off the ball to regain its defensive stability.
The win for City feels more like a statement of intent. Their three losses in the league all came on the road, and Newcastle could have easily been another banana skin when City looked like they had just taken it to another gear. De Bruyne’s return will certainly solidify that, their fixture list until mid-March is favorable and City has less glaring issues than Liverpool, Aston Villa and Arsenal. Is the destiny of the title really this obvious?
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