2018-12-04 - Watford - Man City tactics

Watford – Manchester City: Mahrez fires City to victory despite late scare (1-2)

Manchester City were dominant as ever, but it took until just before half-time for them to open up the scoring. Riyad Mahrez netted just after the break to make it 2-0. At this point it seemed like a routine win for City, but a late Abdoulaye Doucouré goal made for an uncomfortable ending for Pep Guardiola’s side, who managed to hold onto their win nonetheless.

Tactical analysis by Josh Manley

The last two times Guardiola’s side had visited Vicarage Road, they won 5-0 and 6-0. And even though Watford’s manager Javi Gracia naturally wanted to prevent another shellacking, his team’s recent form can be considered quite worrisome, as Watford had two wins in their last eleven games leading up to this one.

Watford made a couple of changes to their lineup, compared to their 2-0 defeat against Leicester City. Gerard Deulofeu and the suspended Étienne Capoue were replaced by Troy Deeney and Nathaniel Chalobah, as Gracia went for a 4-3-3 formation in this game.

For City, there was a completely different back four from last weekend’s win over Bournemouth. Danilo, Nicolás Otamendi, Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko all made way. Replacing them were Kyle Walker, John Stones, Vincent Kompany and Fabian Delph. Ilkay Gündogan and Raheem Sterling were also out, making way for David Silva and Riyad Mahrez in City’s customary 4-3-3 formation.

Manchester City 4-3-3 formationManchester City’s positioning and general movements when in possession, which shows their different approach on either flank. 

Watford pinned back but remain compact

City played in their familiar possession-based approach, with Bernardo Silva and David Silva stationed in the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace., and behind the opponent’s midfield line. Mahrez and Leroy Sané started very wide, and the fullbacks deep.

Watford defended against this in a 4-5-1 shape. This shape could take on slightly different permutations at different times, such as 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, if the central midfielders or wingers tried to press. More often however, these players were pinned back by the positioning of Bernardo and David Silva. Due to the presence of Manchester City’s playmakers – behind Watford’s midfield line – Watford’s midfielders were forced to remain deep to avoid opening up space for them to receive in.

Watford were relatively effective in doing this. This was largely due to their compactness and the coverage of the passing lanes into City’s playmakers by Will Hughes and Doucouré. There were only a couple of rare occasions in the first half where one of City’s attacking midfielders was able to receive the ball behind Watford’s midfield line and turn.

City’s exquisite play on the wings

In the first half, most of City’s attacking threat came from their right wing, thanks to the skillful combination of Bernardo and Mahrez. City’s interchangement and quick combinations on the flanks are a nightmare for most defenses to play against, because it happens so fast. Again, the positioning of Bernardo Silva in the halfspace helped to pull Watford’s defense into a narrower stance. This opens more space to move the ball into wide areas for the wingers to play one-versus-one with the opposing fullback.

When Mahrez received the ball on the wing, Bernardo Silva could make inside-to-outside diagonal runs behind the fullback Mahrez was taking on. If opponents follow Bernardo when making these runs, it can open space for Mahrez to cut inside on his strong left foot. If not, Mahrez can attempt to play Bernardo in behind the defense. This is an aspect which was also observable in the Manchester Derby recently.

Another aspect to the right-sided attack was the occasional underlaps and overlaps  When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. The reverse movement is called an ‘underlap’. from Walker. As always with this City side, these movements were executed with good timing. Furthermore they could be balanced by Bernardo Silva dropping into a slightly deeper position, as Mahrez was usually the one on the ball when Walker made these runs from deep.

There were also a couple of positional swaps between Bernardo and Mahrez, which could probably have been used even more often as a tool to try and open space in central areas. The mechanism here would obviously be for Bernardo’s movement towards the wing to drag Doucouré wide, then for Mahrez to fill the space created centrally. Although Mahrez is probably more comfortable in wide areas rather than central ones, where it is harder to isolate players one-against-one.  

City’s first goal probably took a bit longer than expected, considering their recent form. With the pattern of the match prior to it though, it was unsurprising that the goal would originate from Mahrez on the right wing. His in-swinging cross found David Silva at the far-post, who was unable to direct the ball towards goal as it bounced off his shin, across the six-yard box. Fortunately for City, Walker collected the loose ball and fed Mahrez again on the corner of the penalty box. He provided another excellent delivery on his left foot, which this time found its way into the net via the chest of Sané.

It’s worth noting at this point that for all City’s dominance, arguably the best chance of the game so far prior to the first goal had fallen to Deeney at the other end. Doucouré picked up the second ball after a cross from Isaac Success. He managed to flick the ball back over his head into the path of Deeney, who forced a good save from City’s goalkeeper Ederson to keep the score level.

Manchester City's 4-3-3 formation in a passmap

City comfortable until Watford score

Shortly after half-time, Mahrez himself was able to get onto the scoresheet. Watford gave away possession cheaply with a throw-in close to their own box. The ball was worked to Gabriel Jesus inside the box, and his cut-back was met by Mahrez arriving slightly right of the penalty spot. His low, powerful shot was past Ben Foster before Watford’s goalkeeper even had a chance to move.

Following City’s goal, Watford’s defensive organization and compactness seemed to fall away slightly. They were trying to pressure the ball earlier, but this meant that the space between the defense and midfield line began to grow. This is generally easily exploited by Mancester City, and subsequently, Guardiola’s side began to find easy passes into the feet of the attacking midfielders, which they had struggled with somewhat in the first half. At this point, it seemed like this game might become another Vicarage Road demolition by City.  

As it turned out though, City were comfortable in possession and still easily the better side, but could not quite put the game to bed. The home side was hanging on at 2-0, and began to grow into the game again slightly. A mistake by City gave Gracia’s side their goal, though. Fabian Delph was caught in possession in his own defensive third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the defensive third is the area closest to a team’s own goal. by the substitute Deulofeu. The Spaniard’s cross was eventually bundled in by Doucouré at the second post, and the game came alive again.

The composure in City’s performance suddenly dropped, as Watford sensed a possible comeback. A Deeney header from a corner kick was the closest they came to an equalizer in the end. Nevertheless, their bombardment of the City defense with long balls towards Deeney had City slightly worried. So far this season, it is a rare sight altogether to see Man City grinding out a result in the closing stages of the match.

Guardiola brought on Laporte to offer some extra aerial presence in defense. He slotted in alongside Stones and Otamendi, who was subbed in after Kompany picked up a knock, and City managed to control the game that way and took the three points, meaning they are still unbeaten in domestic league matches, as late as the first week of December.


City’s performance for the first 85 minutes was business-as-usual. They dominated the game and looked the far superior team. The last five minutes plus stoppage time saw them be made to feel about as uncomfortable as they have been in the last year or so against a non-top six side, which made for good viewing, but did not yield a result for the home side.

This result makes it five games without a win for Watford, but they can be satisfied with the account they gave of themselves considering the opposition. In the first half they defended respectably. In the second half, they looked as if they might collapse after City’s second goal went in, but were able to recover and give City a scare in the final minutes.

Use arrows to scroll through all available match plots. 

Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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