West Ham United – Manchester City: The Cyborg Assimilates With The Automaton (0-2)

The secret behind elite teams lies in their creation of dilemmas: on which danger should one’s attention center? That art charms spectators and opponents alike. Without a doubt, Manchester City’s new number nine took the limelight on and off the field. But the iron works set the stage for the champions to recast the supporting act that grounded their supreme tactical dominance.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Innovation sets apart leaders from followers. Indeed, this fixture marked the start of Manchester City’s latest defense of the Premier League crown: it was their fourth title in the last five years. They have broken all norms to dominate on English shores— but the mastery of innovation carries an element of surprise. All eyes are on Erling Haaland, a youthful yet classic striker whose ruthless streak in the box echoes the automaton he has joined. It ought to be a matter of when and not if the cogs click into gear.

But can the hosts put a dent in the machine? A summer break would have blessed few clubs more than West Ham. Vying on two fronts with historic ambitions, a top four spot, and victory in the Europa League, their schedule took its toll. In the end, the Irons ran out of steam, bowing out in the semi-final before dropping into the Conference League berth on the last day of the season. Nevertheless, they have cemented progress under David Moyes: the bubbles of goodwill are blowing in East London.

Moyes went for his usual 4-2-3-1 formation. He waited to turn to the services of Gianluca Scamacca, sticking to Michail Antonio as his point man in the attack. Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček sat in the middle of the park behind Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini, and Pablo Fornals. The headache for the manager was at the back. Injuries ruled out Craig Dawson, Nayef Aguerd, and Angelo Ogbonna, while Issa Diop is on the verge of the exit door. Ben Johnson duly stepped in next to Kurt Zouma.

City were out for revenge following a 3-1 loss to Liverpool in the Community Shield. The manager, Pep Guardiola, brought two new men into the fold. Bernardo Silva dropped to the bench, making way for Ilkay Gündogan. Riyad Mahrez also lost his place in the lineup to Phil Foden, who started as a right winger for the first time since the end of February. In the absence of the purchase of a left back, the slot remains in the hands of João Cancelo, while Haaland made his debut in the Premier League.

Return to normality

City went for a change of tact against Liverpool. Pep deployed his men in a 4-2-3-1 structure instead of their usual 4-3-3 system. Moreover, their rhythm on the ball was more direct. City still sought to attack through the flanks, but the fullbacks were the outlet since the wingers came inward to force the backline to stay narrower. Many wondered if this vertically oriented setup was how Pep intended to get the best out of Haaland in open ground, but the signs at the London Stadium suggest otherwise.

City’s 2-3-5 offensive structure: highly inverted fullbacks to generate a tight row of three with Rodri in the midfield, central defenders detached from West Ham’s compact midfield, and wide wingers.

City went back to a 2-3-5 shape. Both fullbacks came into the halfspaces to either side of Rodri. Since Cancelo and Kyle Walker could even invert to the central lane of the pitch, the central defenders stood wider than they tend to do in a 2-3 base at the back and offered more depth in the buildup to reset the play. The wingers were high and on the flanks to stretch West Ham’s back four with their positions.

Central circulation, swift switches

Moyes noted how City used one inverted fullback against his team last campaign: Walker in the 2-1 win at home and Zinchenko in the 2-2 draw away. Now that both men were inside, the visitors created a distinct rhythm with their ball circulation at the back. Short passing lanes generated a tight network, where wall passes and layoffs in the central zone of the pitch relentlessly shifted West Ham’s block.

7th minute: offensive sequence from Manchester City. Rodri and Nathan Aké trigger pressure from Lanzini, while Cancelo drops inside, luring out Souček. Since Jack Grealish pins Vladimír Coufal, Gündogan can receive and drive in on his right foot. He passes to his outside, but note the switch to de Bruyne or a slide rule pass to find the deep run from Haaland as alternative final third options.

The fullbacks and eights split the attention of Rice and Souček, who often jumped vertically to help the front two. If support came from Bowen, it gave more space and time to Grealish on the left wing. Once Grealish and Foden picked up the ball from direct switches or Cancelo’s tricky ball carrying that demanded central coverage, they could shift inward onto their better foot and look for the big man in the penalty area. Haaland’s glanced header in the 21st minute was a textbook example of City’s threat.

City step up the intensity

A hip knock forced off Łukasz Fabiański at the half hour mark, but West Ham’s tally of three shots at that stage of the game matched their visitors. Yet, it only takes a momentary lapse for killers to strike. Rodri and Cancelo punched passes from the inside left channel to release Gündogan, who slipped a through ball to Haaland. Alphonso Areola was a lamb to the slaughter. City’s new talisman skipped around the goalkeeper, drew contact inside the box, then dispatched from twelve yards into the net.

To add to Haaland’s strike was a far more aggressive performance off the ball in duels than against Liverpool. The inverted roles of the fullbacks granted City extra cover in the middle of the pitch off the back of any turnovers. Their high 4-4-2 block equally choked the life out of passing sequences from the home team, who did not generate a single shot between the 2nd minute and half time.

Haaland bursts the bubble

Moyes moved around his forwards after the break. Bowen operated centrally, Fornals switched to the right, and Lanzini went over to the left. By the hour mark, he had turned to the bench for a second wind to stir up more resistance. Antonio’s toil was in vain, so Scamacca took to the field for the first time in claret and blue. Saïd Benrahma was the second man to enter the fray as the left winger, shifting Fornals inwards to the number ten role. City’s answer to those changes was standard.

51st minute: offensive sequence from Manchester City. Dias sprays the ball to Foden. Walker’s underlap forces Rice to track him, allowing the right winger to dribble inward and access Rodri.

Keep the ball, control the contest. If the hosts tried to force a turnover high up the pitch, City sapped their willpower. Rúben Dias and Aké fanned out to either side of Ederson. However, the fullbacks did not rush out wide to offer options as a safety valve. If necessary, that duty was for the wingers. So, it was apt that the subsequent critical action in the game belonged to Grealish. He waited patiently for a run from Cancelo to clear space inside, cutting in off the left to feed Rodri and break the high press.

His teammate then found de Bruyne, free and on the half turn, in the right halfspace. The connection that everyone feared needed a mere sixty five minutes of Premier League football to come to life. Haaland latched onto the inevitable through ball, slotting left of Areola, and scored his second goal.

Haaland was hungry for another hat-trick on his league debut. A third goal for the Norwegian, who came off for Julián Álvarez, never arrived. That was the only blot on his afternoon, but a moot point all in all. City eased to the three points, already two ahead of their usual pursuers Liverpool.


West Ham will be glad to see the back of the champions. Moyes was not spoilt for choice in defense thanks to rotten luck with injuries, but he conceded defeat in the tactical battle after the final whistle. The narrow roles of both City’s fullbacks caught him off guard. Nonetheless, his men will target their trip next week to Nottingham Forest, a promoted club, as a springboard for success in the new season.

In football, small sample sizes can often whip up wild takes. Haaland keenly quashed murmurs about his stylistic fit for Manchester City, while the supporting cast once again showed their system on the day is never straightforward to forecast. One thing is for sure. Pep’s newest tool will be part of an ambitious assault for more silverware. Bournemouth will be dreading their journey to the Etihad.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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