Manchester City are the chameleon team who are always one step ahead

Manchester City might be the ultimate chameleon team.

Jurgen Klopp put it well after his Liverpool side were knocked out by City in the last 16 of the Carabao Cup just before Christmas.

“We all know about City,” he said. “Different ideas for different games and you always have to get used to them during the game. You never know exactly what’s going to happen.”

But while opponents try to find solutions to face City – either by studying what has happened before or adapting to what is happening before their eyes – Guardiola and his staff have also been busy finding answers to the problems presented to them. .

City’s possession game has been sorely tested away from home in recent weeks, first at Elland Road and then at Stamford Bridge. Leeds United’s approach of a narrow 4-3-3 away from possession made it difficult for City to access the number 10 – Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan – in their 3-2-4-1 formation when they had the ball.

However, the thing about City is that even if you stop them at one stage, they can beat you at another stage. Limiting City’s threat in possession didn’t stop the City train in transition and Leeds were fortunate to concede just once in the first half – unsurprisingly, from transition.

Then at Stamford Bridge, Graham Potter used a similar approach without the ball to nullify City in the first half. However, in the second half, Guardiola settled and City were the better side after introducing Rico Lewis and keeping Rodri in midfield when they didn’t have the ball.

Lewis’s role in the 3-2-4-1 double pivot was bolder than Bernardo Silva’s, with the youngster’s forward movement causing overload on the right. This, combined with City’s improved pressing and counter-pressing, gave Guardiola’s side a vital win after they had dropped points against Everton.

Three days after the Chelsea league game, they faced each other in the third round of the FA Cup. Again, City started in the same formation when they had the ball – a 3-2-4-1 with Sergio Gomez moving in to partner Rodri in a double pivot.

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And Chelsea continued with a narrow 4-3-3 when they didn’t have the ball, with Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech marking City’s double pivot in front of the midfield three.

This time City was prepared. After eight minutes they changed their shape in possession, dropped Bernardo alongside Rodri and stretched the game with Gomez and Kyle Walker operating as wide full-backs. They switched from 3-2-4-1 to 4-2-4/4-2-3-1 when in possession.

This was an excellent solution against Chelsea’s narrow 4-3-3 – Mount and Ziyech still marked City’s two deeper midfielders, leaving space wide for City’s full-backs. They had time on the ball as Chelsea’s midfield trio could not afford to stretch for fear of City playing through them.

Consequently, City managed to switch play from one side to the other without the full-backs being under pressure to carry out the next action. Here Aymeric Laporte plays the ball towards Walker on the right and you can spot Mateo Kovacic’s starting position…

…which allows Walker to receive the ball comfortably without pressure.

Then when City wanted to switch the ball to the other side, the situation was the same. In this next tackle, Gomez is in acres of space as Conor Gallagher is positioned inside the box to maintain the compactness of Chelsea’s midfield triangle. So when Manuel Akanji plays the diagonal…

… Gomez can comfortably control the ball with Gallagher still moving across the field to defend.

The wide deployment of Walker and Gomez proved troublesome for Chelsea more than once. In this example, Gallagher stays in his midfield position and ignores Gomez…

… so when Cole Palmer (in light blue) moves into the space vacated by Bashir Humphreys – who moves to Phil Foden’s side – Trevoh Chalobah is left in a two-on-one situation.

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Palmer runs behind him (light blue) and Gomez runs in front of him (yellow). Chalobah’s body orientation says it all – he doesn’t know whether to adjust his body shape for the ball towards Gomez or Palmer. Laporte moves to the latter and passed behind Chalobah…

…and Palmer should score from this spot.

In another example, Lewis Hall (#67) is in a narrow position to keep Chelsea’s defensive line compact, but Walker runs down the right flank. Near the center circle, Kovacic doesn’t even know what’s going on behind him, whether it’s Riyad Mahrez floating into space or Walker providing width.

Rodri notices Walker’s run and passes out to England’s right…

…who controls it comfortably as Hall can’t rise to press him due to Mahrez’s presence. Kovacic, meanwhile, is late to the party.

As a result, Walker has enough time and space to select a City player. He decides to play the ball to the marked Foden instead of Julian Alvarez, who has made a free run into the field. The selection of the Argentine could have given City a better chance.

Throughout the first half, Walker and Gomez were free to receive the ball out wide. Here, Kovacic is nowhere near Walker – who demands to change the game – on the other side of the ball. So when Rodri plays the ball back to Akanji…

…the Swiss defender easily finds Walker as Kovacic is far away and Hall cannot commit due to the threat of Mahrez.

With Walker having the ball on this side and Hall moving up, Chelsea’s defense has to switch to cover. This creates an opening on the other side of the pitch which is widened by Gallagher moving inside to defend the center of the pitch and Gomez keeping his wide position on the left. After City, spin the ball on the right…

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…they switch it to the left and Gallagher is miles away from Gomez.

He receives the ball without any Chelsea players pressing him. From this attack down the left, City win a corner which leads to their first penalty, which Alvarez scores.

City’s third goal, a 17-pass move that ended with Walker’s cut-back to Foden, also resulted from a side-to-side switch of play.

In the build-up to the goal, City start the attack on the right, while on the other side, Gomez keeps his wide position with Gallagher close to the center circle.

So when Walker dribbles past Hall, the switch is on as Ziyech marks Rodri and Gallagher is in midfield. Both are far from Gomez on the left.

City hold the ball for a few seconds, so Kovacic moves inside to protect the center of the pitch. Once again, due to this narrow positioning and Mount’s pass to Bernardo, Walker is free and signals a change of play towards City’s right.

Rodri recognizes and passes the ball to Mahrez as Walker begins his run forward.

This run puts Hall in a two-on-one scenario, as Kovacic can’t track all that distance from his narrow midfield position. Mahrez then finds Walker’s run…

…and the City defender pulls the ball back to Foden to score City’s third goal and end the game.

At half-time, Potter switched to the back week side to limit City’s switch of play to the full-backs, but it was too little too late. The game was already over.

Guardiola’s City are famous for their in-game fixing. Let’s start with a certain formation and then switch mid-game. Or change players to provide different solutions. It gives them an edge whenever they need it.

Maybe Klopp missed the line. Different ideas for different games and different ideas within the same game.

Although he was right about one thing: you never know exactly what’s going to happen with City.

(Top image: BBC Sport)


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