9 minutes. That is how long Cheltenham Town from League Two were from upsetting a billion pound Manchester City team. Michael Duff and his team played so well for 80 minutes that it was as if the Magic of the FA Cup was about to happen, until Manchester City scored 3 goals in 13 minutes.
Losing to a Lower league side is not new for Pep Guardiola, in fact in 2018; Man City lost their 5th round FA Cup tie to a 79th minute Will Grigg goal. That was not the case on Saturday night, as the Cityzens survived a shock scare after the Cheltenham side took the lead in the 59th minute.
So how did Cheltenham hold Manchester City for over 75 minutes, forcing Guardiola’s hand to bring on the cavalry off the bench to turn the game on its head? We take a look at how both sides lined up for the exciting FA Cup clash.
Manchester City lined up on paper in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 shape with Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus up top, Mahrez and Phil Foden out wide with Fernandinho partnering City academy product Tommy Doyle. The back four would consist of Laporte, Garcia, Benjamin Mendy and Taylor Harwood-Bellis.
During the game however, the shape does shift to the recent 3-1-3-3 system Pep Guardiola employs in his unbeaten run stretching as far back as 10 games. We will get into the shape and rotations as we go on.
Cheltenham town set up in their 3-5-2 system Michael Duff employs during the sides impressive campaign in League Two this season. With long throw machine Ben Tozer in the back three alongside Raglan and Boyle, Freestone and Blair. In midfield, a trio of Azaz, Clemens and Thomas, and up top, the energetic Alfie May and George Lloyd. Cheltenham’s system would change into a deeper, more conservative 5-4-1 during the game.
On paper, it was a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 against a 3-5-2 but in-game there were a lot of shifts and rotations; with the two teams lining up in a 3-1-2-4 from Man City against a 5-4-1 Cheltenham Town shape.
The beauty of the tactical matchup from a League Two manager and a Champions League winning coach was an interesting dynamic throughout the game.
Out wide, Benjamin Mendy and Mahrez were 1v1 against Cheltenham’s Wingbacks, with Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus constantly searching for gaps between the 3 center backs.
In midfield however, Cheltenham had a bit of numerical superiority as their flat compact 4 in midfield were up against Fernandinho, Tommy Doyle and Phil Foden in midfield. City tried to combat this by dropping one of Torres or Jesus into the midfield line or Fernandinho pushing higher up the field.
City’s main means of attacking Cheltenham was by creating 1v1s out wide and putting crosses or cutbacks into the box. Cheltenham were well-prepared for this scenario and at most times had as many as seven players in the box to help stop the crosses.
It can be seen as Mahrez and Mendy, who primarily operated on the touchline stretching the pitch, had 40+ passes each, which ranked highest in the team after the center backs (who would have more touches of the ball as Cheltenham completely abandoned any form of pressing).
When going out wide and crossing was not ideal, they often tried to mimic Kevin De Bruyne’s half-space crossing with Tommy Doyle, who was able to whip a few dangerous crosses into Cheltenham’s box.
A common scenario throughout the game was Mahrez receiving the ball out wide, with Doyle making the run in the channel to receive the ball and put in a cross into the box.
Their shape was able to frustrate Manchester City for large parts of the match, and in the first half especially, they looked quite comfortable to let City have the ball in front of their 10 men.
Cheltenham’s players were able to intelligently cover the spaces, prevent City from progressing the ball, and when the crosses came in they dealt with them effectively (as any lower league side would, after all they are used to long ball games). Ben Tozer especially was a standout in this game, completing 6 clearances, 4 blocks and 3 interceptions.
Cheltenham’s Attacks and Throw ins
This game is not as one sided as it may seem, as Cheltenham Town got in a few attacks of their own; with Alfie May causing problems with his direct running between City’s defenders.
Most of Cheltenham’s attacks came in transition, with long balls down the channels, knock downs before attempting to pick a pass for the willing runners in Alfie May and George Lloyd. The duo caused a few scares and had a few shots on target that would not have been fun for Pep Guardiola on the bench.
The duo found a bit of joy attacking the space behind the midfield line in front of the defenders; with inexperienced Eric Garcia and Harwood-Bellis having a bit of trouble dealing with the direct running and pace of May, resorting to giving away cheap fouls during the game.
The Throw Ins
Pep Guardiola mentioned that Man City had been analyzing Cheltenham Town’s long throws but they still conceded a goal from it. City did their best to prevent cheap throw ins in and around their box, but when they did give away throw ins, Ben Tozer and his cannon ball arms were present.
The aim of the free throws was to vacate the space at the near post, and get runners from around the 6 yard box with a few of them surrounding the keeper making it harder for him to clear the danger present.
Cheltenham had a lot of areas covered with their routine, with a player near the ‘D’ to pounce on long shot opportunities and Alfie May starting his runs from the far post to pounce on rebounds and tap-ins.
Which, coincidentally, was how Cheltenham got their opener; winning the first header at the near post, with deflections and confusion among the City defence, May was able to swoop in and slot the ball past Zack Steffen.
Pep rings in the changes
In response to going 1-0 down with no signs of breaking down the resilient Cheltenham side, Pep Guardiola made three substitutions; bringing on Ruben Dias, Gundogan and Joao Cancelo.
Each of the substitutions had a specific role; Ruben Dias was brought on to stop the defence from conceding another long throw; with Dias’ imposing presence at the back and his ability in the air, Man City were able to deal with Ben Tozer’s launches into the box.
Joao Cancelo was brought on to execute that inverted fullback role he has been so successful in this season; his ability to dribble and drive from deep areas into the half spaces, this and his excellent crossing ability gave City the much needed goals to kill off the game.
Gundogan was also brought on as his ability to find spaces between the lines and create chances off his half-turns were crucial for Man City, as for large parts of the game, Phil Foden was carrying a very large load in the attack. Bringing on Gundogan would add another threat between the lines, and utilize his attacking runs into the box from deep; which brought the 3rd goal for Man City.
There was also a slight shift as City were actively chasing the game to prevent extra time and losing the game. Phil Foden shifted to the left, Gundogan moved to LCM, with Cancelo occupying the RCM spot from fullback. Aymeric Laporte was also pushed to Left back to utilize his passing range from deep.
The aim of the new shape was to overload the defensive line of Cheltenham and bombard the box with crosses and cutbacks from the passing of Cancelo, Mahrez and Laporte.
City get their goals
All of City’s goals were a result of the substitutions they made and the tweaks in the shape during the match, Cancelo’s diagonal found Phil Foden for the first goal, Fernandinho’s ping from deep found Gabriel Jesus for the second city goal and Cancelo’s through ball for Gundogan was cutback for Ferran Torres to score.
All the credit cannot be gifted to City however, as a League Two side defending wave after wave of attack from a team with better talent and quality was bound to concede. The goals came from sloppy mistakes; defenders failing to move out with the offside traps, and others losing their markers in the box.
Pep Guardiola’s principles of play involve moving the ball around to disrupt the opponents shape in possession, using patterns of play, overload and runs into the box. All facets of this were seen in City’s performance.
However the other side of it shows how compact formations covering spaces that would be exploited by teams and defending your box are a very effective tactic against possession sides.
The ‘David vs Goliath’ battle between Manchester City and Cheltenham was an interesting dynamic; with Cheltenham using their tactics and throw ins as weapons to try and take down Guardiola’s heavily talented squad.
A very interesting tactical battle which was decided in the last 10 minutes of the game, shows the promise of Michael Duff and the genius (and players) of Pep Guardiola.