There was a lot of publicity and hype surrounding the appointment by Manchester City of Pep Guardiola before the start of the 2016/17 season, and rightly so. The Spaniard had developed after all a reputation as a truly innovative, tactical coach and there was real interest to see how he would adapt his model of play to fit the English game.
It is fair to say that last season City did not quite meet the initial expectations of fans, media and pundits across the World. After an impressive start the fragility of the City squad, which had been assembled at no small cost, began to become more and more apparent and any defensive mistakes were pounced upon by the opposition.
Once again at the start of this season expectations were high, Guardiola had spent the summer months overseeing a significant recruitment campaign with the full back and goalkeeping positions in particular having a whole new look. Now there is a real sense that this will become a defining season in the career of Guardiola in England. So far results have been extremely encouraging, but perhaps more important than that the style of football that City have played this season has been at times breathtaking, Operating predominantly in a variant of the 4-3-3 system that Guardiola used to such effect at Barcelona there have been periods of matches when the attacking players for City have looked as though they could score at will.
This match against Stoke City would provide another test for this City side coming off the back of another international break. Stoke themselves are no longer the defensive orientated side of old and under Mark Hughes the squad is looking to transition in to a more attacking and open style of play.
As the match unfolded it was perhaps this new open style from Stoke, coupled with the attacking artistry of Manchester City that defined this encounter.
The home side started with Ederson in goal behind a central defensive partnership of John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph continued to play at left back with Kyle Walker on the right. The Brazilian Fernandinho continued in his role sitting in front of the defensive unit and allowing Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to perform more attacking roles from the middle of the midfield unit.
Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane provided the width on either flank while Gabriel Jesus continued in the attack.
For Stoke City the return from a long lay off last season of Jack Butland in goal has been extremely welcome this season. The most interesting narrative in the Stoke line up was the introduction of Tom Edwards, an academy graduate, at right back. The rest of the defence saw Kevin Wimmer and Kurt Zouma play centrally with Erik Pieters on the left.
In midfield Geoff Cameron and Darren Fletcher played centrally with Mame Biram Diouf on the right and Eric Maxim Choupa Mouting on the left. Xherdan Shaqiri played in a central attacking role supporting the lone striker Jese.
City show excellent spacing
The term spacing is more commonly found on the basketball court rather than on the football field but the principles are the same across both sports. Football in particular over the last 3-5 years has very much became a game that revolves around the control of space instead of purely control of the ball.
Now, top teams are tactically sophisticated enough to recognise that fixed positional structures within either the attacking or defensive phases of the game are outdated and inefficient. Essentially this means that the notion of formations, as invariably shown on TV screens constantly before each game, are very much only a starting point for the real game model.
Instead occupation of space when in the attacking phase and prevention of space in the defensive phase have evolved and became crucial in football today. Coaches like Guardiola in particular are intent on training their sides to ensure that when in possession of the ball the positioning of players is such that the ball can be easily progressed forwards in to the final third in an efficient manner. This is where the spacing of the team is so important.
Here we see an example as City look to play out from the back, a tactical tool that we all know that Guardiola is borderline fanatical about, as Stoke commit two players in to the initial press with a higher midfield block looking to negate the space that City have to move in to.
For the most part the defensive side of the starting ‘formation’ of 4-3-3 that we saw from City is intact. Fernandinho is sitting and supporting the defensive line and the near sided full back, Walker, is supporting Stones in possession of the ball.
What is not apparent from the noted formation however is that the Belgian international Kevin De Bruyne has dropped back to a position parallel to Fernandinho in order to collect possession of the ball and ensure that City have superiority on the ball. Immediately when De Bruyne moves in to the deep area he creates a situation in which City have overloads on the right and left side of the defensive third of the field.
This time I have captured an example of the Manchester City structure in the middle of the field. As you can see with Fernandinho stepping forward with the ball. City players are spaced in such a way to not only offer a variety of passing angles and options for Fernandinho but also to allow for the ball to either be progressed forward towards the final third or safely backwards should they wish to reset the attacking phase and move the Stoke defensive block around.
These connections that are formed by spacing in this manner also allow City under Guardiola to dominate possession of the ball and constantly force their opponents out of their comfortable defensive shape and structure.
City progress the ball easily
With far superior spacing and connections in the attacking phase of the game it was of no surprise that City were dominant in turning their possession of the ball in to final third entries and opportunities in and around the Stoke penalty area.
With Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in particular able to drift across the width and depth of the field between the middle third and final third we saw Stoke, who were defending in straight lines throughout, struggle to effectively prevent City from accessing the final third.
This is a relatively simple example which shows how effective City were at finding and creating space and passing lanes in their attacking phase. As the defensive player is able to carry the ball out in to the middle third of the field under little pressure he eventually triggers a pressing action from the Stoke player as he approaches the halfway line.
As the Stoke player however moves out to engage the man in possession of the ball he is able to very simply slip the through ball in behind the line of pressure to find David Silva who had drifted in to a pocket of space on the right hand side of the field.
The Stoke midfield was unable for the entire match to effectively deal with the movement and creativity of their Manchester City counterparts.
For all that Manchester City were dominant in the attacking phase and impressive throughout the performance of Kevin De Bruyne was at a far higher level than anyone else on the field. The Belgian international displayed a range of passing that once again showed why he is in the top echelon of players in the world.
Here he has the ball in the right hand half space as Manchester City look to transition in to the attacking phase quickly. For most players the options in this situation would be relatively simple with close passing options, the option of turning back or even of driving the ball himself.
Few players however would have the vision, and the technical ability, to spot the deep run of Leroy Sane attacking the far corner of the penalty area and to play a through pass which dissected the Stoke defensive structure and found the German international winger in space in the penalty area for an easy finish.
City dominant between lines, horizontally and vertically
As I touched upon briefly above Manchester City were almost completely dominant in using their positioning to dominate key strategic spaces on the field in the attacking third.
When I write these tactical pieces once of the first things I look for is evidence that one team or the other is able to gain superiority over their opponents in their respective final thirds, more often than not the team that dominates the space in the final third of the match will go on to win the match.
In this match as with so many others this season we saw City control spaces in the final third with De Bruyne and Silva along with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane drifting constantly in to spaces.
In this image the catalyst for the attacking movement from Manchester City is once again the movement of Kevin De Bruyne. Stoke in this example are poorly setup from a defensive stand point with the four man midfield staggered in a manner that creates space for City to play the ball through.
De Bruyne has immediately identified the space in the final third and has drifted away from his immediate marker in to space. The poor attempt from Stoke to properly defend the passing lanes make it exceptionally easy for City to simply play through them.
Here we see the ability of the Manchester Players to stretch the Stoke defensive line in transition. Raheem Sterling has moved from the right hands side of the field in to the central zone whilst Kevin De Bruyne has drifted from the middle out to the right and is in possession of the ball. If these positional switches were not enough then the right back Kyle Walker is underlapping the man in possession of the ball and attacking the space on the edge of the penalty area.
The ability and willingness of the Manchester City full backs to attack and vary their attacking approach, moving either inside or outside of the wide area is a potent attacking weapon for City and on this occasion Walker was able to collect the pass through from De Bruyne and set up a goal for City.
The final score in this match of 7-2 was not flattering for Manchester City, they were dominant and impressive in almost every phase of the match, indeed if anything the 5 goal margin was perhaps flattering for Stoke City.
Manchester City played and attacked with a hunger and intelligence that few sides in world football can match. They dominated the spaces in the final third and combined so quickly and with such impressive execution that the opposition were unable to form any cohesive defensive structure to stop the onslaught.
It remains to be seen whether Guardiola’s side can keep this style of play up for the entire season but I believe that few would bet against them going on to win the title at the end of this season.