Guardiola's full-back setup damages Man City's creativity – Tactical lessons from the Premier League weekend
The champions struggled in another poor performance, with some tactical decisions from their coach attracting attention
Are Pep Guardiola’s tactics starting to break down at Manchester City after another poor result put them 11 points behind Liverpool?
Tottenham are improving slowly under Jose Mourinho but are still lacking control in the midfield, while interim Arsenal coach Freddie Ljungberg struggled in his first match in charge with some bizarre tactical choices.
Goal breaks down how the key coaching decisions impacted the weekend’s action…
1) Guardiola’s use of full-backs to blame for creativity issues
Steve Bruce’s deep-lying 5-4-1, in which the wider players Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin are tucked in like central midfielders, is very difficult to play through and was a vital strategy in the 2-2 draw against Manchester City at St James’ Park.
The visitors needed either to move the ball quickly through the central column or to spread the ball wide with urgency in order to pull the Newcastle defenders out of position.
Instead, Guardiola’s team were oddly flat. Kevin De Bruyne continued to frustrate by pulling out to the right, despite all of their best moments coming when the Belgian looked for sharp one-twos in the centre of the pitch, and City continued to swing crosses into the box, looking disconnected from one another for long periods.
Aside from small bursts of combination play between Raheem Sterling and David Silva, Guardiola’s players frequently seemed isolated.
That’s partly confidence, but it’s partly Guardiola’s use of his full-backs at St James’ Park.
On the right, Kyle Walker spent the entire match as a central midfielder alongside Ilkay Gundogan in order to screen against the counter, meaning a lonely Riyad Mahrez was easily held up by Newcastle’s left wing-back – the benefit of a five-man defence is that the wing-back, with a spare defender behind him, can get tight. On the left, Benjamin Mendy played cautious five-yard passes and rarely moved beyond Sterling.
Mendy had nine touches in the final 18 yards of the pitch. Walker took four. Without piercing runs on the flanks to stretch Newcastle, and without De Bruyne creating high-tempo interchanges through the middle, the hosts were able to stay in their narrow shape and hold firm.
2) Direct attacks work for Spurs but they need greater control in midfield
Jose Mourinho’s start at Tottenham has been defined as much by rediscovering old Mauricio Pochettino traits as creating new ones, and this weekend it was the return of Toby Alderweireld’s raking long balls that stood out.
Dele Alli, freely making runs ahead of Harry Kane like the good old days, twice benefitted to give Spurs a 2-0 lead.
Aside from this, Spurs only really threatened on the counterattack when Heung-Min Son, Alli, and Kane combined neatly while Bournemouth poured forward in search of a goal.
Tottenham’s third was just the sort of exhilarating break fans can expect over the next couple of years under Mourinho – but not much else about their team’s performance will stay.
Mourinho again went for a 3-2-5 in possession only this time Moussa Sissoko replaced Lucas Moura in the right-centre attacking position.
This didn’t quite work, to some extent because Sissoko lacks discipline – he meandered around the pitch, emptying the right flank and thus limiting Spurs’ passing options – but mainly because he added to the number of Spurs players lacking technical artistry.
Spurs lumbered clumsily with Eric Dier, Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele on the pitch, and were unable to keep hold of the ball to control the rhythm of the match.
Bournemouth were given far too many opportunities to counterattack as the pitch became stretched.
Mourinho needs to bring Christian Eriksen in from the cold.
3) Leicester break Everton down thanks to Rodgers’ unusual formation change
When Kelechi Iheanacho replaced Ayoze Perez in the 62nd minute it appeared to be a like-for-like change, but instead Brendan Rodgers moved the Nigerian up front to play alongside Jamie Vardy and create a lopsided 4-3-1-2, with Harvey Barnes playing left winger and nobody on the right.
Everton had held firm until that point with a determined, deep-lying blockade (29 per cent possession), but immediately became confused by the sudden directness of the Leicester approach; the Foxes played 27 long balls in the final half hour, almost double their rate (36) in the first 60.
Using two forwards obviously unsettled the Everton back three, and yet more importantly the strange attacking switch meant Leicester now had four players in an attacking square as Youri Tielemans and James Maddison continued as dual 10s behind the strikers, and that allowed the Foxes to go at the heart of their opponents’ two-man midfield.
Suddenly overwhelmed, Everton conceded an equaliser before Marco Silva could bring Morgan Schneiderlin on to shore up the midfield. But it was too late; the momentum swung and Iheanacho’s winner felt inevitable.
4) Ljungberg’s attacking shape, & in-game errors, compound strange line-up choices
Freddie Ljungberg was most obviously at fault for starting Shkodran Mustafi, who looked absolutely clueless on Sunday, but that was far from his only mistake. An inexplicable team selection, passive defending in the transitions, and strange substitutions; meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Norwich’s counterattacks were dangerous throughout the match because of Ljungberg’s over-attacking 4-2-1-3 formation in which the high press was reinstated; Joe Willock pushed on to make a front four along with Mesut Ozil, who was out of position on the left, and the two strikers, leaving Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi with far too much ground to cover once Norwich evaded the press.
And getting through the press was startlingly easy, which is hardly a surprise given Arsenal’s tactical confusion and decompressed shape under Unai Emery. But, knowing this, Ljungberg should not have deployed such high-risk tactics.
He also instructed both full-backs to bomb forward, further damaging Arsenal’s ability to cope with defensive transitions. Norwich’s goals were the result of Calum Chambers getting caught out of position, which happened repeatedly throughout the match to prove beyond doubt Chambers is a centre-back, not a right-back.
Too many passive players were reinstated as Ljungberg tried to install full-throttle football far too quickly.
5) Lampard’s over-rotation allows West Ham to counterattack successfully
Throughout Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure, West Ham have only managed to perform well when opponents have encouraged them to recoil back defensively and then spring forward, as in the 2-0 win over Manchester United earlier in the season.
Given that Chelsea struggle defending against quick counterattacks, it was a big surprise that Frank Lampard chose this match to rest N’Golo Kante.
Chelsea struggled for fluency without Willian breaking the lines as his individualism has been vital in gaining yards for Lampard’s team and Olivier Giroud looked rusty as the lone striker.
The hosts ended up relying on aimless crosses towards their target man, with both full-backs the only real players finding space against such a deep and narrow Hammers defence. Chelsea attempted 39 crosses, a huge increase on their season average of 18.7.
But leaving Kante out was Lampard’s main error. West Ham’s goal came from Felipe Anderson gathering the ball in ludicrous amounts of space in midfield, spraying it wide before Aaron Creswell cut inside to score.
Anderson was free because Jorginho mistakenly dropped deep instead of pressing the playmaker, a positional error that betrayed his poor defensive instincts. Kante would have stamped out the threat.