Manchester City defeated Brighton 3-0 on Wednesday evening to return to the top of the Premier League table, yet there was an air of dissatisfaction among City fans both online and sitting inside the Etihad Stadium.
Pep Guardiola’s side put in a solid – if not remarkable – display to bring an end to a three-game winless run, and showed that despite suffering the exertions of four gruelling battles with Liverpool and Atletico Madrid over the previous couple of weeks, they are still very much in control of their own destiny.
Yet during a first half that saw Brighton defend extremely well and limit spaces for City to exploit, there were plenty of grumblings about the way Guardiola’s men were conducting themselves.
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Online – and even on TV – fans and pundits lamented City’s ‘slow’ and conservative passing, and called for the Blues to up the tempo and stop playing backward or sideways passes. In the stands, there were audible groans and sighs every time the ball went backwards, or when Kevin de Bruyne made a run into the channel that wasn’t met with a pass.
Admittedly, it can be frustrating when there’s clearly a defence-splitting ball on but the player in possession either misses it or decides to play it safe. After all, one of the key principles of Guardiola’s football is to attack and score plenty of goals.
But the way in which Guardiola wants his team to do this does not involve leaping at every half-opening that may appear in an opponent’s defence. Pep wants his side to dominate the opposition, and the best way to do that is by keeping possession of the ball and moving forward as a compact unit by passing the ball. That means that the average position of City’s players are in the opponent’s half of the field, making it easier for City to attack and harder for the opponent to score.
Backwards passes can also lure defenders out of position, creating space for City’s attacker to run into. Juanma Lillo, Guardiola’s long-term mentor and current assistant coach at City, best explained the concept in Marti Perarnau’s excellent book Pep Guardiola: the evolution.
“To get up high, you need passing movements in the main part of the pitch. There’s only one thing that gives or takes away order in a game and that’s the ball itself. So I like my players to be in lots of different partnerships but also strung out across different areas of the field.
“If their passing is good, then we’ll be moving our rivals all over the pitch and then you’re going to find free men easily because they’ll either be forced to break up playing partnerships or string themselves out across the pitch.
“If players don’t take time to construct play then it will be difficult to get the ball to the right places up the pitch and then dominate the opposition. If you play the ball upfield at top speed all the time, hitting first time long balls, the ball will be back on top of you in seconds. Up and down, up and down… You have to pass when the moment is right, to the right player. Get that wrong and you’ll be playing long balls for your opponents to gobble up and then come at you in numbers.”
If there’s one thing everyone should know about the current incarnation of Guardiola’s City, it’s that they don’t want to be involved in end-to-end, basketball style matches. That hasn’t necessarily always been the case, but the pivot to that approach roughly coincided with Lillo’s arrival at City in 2020.
“If your football is very fast and direct you’re going to have the ball thrown back at you almost immediately,” he said. The departure of Leroy Sane and the aging of Fernandinho have arguably played a part in this too; City no longer have the speed and legs in midfield to play fast and furious.
That isn’t to say that City never play direct; in the recent 2-2 draw, Guardiola had his team exploit Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses by playing long balls over the top to the wingers and it worked a treat. But the situation to do that has to be right.
So the next time City fail to score in the opening 45 minutes against a compact, low-block defence, it’s worth considering this: hitting first-time balls and always looking to pass forward might be more exciting to watch, but ultimately it’s a riskier strategy that brings no guarantee of success.
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