With a decisive victory over West Ham United to start the season, Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have certainly made a statement. The Man City supporters undoubtedly had their worries about the team’s readiness at the beginning of the season after the departure of certain key players and a 3-1 loss to their championship rivals, Liverpool, the previous week. Guardiola’s team, though, completely dominated the match and eliminated any uncertainty.
Erling Haaland showed the world that he is ready to step up in the Premier League with two match-winning goals. While he grabbed the headlines, it was Guardiola’s tactical tweaks that made the game a stroll in the park against tough opponents.
Manchester City went with their usual setup, with Gundogan replacing Bernardo Silva from the Community Shield game. Phil Foden also took his place on the right in place of Riyad Mahrez.
West Ham, meanwhile, started Ben Johnson at center back as new singing Nayef Aguerd out with an injury. They lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Antonio upfront and their statement arrival Gianluca Scamacca on the bench. So, how did Guardiola’s new look side control the game from the word go?
Before looking into the Spanish manager’s strategy, it is time to look at how West Ham lined up in and out of possession. Like last season’s 2-2 draw against Manchester City, the Hammers looked to go long and target the channels with the likes of Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio running in behind. Moyes’ plan also involved winning loose balls in the midfield and spreading it to the wide areas and use their box presence.
Declan Rice often dropped in as a 3rd center back to evade Man City’s 4-4-2 press. However, once the ball moved out wide, the City players were quick to close in on the fullbacks. Off the ball, they maintained a compact 4-2-3-1 structure and were hard to break down like always. Most of their work in the game was in their own half, as shown by the possession stats in the first half. (City – 79% v West Ham – 21%)
Pep Guardiola’s tactical tweak in possession
While Guardiola opted to use his fullbacks wide last time around against Liverpool, this time the likes of Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo inverted and almost played alongside Rodri as a defensive midfielder. Walker, especially, was adopting positions that undoubtedly perplexed the West Ham players.
Man City formed a 2-3-5 shape with Gundogan and De Bruyne in the half spaces and wingers providing the width. This is, of course, a typical Guardiola structure, as seen in the past during his first title victory in 2018. Hence, the blues overloaded an unprepared West Ham side in the first phase. With a 2-3 shape against West Ham’s front 4, the City players always had a free man to find.
The added advantage of using inverted fullbacks is the ability to stop counter attacks and win the second balls. So, Man City clearly had an edge over the team from London, both on and off the ball. Moreover, Ruben Dias and Ake are strong in the air, which helped City’s cause.
Nevertheless, there were minor changes to the buildup from the Centurions season. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling always had one foot touching the white line in the wide areas during that campaign. This time, however, Phil Foden and in particular Jack Grealish dropped deeper to collect the ball and carry it forward.
This is also a role Grealish looked comfortable in, as he is an elite ball carrier. Foden, meanwhile, mostly occupied Cresswell on the right side and threatened to run in behind the fullback. He formed an excellent partnership with De Bruyne, who was surprisingly quiet in the game.
Following the overload in the first phase, West Ham shifted their shape to a 4-3-3 and focused on blocking the passing lanes to City’s inverted fullbacks. However, Rodri dropped alongside the center halves to dictate the play and keep the flow going.
Although Man City dominated the possession stats, they did not create any noteworthy chances. But this changed around the 35th minute via a Cancelo – Gundogan positional interchange. The Portuguese fullback darts from his role and joins Gundogan high in the pitch. So, Soucek now has a dilemma as he is caught in a 2v1 situation.
Gundogan immediately realizes this and drops deep just to pull Soucek out of position. This now leaves Cancelo open and a possible chance to create an opportunity for Man City.
Rodri, acting as a third center half, is the one who finds a line-breaking pass to City’s masterful left-back. Soucek is caught in no-man’s-land and Man City execute a simple move with incredible synchronization from the players.
Gundogan, on the half turn, finds Erling Haaland’s run in behind as the striker wins a penalty and converts it with ease. City 1 – West Ham 0, a simple but efficient move that broke down the Hammers’ resistance.
The Second Half
The story also continued in the second half with the blue half of Manchester continuing to control the proceedings. With that being said, they were sloppy after the half started, but West Ham failed to capitalize on it. In the form of counterattacks, the Citizens also had a potent weapon that they predominantly did not use in the last two years.
Despite City’s clear authority on the game, the score was still 1-0 and West Ham were slowly creeping into it. However, a De Bruyne through ball was all it took to take the game away from David Moyes’ men.
Erling Haaland expertly finished it, but the buildup to the goal was rather impressive. Once receiving the ball from Ake, Grealish kept holding it and attracted the defenders. Now, Cancelo cleverly slipped blindside of Bowen to open a passing lane to Rodri.
There on, De Bruyne on that right side and in space almost always leads to one result. Manchester City 2 – West Ham 0, the Hammers’ hope all but diminished.
Joao Cancelo was outstanding in his role, without a doubt. His clever movement played a huge part in both of City’s goals. It also limited the explosive Bowen who struggled to track his blindside runs. Once the game was in the bag, Pep decided to hand debuts to Julian Alvarez and Kalvin Phillips.
Guardiola also singled out Kyle Walker in his post match interview for his excellent performance in an unfamiliar position. “Today Kyle Walker was exceptional, maybe one of the best games he had since we were together. Because it’s not just defending, it’s playing.”
Well, the inverted fullbacks certainly caught Moyes by surprise. The Scottish manager stated, “Tactically they were much better and we hadn’t prepped for that because we hadn’t seen it.”
It is safe to say that inverted fullbacks are an inspirational adjustment from the City manager who seemed to change from the traditional structure he used in England. The newly added Haaland’s clinical nature will only improve the Champions as he is still adjusting to the surroundings.
Manchester City will now face AFC Bournemouth at the Etihad Stadium next week in what promises to be another good outing for the team. It will certainly be interesting to see whether Guardiola once again adjusts the system or continues with the same one. But with Erling Haaland announcing his arrival in style and several players’ spectacular performances, the City fans are going into the season with confidence in the team.