Manchester City’s pressing maps guide them through Europe

Ahmed Walid
9 min readFeb 26, 2021

The beginning of Manchester City’s 19 game winning streak was initially built on solid defensive displays, notably from Ruben Dias and John Stones. City’s chance creation problems left them over-dependent on Kevin De Bruyne.

That was before the transformation. Since the Newcastle United home game in December, they have been devouring opponents for breakfast. A solid defensive line was dovetailed with an attacking structure that Bernardo Silva referred to as a “map” after the game against Borussia Moenchengladbach. “We have a map, we have a way of playing, and players get injured, some players can’t play for many reasons and our style of play doesn’t change.”

When you imagine a map, you would think it’s a rectangular sheet of paper. City’s however is the one you only see in futuristic Sci-Fi movies. A holographic map that covers each and every aspect of the game. The one that pops up out of a cube and glows blue in the room. City’s might not pop up out of a cube, more of a skull. A Spanish skull to be precise.

The map shows them their voyage. A path which when they finish, then they could only be eligible for the true mastery of the game.

Pep Guardiola’s reply when asked by The Athletic’s Sam Lee about the reason behind changing tactics after the derby game was that City moved too much. “The reason why we didn’t play too good, we move too much, run too much. In football when you have the ball always you have to walk, and run at the right moment.

That was only half of the answer, the rest of the answer was clearly illustrated against Liverpool, Arsenal and Moenchengladbach. “And when we don’t have the ball we have to run like it’s the last ball in your life.”

After showcasing supremacy in possession, Manchester City are currently showcasing supremacy out of possession. Which was key in smothering Moenchengladbach on Wednesday night.

Initially, City’s shape out of possession was more of a 4–4–2 with Bernardo Silva partnering Gabriel Jesus upfront. The pressing wasn’t intense, merely blocking off the passing options.

That was until the ball reached Moenchengladbach’s right center back, Matthias Ginter. The pass to Ginter was the pressing trigger for City to close down on Gladbach, and shift to a more intense press. Bernardo Silva here was slowly approaching the defender while blocking the passing lane into Christoph Kramer.

Then when Ginter exchanged passes with Yann Sommer, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva were already making the run towards Ginter even before the defender received the ball.

Resulting in a situation like this where Ginter is lacking options. Foden is closing him down, Bernardo Silva is blocking the pass into Kramer, Gabriel Jesus is preventing any switch of the play to the other side of Gladbach’s build up and Ilkay Gundogan is tracking Denis Zakaria to remove the option of progressing up the field. Ginter though, managed to find a small hole to squeeze a pass into Stefan Lainer, Gladbach’s right back.

But Foden’s positioning meant that he is near enough to force Lainer into a pass back to Ginter, going back to square one. The reason isn’t only that Foden is closing down, every other option is still blocked by the smart positioning of the Manchester City players. Ginter eventually went long and City managed to recover the ball.

The situation kept occurring. Like a predator waiting for his prey to make the move he was anticipating. City waited till the ball was played to Ginter, then they closed down. Again, Jesus closing down on Ginter while blocking the passing lane into Zakaria, Bernardo Silva tracking Kramer while also preventing a pass into the other side of Gladbach’s build up. Meanwhile, Foden and Gundogan are doubling up to sweep any ball down the line, whether short range or medium range. The end result? Ginter goes long and Aymeric Laporte collects the ball easily.

A pass into Ginter was the trigger and once the ball reached the defender’s feet, City swarmed him like bees. Closing him down, blocking his passing options and using Gundogan as a safety net for the press as explained above.

In this situation, Lainer had to pass the ticking bomb to Sommer. Jesus, Silva and Foden closed down to press the keeper and block his passing options. A pass into Kramer or Zakaria isn’t possible because of Silva and Foden’s positioning, while Jesus is blocking the pass towards Ginter down the byline. Sommer tried to play a smart pass into the space, but Gundogan managed to sweep successfully.

At times, Foden was starting his run towards Ginter even before Ginter received the ball. The body shape of Sommer and Bernardo Silva’s positioning means that the pass into Ginter is inevitable, and that was the trigger for Manchester City.

Smothering the defender into the corner, blocking his passing options and forcing him into the only solution left. Going long.

Throughout the ninety minutes, City’s impressive pressing was only matched with their readiness to sweep the forced passes and long balls. In this example, Rodri managed to collect and find Jesus in an excellent position with Gladbach’s defence yet to organize themselves. Only a misunderstanding between Raheem Sterling and Jesus denied City the opener.

The opener did come eventually, and directly after it Guardiola called Jesus to the touchline to inform him of a change in the pressing shape and scheme. Moving into a 4–4–1–1 shape out of possession, with Bernardo Silva now dropping behind Kramer.

This switch in shape out of possession made sense. As now with the game state changed and Gladbach a goal down, they will try to control the game through possession. And that means involving Kramer and Florian Neuhaus more in the build up phase.

City shifted their focus from Ginter and the pressing trigger that was the pass into him, to making sure Neuhaus and Kramer don’t get on the ball.

Silva who would have earlier been trying to close down the defenders and blocking the passing lanes into the midfielders, was now tasked with marking the midfielders. Making sure the defenders think twice before making the pass into Kramer or Neuhaus. Nico Elvedi knows that and here he chooses to go wide to Ramy Bensebaini.

Silva kept breathing down Neuhaus’ neck….

…..till he forced the attack backwards when Neuhaus received the ball towards the touchline. By then, Jesus had dropped to do the main task which is nullifying Neuhaus’ partner, Kramer. The operation was successful and Jesus managed to nick the ball off the German midfielder.

When Silva was marking one of Kramer or Neuhaus, the other was always marked by another City player. In the previous example it was Jesus, here you can spot Foden going inside to be near Neuhaus.

That could also be seen in the second half. Bernardo Silva and Foden were focusing their attention on Kramer and Neuhaus, with Jesus forcing Sommer and the center backs into making the passes.

The most interesting part is that Foden and Silva were already making the runs towards the player receiving the ball — Neuhaus here — even before the pass is made.

The consequence is that both closed down on Neuhaus and forced the midfielder into an unfavorable pass out wide to the touchline, after which City regained possession. Any form of build up from Gladbach was continuously eradicated by Manchester City’s pressing.

They also managed to create a goal scoring chance from the second pressing scheme. With the ball at Elvedi’s feet, it was Rodri partnering up with Bernardo Silva to mark Kramer and Neuhaus. That’s because Foden was ready to press Bensebaini — before the pass was made. Eventually, the press forced Bensebaini into making an error due to the lack of passing options, but Jesus missed the opportunity to double the lead.

In possession, City had some problems in the build up phase during the first half because of Gladbach’s smart and efficient pressing scheme. However, once City bypassed the press, or the attack originated from a ball recovery higher up the pitch, City had a clear idea of how to attack Gladbach.

The man of the hour, Joao Cancelo curled in-swinging crosses from the left channel towards the attacking midfielder — mainly Bernardo Silva — running into the box and creating a situation of a 3 v 2 on a cross.

The issue in the first half was that Cancelo didn’t always choose the correct option despite the midfielders making the right run. Here, Bernardo Silva is making an excellent run in the box…

…..but Cancelo opted to go wide to Sterling despite Bernardo Silva being in the perfect space between Elvedi and Bensebaini.

Another example sees Gundogan pointing to Cancelo where he wants the ball….

….but Cancelo played a short pass into Rodri, leaving Gundogan irritated.

Regardless, that doesn’t lessen Cancelo’s effect on the game. Because when these crosses were made, they were exquisite. Here, he found Bernardo Silva with one of these passes….

….and a quicker decision by Bernardo Silva could have made the attack more threatening.

Moreover, City’s two goals on the night also came from these crosses. The first when Bernardo Silva made an identical run in-between Elvedi and Bensebaini which was found by Cancelo’s beautiful cross.

Then the second when Bernardo Silva sneaked to the far post untracked because of the 3 v 2 situation created by his run.

For the neutrals this might not have been the most eye-catching football game. A dominant display from Manchester City out of possession and a clever idea once they were past the build up phase, gave them a comfortable two goals advantage going into the second leg.

Inside a maze as big as football, a map might come in handy.