During his time in Germany Pep Guardiola was seeking to contain counter attacks against his team while not disrupting their dominance of possession. A Bayern Munich side with the needed quality and quantity provided the Spanish manager with options to arm up against counter attack.
At this time in football, it was common to see full backs over-lapping up the field as extra offensive players which left the team vulnerable during counter attacks. Pep’s idea was to move David Alaba and Philip Lahm inside during the possession phase as inverted full backs. Helping in the build up alongside the midfield, but more importantly to guard against counter attacks once possession was lost.
Pep tweaked this at Manchester City a bit. Instead of going into midfield Kyle Walker stays with the center backs to form a three man defence, while the left back Oleksandr Zinchenko, and previously Fabian Delph would move into midfield next to the holding midfielder when necessary. The extra man in midfield would help in the build up phase without requiring any of David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne to drop deeper, which would have meant moving them away from areas where they can cause damage.
For their game against Brighton, Pep needed an old trick against a Brighton side that set up in a way to contain City yet still hurt them. Graham Potter has used 3–4–3 predominantly this season, playing a more dynamic approach than the one Chris Hughton used. All this while still maintaining Brighton’s threat from set pieces, Glenn Murray’s hold up play, and Pascal Gross crossing ability.
City continued with their 4–3–3 system which has seen a defensive tweak this season that occasionally popped up against big sides last season. City now exclusively defend in a 4–4–1–1 shape, theoretically to prevent the opposition from outnumbering the holding midfielder in his space. Brighton’s 3–4–3 was also altered once the Seagulls had possession. The 3–4–3 moved into a 4–2–3–1 as Bernardo pushed forward, Dan Burn moved into a left back position, and Leandro Trossard floated behind the City midfield as a number 10 mainly in the left channel.
Brighton focused their play towards the left side of the field, trying to reach Trossard behind the City midfielder. They managed to bypass the City press with good passing and movements as well as some hesitance from City during the press. Hesitance that could have resulted from Trossard’s positioning behind the midfield making it tougher for Rodri and De Bruyne to push forward and press.
Despite that, Brighton only managed two major chance both falling to Trossard. Both chances however came from offensive transitions rather than the intended offensive plan. First chance came from a City corner, and the other after Martin Montoya nicked the ball off Oleksandr Zinchenko. Ederson saved the first excellent, and the second was poorly finished by Trossard.
On the other side of the border, Potter implemented a well structured plan to contain City. Returning to the 3–4–3/5–2–3 in the defensive phase, Brighton blocked the spaces for City’s front five while playing a narrow front three to contain Rodri and the two center backs. The narrow front three was a smart idea from Potter, as City have always used their center backs as creators when playing against deep compact oppositions.
City normally have no issues wrapping up the game after taking an early lead, but here they couldn’t create as many chances as they normally do. Brighton’s set up was near faultless. The compact line of five and the two holding players in front of them were used to stop City’s front five, and any overloads in the last third. The narrow front three managed to deprive Rodri and the center backs from any time on the ball. All the boxes were ticked, all but one.
City had one card up their sleeves that has went under the radar recently, moving both full backs inside instead of one. Pushing only Zinchenko next to Rodri and playing in a 3–2–2–3 shape could have been easily dealt with from Brighton’s perspective. Putting Zinchenko next to Rodri would mean that both have to be closer to each other, making it easier for the narrow front three to drop a little bit and cover.
The solution City opted to use was moving both full backs inside as midfielders. Similar to Alaba and Lahm, Zinchenko and Walker moved into the midfield as Brighton’s front three were busy containing Rodri and the center backs. Now City’s shape was more of a 2–3–2–3 when the inverted full backs moved inside making it harder for Brighton’s front three if they tried to drop as now Rodri, Zinchenko and Walker occupy a larger horizontal strip of the field.
City’s early opener was an indication of how they can strike against this Brighton team. Untracked in the left channel Zinchenko managed to find David Silva’s run behind Brighton’s defence. Mathew Ryan tried to close down on the midfielder, but Silva passed the ball for De Bruyne who scored against an empty net.
After the goal, City had issues decoding the Brighton defence and bar a good combination between David Silva and Raheem Sterling on the left side they didn’t have much threat. As the game progressed, Walker and Zinchenko moved inside more, finding spaces in the right and left channel respectively. Once fully morphed into the 2–3–2–3 shape, they struck.
It was Walker’s turn now, and mirroring the first goal he found Riyad Mahrez with a line splitting pass. Just before Walker was playing the pass, De Bruyne ran intelligently towards the space outside of Mahrez providing the Algerian with a passing option once he received the ball. Mahrez back-heeled the ball for De Bruyne, who then squared it to Sergio Aguero to resume his normal finishing duties.
City’s third was another example of how the inverted full backs worked. Free again on the left, Rodri quickly switched play to find Zinchenko. The latter moved inwards freely as the other Brighton players maintained their place in fear of breaking their compactness. Zinchenko managed to find Silva between the lines, and the Spaniard pin-balled it to Aguero with a single touch. The striker then changed the path of the ball with his left foot before curling it into the top corner with his right. A goal out of an art exhibition
Three out of City’s four goals came from one of the full backs moving into midfield then playing a pass taking out Brighton’s players out of the equation. The pre-assists of these goals were also by the full backs, twice Zinchenko and once Walker.
After the game Pep praised Brighton and their approach stating that they have played incredibly well, and had chances. “We were more clinical than the Tottenham game, today we had less and scored. The quality of Manchester City’s players make the difference” he added. Quality that can be seen in all of City’s goals on the day.
A manager’s ideas and players’ quality complete each other. Zinchenko’s history of playing as a number 10 makes him eligible to play that uncharacteristic role at full back, and Walker’s adaptation to Pep’s ideas shows his tactical understanding of the game. Michelangelo couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel using ten year old’s crayons.