Any team that commits too many men forward in search of a goal and will leave themselves light at the back, and Manchester City are no different. But this season, their tactic for dealing with that particular problem has dramatically improved.
To charge City with having a counter-attack weakness is a little bit simple. After all, that’s pretty much saying just what you’d expect: they’re attacking and have been suspect at the back for years, so they must be vulnerable on the counter. This season, they have the joint-best defensive record in the league, and so surely any criticism there is somewhat clutching at straws.
Last season, though, they certainly were vulnerable. With Pablo Zabaleta’s advancing years taking yards off his pace, and with Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna all well past their best, City certainly lacked in the full-back department. That’s been rectified, but it’s strange that the same criticisms would apply. Importantly, too, the goalkeeper has changed.
The reasons why City have improved so dramatically are down to these changes, and perhaps two men in particular: Kyle Walker and Ederson.
Both players were brought into the club for hefty fees which raised eyebrows at the time. Walker from Spurs was always going to cost plenty of money, but the way Tottenham seemed to rub their hands with glee upon receiving nearly £50m now looks very short-sighted indeed. Meanwhile, Ederson, coming from Benfica, was fairly unknown in this country, and as such the fee of around £35m was deemed incredibly steep.
Six months or so later, though, and these fees have been justified, and if City have been caught on the break over the last few weeks, it’s largely been stopped due to the work of one of those two.
Walker’s contribution has been the more obvious. As the fastest defender in the side, flying back down the pitch to make tackles is a huge part of his contribution to the side. And in the absence of John Stones and Benjamin Mendy, City have naturally looked less assured than they normally would do, so the former Tottenham man’s physical attributes have been greatly needed.
But it’s also his mental ones which have stood out.
Before the derby on Sunday, Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho commented on City’s tactical fouls – which is one way Guardiola’s side stop counter-attacks when they’re not well set at the back. After just three minutes at Old Trafford, Walker duly committed a tactical foul to stop a United break and was duly cautioned. What impressed, though, was his understanding of the danger, how he could sense it straight away, even though it was so early in the game. And even more impressive was his ability to control himself later in the game and spend almost an entire 90 minutes tracking back counter-attacks without risking another card.
Then there’s Ederson, another crucial cog in the City defensive machine.
His ability to be quick off his line and keep a starting position high up the pitch means balls over the top of his defence’s very high line aren’t an option for the opposition who are looking to counter, and they have to find an alternative pass or else lose possession by firing it over the top to Ederson. Finding that pass is hard, though, when the rest of the City side are pressing heavily.
And so City may well be most vulnerable to counter-attacks, but the way they play – especially now that they have the players to actually implement such a game-plan – means they’re certainly not as vulnerable as they were last season. They are vastly improved, as everyone can see, but how long will it be before we stop wondering if City are still suspect at the back?