Manchester City’s disappointing draw to Southampton was not due to the lack of a striker, but rather the inability to build their attack effectively
On Saturday’s lackluster performance in a 0–0 draw, many fans started speaking up with the usual complaints when Manchester City have trouble scoring: City need a clinical striker to score the goals, and the absence of that is the reason they had trouble scoring. However, against Southampton, that was simply not the case. Pep Guardiola mirrored this sentiment in his comments after the game, stating,
“Today we didn’t win not because we don’t have a CF, we didn’t win because we didn’t make better balls for the players up front, and when they are good you can run and take up different positions. We had one shot on target but 4/5 were blocked, but that (CF) is not the reason. The reason is the process, the back four and Fernandinho have to bring the ball to the other guys but today it was not good. We were not fresh in our mind, sometimes there are these days.” (Courtesy of Sam Lee)
When watching the match, the problems with City’s build up play was the biggest reason why City did not score any goals. In fact, Sterling in the striker position was largely excellent and Grealish’s may have had best match in a City shirt, but they simply were not afforded as many chances due to the lackluster build-up play.
The lineup wasn’t ideal for Pep Guardiola, but he was forced into it due to defensive injuries such as John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Zinchenko, and Rodri. It is unclear who would have played if they were all fit, but the lineup would not have looked like this. City’s back line, especially Ake and Dias were largely excellent in defending against Southampton. However, of City’s four center-backs, Ake and Dias are the two who are least comfortable on the ball. As many people know, Pep Guardiola requires center-backs who are comfortable on the ball and able to make line-breaking passes as well as carry the ball forward. Laporte and Stones exemplify this style of playing. While Dias is improving week-by-week on the ball, and Ake is also comfortable, they are simply not at the level of Stones and Laporte in that area. These skills are particularly important against a team like Southampton who presses their opponents with intensity. Having a player like Stones or Laporte would allow City to break down Southampton’s press more effectively, as they could pass through Southampton’s defense easier. For the most part, Dias and Ake didn’t necessarily make too many mistakes in their build-up play, but they largely played it safe. They rarely attempted many passes that broke through Southampton’s lines to get the ball up to players like Gundogan, Bernardo, or even Sterling. Rather, much of their passes were safer and did not break down Southampton’s defense. Here’s one example of Ake playing it safe rather than building up through the midfield:
Fernandinho and Walker both made themselves available in the midfield to overload Southampton get through the initial press. Many times in the past, we’ve seen Laporte in this situation either pass the ball quicker into the midfield or carry the ball up to have a lane to make that pass. Ake chose a safer route.
To break Southampton’s press, City deployed an attacking scenario that they also used against Leipzig, another team who presses vigorously. A fullback tucks into the midfield very close to the defensive midfielder, makes a one-touch pass to the defensive midfielder after receiving the ball, and the defensive midfielder can fire a pass forward to another midfielder or winger to start a favorable attacking scenario. Here is one of the many times in which that worked against Leipzig:
Ake passed the ball through the lines to Zinchenko, who played a one-touch pass to Rodri, and Rodri immediately was able to turn and find an open Mahrez in space. This run of play ended in City getting a corner kick, resulting in their first goal of the game against Leipzig.
In City’s match against Southampton, they attempted a similar strategy in midfield to break Southampton’s press:
In this run of play, Walker joined Fernandinho close in midfield to attempt to make a couple of quick passes and break through the press. Unfortunately, Ruben Dias misplaced the pass to Walker, so he could not lay it off to Fernandinho and begin the attack.
The problems with progressing the ball forward was not limited to Ake and Dias. Two other main culprits of affecting the build-up play were Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus. Neither of the two Brazilians played their best on Saturday, and they were unable to help City in their progression through many parts of the match.
Gabriel Jesus has been playing on the right wing in recent matches, and one of the responsibilities in City’s system is for wingers to drop a little deeper in the build-up to assist with another point of attack. On Saturday, Jesus gave the ball away too many times in the first half down the right flank, stunting potential promising attacks. Here are a couple of first-half examples of this:
Pep Guardiola noticed that Jesus was too loose with the ball in the first half as well, which is why he moved Jesus to striker and Sterling to the right wing for the second half.
Many City fans debate between whether Rodri or Fernandinho should be the starting defensive midfielder, but they both have different qualities that can help City in different ways. Fernandinho is a destroyer in midfield who is masterful at breaking up play for the opponents. Rodri’s strength is in ball retention and distribution. Rodri very rarely loses the ball or misplaces passes, and is very good at passing through the lines to begin City’s attack. On Saturday, Manchester City really missed Rodri’s strengths. Fernandinho misplaced passes multiple times in the midfield in places where Rodri may not have, and it resulted in less sustained attacks. Fernandinho’s choice of passing also lent itself to giving the ball away more often. He sometimes chose passes that are either more difficult or to players who are less open.
Here is one scenario in which he elects to make the tougher pass rather than the simple one, and it results in a loss of possession:
Fernandinho attempted the harder ball to Grealish on the wing rather than the easier pass to Bernardo Silva was available. Here is another scenario where Fernandinho’s choice of pass was puzzling:
Again, in this scenario, he had Bernardo open on the left hand side for a pass. Rather, he tries to find Sterling in between multiple Southampton defenders, resulting in another loss of possession.
In the second half, Fernandinho was misplacing more passes. He misplaced a pass to a running Bernardo that looked as if it was the beginning of a promising attack as well.
After some frustration, Pep Guardiola opted to sub off Fernandinho in the 65th minute and moved Gundogan into the defensive midfield role. The possible theory behind why he did this was in order to give the defensive midfield position a little more stability and control. From that point on City did better at sustaining their attacks for the rest of the match with Gundogan pulling the strings.
City’s trouble building up became apparent to Pep Guardiola very early in the match, as he made many adjustments throughout the match. City started the game lined up like this:
In the first 15 minutes, City was having trouble building attacks, so Pep Guardiola switched Bernardo and Gundogan for about 7–8 minutes, and City looked as if they were starting to gain a little more control in the game. He made the switch permanent starting the second half as well. As discussed above, he also switched the positioning of Sterling and Jesus, so the second half positioning, looked more like this:
He switched Bernardo and Gundogan for a couple of possible reasons: 1) They went back to their more favored side in which to they are used to playing, and 2) They can receive the ball on their strong foot and be able to turn easier towards the middle of the field. For example, when a right-footed Gundogan received a pass on the right side, it is natural for him to turn right with the ball on his foot. That would naturally make him turn outside and have less passing options. When Gundogan is on the left side, he can naturally turn right on his foot and he would be positioned in the middle of the field where he has more options and space with the ball. As City had trouble getting to that point, Pep may have figured that this adjustment would make it easier for City to build up, and it did.
Overall, City’s match against Southampton was an unusual one. City is built to play out from the back, but they had a lot of trouble doing it on Saturday. It may have been from a mix of fatigue, a drop in sharpness, numerous injuries, and Southampton’s pressing. Regardless of what caused these problems, City’s inability to score was not due to the lack of a striker, but the struggle in building their attack.