Manchester City are the chameleon team who are always one step ahead

Manchester City may be the ultimate chameleon club.

Jurgen Klopp put it well after his Liverpool side were knocked out in the last 16 of the Carabao Cup by City just before Christmas.

“We are all familiar with the City,” he said. “Different ideas for different games and you have to use them constantly during the game. You never know exactly what’s going to happen.”

But while opposition managers are trying to find solutions to facing City – either by learning what has happened before or according to what is happening in front of their eyes – Guardiola and his staff have also been busy finding answers to the problems they have encountered. .

City’s possession game has been sorely tested in the past few weeks, first at Elland Road and then at Stamford Bridge. Leeds United’s approach with a narrow 4-3-3 out of possession made it difficult for City to get into their No 10s – Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan – in their 3-2-4-1 formation when they had the ball.

The thing about City, however, is that even if you stop them in one level, they can beat you in others. City’s threat level in possession level did not stop City’s train on the conversions, and Leeds were only able to score once in the first half – unsurprisingly, from a conversion.

Then at Stamford Bridge, Graham Potter used the same technique without the ball to nullify City for the first half. In the second, however, Guardiola adjusted and City were the better team after introducing Rico Lewis and keeping Rodri in midfield when they didn’t have the ball.

Lewis’s role in the double pivot of 3-2-4-1 is more daring than Bernardo Silva’s, and the young forward’s effort provides excess on the right. That, along with City’s continued pressing and counter-pressing in the second half, gave Guardiola’s side a major breakthrough after they dropped points against Everton.

Three days after Chelsea’s league games, they faced each other in the third round of the FA Cup. Again, City started with the same shape when they had the ball – 3-2-4-1 with Sergio Gomez moving inside to partner Rodri in two pivots.

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Chelsea continued with a narrow 4-3-3 when they didn’t have the ball, with Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech marking City’s double in the front three.

This time, the City is prepared. After eight minutes, they changed their shape in possession, dropping Bernardo alongside Rodri and stretching the game with Gomez and Kyle Walker operating as full backs. They move from 3-2-4-1 to 4-2-4/4-2-3-1 when they are in possession.

This is the best solution against Chelsea’s narrow 4-3-3 – Mount and Ziyech are still marking City’s two senior players, leaving space wide for City’s full backs. They had time on the ball because Chelsea’s three midfielders couldn’t afford to stretch for fear of City playing through them.

Thus, City managed to switch the game from one side to the other with the full backs under pressure to make the next move. Here, Aymeric Laporte plays the ball to Walker on the right and you can see Mateo Kovacic’s first position…

…which allows Walker to get the ball comfortably under pressure.

Then, when City wanted to turn the ball over to the other team, it was the same scenario. In the following catch, Gomez was in acres of space because Conor Gallagher was in an infield position to maintain the compactness of Chelsea’s midfield three. So when Manuel Akanji runs diagonally…

… Gomez can comfortably control the ball with Gallagher still moving across the field to defend.

The wide positioning of Walker and Gomez proved troublesome for Chelsea on more than one occasion. In this instance, Gallagher stayed in his center position and ignored Gomez out wide…

… so when Cole Palmer (blue light) was headed into the space vacated by Bashir Humphreys – who stepped up to mark Phil Foden – Trevoh Chalobah was left in a two-two-one situation.

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Palmer runs behind him (blue light) and Gomez takes a free pass in front of him (yellow). Chalobah’s body orientation says it all – he doesn’t know whether to adjust his body shape for the ball to Gomez or one to Palmer. Laporte goes for the latter, playing a pass behind Chalobah…

… and Palmer should score from this position.

In another example, Lewis Hall (No 67) is in a narrow position to maintain the compactness of Chelsea’s defensive line but Walker is making a run down the right wing. Near the central circle, Kovacic doesn’t even know what’s going on behind him, whether that’s Riyad Mahrez floating into the space or Walker providing the measure.

Rodri noticed Walker’s run and went out to England’s right-back…

Who managed comfortably because Hall couldn’t get up to press him due to Mahrez’s presence. Kovacic, meanwhile, was late to the party.

As a result, Walker has enough time and space to select a City player. He chose to take the ball into the marked Foden, than Julian Alvarez, who had made a free run into the box. The Argentine’s choice could have led to a better chance for City.

Throughout the first half, Walker and Gomez were free to get the ball out wide. Here, Kovacic is not close to Walker – who is called for the change of the game – with the ball on the other side. So, when Rodri throws the ball back at Akanji…

… The Swiss defender could easily spot Walker because Kovacic was far away and Hall couldn’t because of the threat of Mahrez behind him.

Once Walker has the ball on this side and Hall moves up, the Chelsea defense has to shift across to cover. This created a gap on the other side of the field, which was made bigger by Gallagher going inside to protect the center of the pitch and Gomez keeping a wide position on the left. After City pass the ball to the right…

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… they turned left, and Gallagher was a mile behind Gomez.

He won the ball without the Chelsea player pressing him. From this attack down the left, City won a corner that led to their first penalty, which Alvarez scored.

City’s third goal, a 17-pass move that ended with Walker cutting into Foden was also the result of turning the game from one side to the other.

Building towards the goal, City started attacking on the right side while, on the other side, Gomez kept his position wide with Gallagher near the central circle.

So when Walker dribbles past Hall, the game changes because Ziyech is marking Rodri and Gallagher is in the middle. Both are far away from Gomez on the left.

City maintained possession for two seconds, so Kovacic moved in to defend the center of the pitch. Yet again, due to this narrow position and the movement of Mount to mark Bernardo, Walker is free and signals for a change of play to the right side of City.

Rodri conceded and played the ball into Mahrez as Walker began to run ahead of him.

That run put Hall in a two-two-one scenario as Kovacic couldn’t track all this distance from his narrow midfield position. Mahrez then saw Walker run…

… and the City defender pulled the ball back for Foden to score City’s third and effectively end the game.

At half time, Potter switched to a back five to limit City’s turnovers into their full backs but it was too late. The game is over.

Guardiola is famous for his in-game adaptations. Starting with a design, then rotating mid-way through the game. Or change the players around to provide different solutions. It gives them an opportunity whenever they need one.

Maybe Klopp missed a line. Different ideas for different games, and different ideas within the same game.

Although you’re right about one thing: with City, you never know exactly what’s going to happen.

(Top image: BBC Sport)


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