DECEMBER 2 — Manchester City’s spectacular start to the English Premier League season has led many people to conclude they already have one hand on the trophy, and that it will take something special and unexpected to prevent Pep Guardiola’s team from being crowned champions.
Not only have they been winning games, they’ve also been doing so in a free-flowing and convincing style which has left a string of opponents outclassed and well beaten, with City winning eight of their first 12 league games by at least two goals.
Wednesday night certainly wasn’t like that, though, with City only managing to rescue a 2-1 victory against Southampton thanks to a brilliant goal from Raheem Sterling in the final seconds of stoppage time.
It was probably the worst performance of the season from the EPL leaders, who were constantly frustrated by a visiting team which did what every team should when they come up against an opponent blessed with superior talent: refusing to allow them to play to their strengths.
It’s no secret that Guardiola exclusively employs a possession game with a strong emphasis on short passes along the ground and domination of midfield.
The former Barcelona coach has made his coaching career on that style of play, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets at his first club making way for Xabi Alonso, Philippe Lahm and Thiago Alcantara at Bayern Munich and now David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan at City.
And naming three players from each of those teams is no accident, because City’s players nearly always have at least two passing options, with the team seeming to move around the pitch in triangles.
On Wednesday it was Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne on the left; Nico Otamendi, Fernandinho and Vinny Kompany from defence; Fabian Delph, Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus on the left; Sergio Aguero, de Bruyne and Gundogan through the middle…everywhere you looked, every player was occupying one point of a triangle.
These triangles are fluid, naturally — it didn’t always have to be the same three players and the movement of the ball constantly creates new shapes — but it is rare to see any City player receive possession without having two teammates in close proximity to receive and then give a pass.
Having those options is crucial to make a short passing game work because they allow passes to be made at a high tempo, which is absolutely essential.
It doesn’t matter if your team is full of the best passers in the world: if there is too much of an interval between the delivery of the passes, it’s easy for the opposition defence to stay organised and block the route to goal.
To create chances — which is really the ultimate ambition of any attacking tactical scheme — the passes have to come quickly enough to create new angles, dragging the defenders out of their collective structure and working the ball into a shooting position before they have time to reset.
City aren’t the only team to employ this approach, of course, but it is something Guardiola has always mastered: his teams don’t just pass the ball, they pass it quickly, prising open holes in the opposition penalty area which are then filled by goal-hungry forwards.
There was a brilliant early example on Wednesday when de Bruyne, Aguero and Sterling combined on the right corner of the penalty area, exchanging passes at a speed which gave Southampton’s defenders no chance of closing down the danger, although nothing came of the attack after a wayward final ball.
Midway through the first half, a similar example came when Aguero, Gundogan and Jesus linked up with a series of lightning fast first touch passes on the edge of the box, resulting in Jesus having a shot saved and Gundogan firing the rebound into the side-netting.
Again: triangles and speed, and the opposition defence couldn’t do anything about it.
But the unusual thing on Wednesday was that they rarely happened, with Southampton’s defenders reacting swiftly enough and concentrating sufficiently on the movement of both the players and the ball to snuff out most of City’s attacks before they could properly get started.
The visitors also played a deliberately slow game, eking out as much time as possible for any stoppage — taking throw-ins and corners exceedingly slowly, stopping the game whenever possible and doing everything they could to successfully break up City’s rhythm.
With their usual approach thwarted, City’s opening goal came from a much more mundane route: a free-kick from de Bruyne which was deflected into his own goal by visiting defender Virgil van Dyke.
But City had been hustled out of their stride and failed to make their advantage count before Southampton grabbed a shock equaliser through Oriol Romeu — who had, ironically enough, been given his first team debut as a youngster by Guardiola during their time together at Barcelona.
Still, though, City didn’t panic, and their winning goal came with a variety on the triangles theme as Sterling cut in from the left and, rather than playing a hit and hope ball into the box, exchanged passes with de Bruyne to create the space he needed to unload a shot.
That finish was magnificent, and of course it’s easier score goals when you can curl the ball into the top corner from 20 yards — passing triangles can only take you so far.
For Southampton, who had done everything right, it was cruel. But they have, at least, shown the way forward for other teams charged with the task of stopping City this season: make them play slowly, and break up their triangles.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.