It’s been a nice time to be back in the middle of Manchester City recently, if only because the squad seems more committed to the fundamental concept of defending
And so the Kings of Carabao are marching on.
A lot of energy has been spent debating how much the great midfield fetishist, the king of possession, has changed English soccer over the course of Pep Guardiola’s four years at Manchester City. Who would have thought English soccer would eventually change him, too?
With a goal scored by a 6-foot-9 English center back, City took the lead in this League Cup semifinal after 50 minutes. Three minutes after bringing on a second defensive midfielder, they sealed the win with a long-range shot from a defensive midfielder to further ease the pressure on their well-organized defense.
The opening target was the reward for a beautiful cross from the left where at the right moment John Stones found the right run and deflected the ball away from what the TV analyst called his “inside thigh” and into the net.
More than anything, though, that moment was a good little bonus, a little extra in the Stones stocking, which in Manchester City’s enhanced defense has become a calm and commanding figure.
Although Stones happened to be back in the squad, there was a lot of talk about City’s strength.
To simply attribute this to his long-standing sense of cool, clear form and lack of errors would be superficial.
The tightness in defense was structural, a consequence of this season’s more conservative approach to Guardiola.
Stones, however, made the most of his chance and was once again an outstanding record, completing 96 percent of his passes – a figure that is often insignificant, but a reflection of his ease on the ball, careful positioning and the extra ballast that comes with a strengthened midfield and more conservative full-back positioning.
It’s been a nice time lately to be a center back at Manchester City, if only because the squad seemed more committed to the simple concept of defending.
In that position, the Stones shone. He looks like the safest English centre back in the league after being off the radar for so long and is a shoo-in for a return to England.
At City, Stones also found the world to his liking.
There were glimpses of the unexpected at times in this semifinal – not only a strong Pep, but a Pep with direct soccer, a Pep with long balls, a Pep who looks for the POMO, works the mixer, initiates the diagonal, and plays all stuff in percentages.
Of course, this is a huge exaggeration. Guardiola set up his squad as the nominal fake nine and seven midfielders with Kevin De Bruyne anyway (one was substituted).
And City dominated possession, had a 40-minute mark of 70% possession, relied fearlessly on possession, on fullbacks heading into the middle, and on position rotation.
But there have also been some shifts in the City team’s tone and structure that have been intriguingly present in this cup match. There has been a period of locking down and general barricading in recent weeks.
The change was for greater defensive density with a defensive two-man midfield and less overlap with the cavalry, containing vulnerability to counter-attack.
As City gradually took the air out of United’s swift, high-pressing game, Fernandinho returned to the side here and delivered a stately masterstroke of calm defensive play.
As was the case in Pep’s early peak years, this city appeared to lull their rivals rather than win games in the first ten minutes.
And eventually, alongside the United full-backs, they found their tiny eddies.
Raheem Sterling’s overlapping run opened up space for De Bruyne, who steered a shot against the post.
Since Guardiola lost his two center forwards, the structure with the false nine in the middle has come out of necessity.
But it’s also a style that he’s favored in the past, and one that he’s been diverted from over the past four years by inheriting a world-class finisher.
The move from inverted wingers to plain wingers is another side effect of the more conservative scheme, a switch that led directly to the grilling of Chelsea’s full-backs on Sunday afternoon, none of whom were prepared for the endless foot runs to the touchline.