Manchester City’s new season kicks off in less than 24 hours away to Brighton after a summer dominated by the ‘T’ word – transfers.
But how about we move away from the relentless rumours and speculation surrounding all the ins and outs at the Etihad and look at another ‘T’ word – tactics.
Pep Guardiola is undoubtedly a football genius, a tactical innovator second-to-none and technical master of the tiki-taka style of play.
He’s a sky blue thinker – in the most positive sense – a non-conformist, never lacking the courage of his convictions or the self belief that his way is the best way to play and win football matches.
That said, why, in his first season as Manchester City manager, did Pep insist on adopting the conventional ‘wisdom’ of so many others, by bringing all 10 outfield players back to defend at corners?
It’s a tactical conundrum which both puzzles and perplexes many City fans, none more so than exiled Blue Andy Bird, a ‘neighbour’ – but not too noisy – of City’s owner Sheikh Mansour, out in the United Arab Emirates.
Read But Never Red met up with him in Dubai during the summer break to talk tactics and address the perceived negatives of City defending corner kicks en masse.
The phrase ‘safety in numbers’ could be a complete misnomer in two distinct areas.
City – like most teams – defend corners with every player back. This means the opposition can push more men up, without having to worry too much about a swift counter attack.
The 18-yard box and immediate surrounds can be cluttered up by as many as 19, even 20 players, all jostling for an advantage, trying to steal half a yard on each other, get away with a sneaky foul, grab hold of an opponent’s shirt…whatever it takes in the general melee.
At 1.88m tall – that’s 6ft 2” in real money – City’s new keeper Ederson Moraes certainly looks the part – physically imposing, quick off his line, a great shot-stopper and a man who can command his area, but even he can’t act as a one man bulldozer.
As good as he is, and promises to be for City, there’ll be times when he could fall foul of the cliché, that the ‘keeper failed to come and collect the ball’. Little wonder with so many bodies to impede him.
It could be equally difficult for the 23-year old Brazilian to cope with wild deflections and ricochets when a shot, or even a miscued clearance, comes flying at him through a crowded penalty area, one that resembles a Manchester Piccadilly platform at rush hour.
Irrespective of whether it’s a zonal defence or a man-to-man marking system, there has to be a better way to enable Ederson to prevent goals going in at one end, while maximising his excellent ball distribution skills, to assist City scoring at the other.
You can have all the theories and best tactical plans under the sun, but if you lack the quality of players to make them a reality and execute on the pitch, you’re always going to come up short.
Therein lay the problem for Pep in his first season in English football.
The £200m+ summer spend has addressed many of City’s shortcomings, with the prospect of up to another £100m still to be invested before August 31st.
It’s the upgrade on more technically accomplished players, the injection of youth and pace, along with a collective mindset more attuned to Guardiola’s thinking that will make the difference.
A quantum change in repelling the threats from corner kicks would be a good starting point.
Andy said: “We should leave two of our quickest attackers (Sane and Sterling being obvious choices) on the half way line. Don’t stand them together, keep them apart, near to each touchline and really give the opposition something to think about.
“It could just as easily be Aguero and Jesus, depending on team selection, but it immediately puts the opposition on the back foot. What are they going to do about this twin threat from City?
“Are they going to risk marking them one-on-one? Will they feel it necessary to have an extra defender as cover? Which City attacker should they double up on? What if the ball breaks to the other side of the pitch, could they be exposed?”
The net outcome of this simple tactical shift is that at least three (four including the corner taker) of the opposition’s 10 outfield players are no longer attacking the ball or influencing matters in and around City’s goal.
The numbers directly involved in addressing the incoming corner kick has reduced by 25% or more, and Ederson not only has a clearer run at things and enhanced line of sight, he has two colleagues to aim for on the halfway line.
“Defensively I’ve always been a great believer in having a man on each post, even more so with the inside leg being their favoured foot for a clearance (e.g. Mendy left footed on Ederson’s right hand side and, vice versa, Walker on the left).
In essence, you’re left with City’s full backs guarding the line, half a dozen team mates possibly going man-to-man with the opposition and, most tellingly, a couple of speed merchants ready to swiftly transform defence into attack.
A few good catches and throw outs, or even repeats of Ederson’s stunning 70-yard pass to Sergio Aguero in the 3-0 pre-season win over Spurs in Nashville, and City’s opponents may well be focusing more on defending than attacking…when it’s their corner!
Can it really be that simple?
To quote the late great Bill Shankly’s homespun philosophy at Liverpool: “Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots.”
Pep Guardiola is certainly no idiot, but as fans we can but wait and see whether he’s ready to turn the tables on his opponents at each and every corner, starting at the AMEX Stadium tomorrow evening.
By David Walker & Andy Bird
Written in collaboration with a Blue Bird, who resides in Dubai and can be located on Twitter @andybird3003. It was a real pleasure spending time with you fella and talking all things City.
Dedication: There’s a tragic irony that as City embark on an exciting new season they do so without one of their biggest fans – Philip Entwistle – who passed away earlier today at the age of just 64.
Phil did as City do, he fought ‘till the end, fighting tenaciously against cancer – giving it one helluva run for its money! If there’s a Sky Blue Heaven, he’ll be there tonight chatting with the likes of Gentleman Joe Mercer and Big Malcolm Allison, reliving City glories of old.
Our thoughts and condolences are with Phil’s wife Janet, daughter Victoria, his family and his friends – he had so many – because he was a lovely guy, a big character and a cherished Blue.
The privilege was all ours young Phil…Keep The Faith.
www.readbutneverred.com @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu