Newport County stand in the 15th position of the fourth tier of English Football. Yet, they have had an incredible run in the FA Cup beating Leicester City and Middlesbrough in previous rounds. To face current Premier League leaders Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup was clearly Newport’s big ‘boss battle.’
Michael Flynn welcomed Pep Guardiola at Rodney Parade with respect yet optimism. Despite the 1:200 ratio in terms of wage bill between the two clubs, he commented that an upset would be the biggest FA cup shock. In this tactical analysis, we see how Newport put forth a commendable performance against Premier League giants Man City.
There were no surprises to City’s formation. Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden started as part of Pep’s squad rotations in Cup games to give the promising youngsters vital minutes. City still boasted a valuable squad consisting of Fernandinho, David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi. Riyaz Mahrez also started after questions raised about the £60m man’s utilisation by Guardiola this season.
Newport’s squad had no major changes. Their formation was a mutant with a 4-4-2 base but shades of their regular 3-5-2, majorly due to their dynamic press-cover relationships as we will examine.
Newport’s ‘Press-and-Cover’ clockwork
The first half started with Newport showing greater composure than City. In fact, considering the first half exclusively, it was a win for Newport. They successfully neutralised City’s positional play with a dynamic press and cover system. Their successful execution of long throw-ins almost put them in front twice had it not been for Ederson’s reflex saves.
Newport’s priority was to negate any numerical superiority that City would gain in areas of the pitch by pressing rotationally in pairs. When one partner would press, the other would cover. These rotations were exercised extensively between the striker duo and the central midfield duo. There were also some active partnerships between the fullback and wide midfielder. Thus, Newport’s formation changed dynamically depending on who was pressing and who was covering.
Integrating the wide midfielders into this pressing system helped Newport overcome City’s constant search for numerical superiority. City’s midfielders, Silva, Foden and Fernandinho were given absolutely no time on the ball. The centre-halves and inverted fullbacks constantly sought after options to play out in vain.
Jamille Matt’s control of the centre
If Pep Guardiola stated the importance of controlling the centre of the pitch as a key principle of his positional play, Michael Flynn executed it in the first half. The outcome of Newport’s dynamic press and cover was that striker Jamille Matt played a big part in controlling crucial spaces in the centre.
He displayed a phenomenal defensive work rate often tracking back all the way into the defensive third. He also added vertices to ‘boxes’ created by the Newport players to suffocate City’s central midfielders. His active positioning alongside Padraig Amond’s complemental coverage was pivotal to pulling the brakes on City.
Using the environment to their advantage
Newport made best use of their pitch conditions. Rodney Parade was labelled an unplayable surface in the competition. City’s players would need that extra touch, or that extra bit of time and space to get in position for a shot or a one-touch pass. Newport deserve full credit for making Rodney Parade work in their favour and City’s disadvantage.
Newport maintained a successful mid-press throughout the first half. City, on the other hand, couldn’t enjoy a lot of possession in their opponent’s half as they usually do. Instead, they were suffocated in the midfield by Newport.
In this way, City were completely neutralized in the first half with both teams heading to the lockers with a 0-0 scoreline.
City’s second half adaptations
With ominous flashbacks from last season’s FA Cup defeat to Wigan clouding Pep’s head, he was forced to tweak his system at half time. Pep observed that dribbling aggressively at the Newport markers forced the entire team to be pinned back. This was possibly one of the side effects of their active cover principle. City started the second half with players like Fernadinho, Foden and Zinchenko aggressively dribbling at Newport, creating spaces.
City’s first goal was a commendable partnership between Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane. City decided to play more directly rather than to build up patiently. Gabriel Jesus was pulled deeper to facilitate as a wall-passing option rather than his traditional striker role.
He was also asked to drift wider leaving the central space free for Foden and Sane to attack. Jesus having to compromise his poaching mentality helped change the way City approached the second half. As a result, Leroy Sane found the back of the net within five minutes.
Newport decided to sit deeper as a reflex to City’s first goal. The threat of a second one enforced this mentality even more. This made things harder for them, as they were more effectively controlling City in the first half by pressing higher.
A dribbler’s game, a passer’s frustration
Pep took an important lesson from the first half. Effective passing on this pitch and against this team that in typical City’s style was a struggle. However, having technical dribblers like Sane, Mahrez and Foden in the attack meant they could exploit their qualitative superiorities in 1v1 situations.
Hence, while the regular stars for City hailed for their nifty passing were frustrated, the dribblers saw a ray of hope. Jesus drifting wide to make space for them facilitated this. The 18-year-old Foden grabbed a name for himself with two spectacular solo goals. Riyad Mahrez also managed to get on the scoresheet in his defence.
Guardiola also spotted that Poole and Willmott were attacking higher up the pitch on the right side. He decided to exploit the spaces that they left behind using Jesus, Foden and Sane.
City being punished for complacency in their 18yd box: A wake-up call for Ederson?
From the beginning of the game, Ederson Moraes and his centre-halves took big risks while playing out from the back. Although Ederson has been hailed for his composure under pressure and keeping the ball at his feet, in this game he looked too casual, almost contemptuous.
Padraig Amond neatly converted a long ball with a single touch to chip Ederson giving Newport some hope of getting back into the game. His technique has to be praised. But, Ederson’s positioning in this instance only offers two explanations. He was either erroneously confident Aymeric Laporte would win the header and place it safely into his arms, or he was looking to win it himself.
Given that the goal could have been avoided had Ederson stayed on his line, Guardiola will definitely raise concerns about City’s defensive discipline at the back in the next training at the Etihad.
It wasn’t the biggest FA Cup ‘shock’ that was unlikely given the profile of the two, but at certain moments of the game, it came alarmingly close. Newport needs to be lauded for this robust performance at Rodney Parade.
Although Michael Flynn hailed Guardiola as a ‘genius’ when they shook hands, he researched the ‘genius’ meticulously. His dynamic pressing strategy in the first half to thoroughly contain City will likely prompt Guardiola to spend a couple of extra hours on his laptop re-analysing this game.
City has a busy week ahead with important fixtures in the Premier League. They are balancing a tightrope with Liverpool at the moment with both leaders level on points. City’s opponents will undoubtedly use this game as a reference to remodelling their tactical strategy to confront City.
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