Tactical analysis of how Man City broke Bournemouth down to go top

Artwork by @chapulana.

As Manchester City are fighting for the title, every game is important right now. In this week’s away game at the Vitality Stadium against AFC Bournemouth, Pep Guardiola’s side managed to get the crucial three points. Thanks to Riyad Mahrez, who scored the only goal of the game, the Skyblues won the game 1-0. After the Liverpool draw in the Merseyside derby, City are now at the top of the Premier League table. Eddie Howe’s team on the other side are now at 12th position after gameday 29. This tactical analysis will explain how Manchester City managed to secure a crucial win in the title race.


Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Starting XIs

Concerning Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, there were no surprises. The formation was a 4-3-3 as always. With Fernandinho missing, Ilkay Gündogan once again started in the holding midfielder position. Furthermore, John Stones, who came back from an injury, played alongside Otamendi. So with Fernandinho out and Stones back, the experiment of playing a midfielder as centre-back is over. As Laporte also missed the game due to an injury, once again Zinchenko played as left-back.

Eddie Howe was in a much more difficult situation than his opponent, as he once again had many players who were unable to play. Jefferson Lerma sat out the last game of his two-game ban, while other important players like Callum Wilson or Dominic Solanke were injured. Howe decided that the usual 4-4-2 system wasn’t playable in this game and changed his formation to an ultra-defensive 5-4-1. Joshua King would remain as the sole striker, and the only real attacking option.

A one-sided game

Before the game even started, it was clear how the match would look. The following 90 minutes met all prior beliefs. It would be an understatement to say that City dominated the game. 23-0 in shots does speak for itself. With 82% of possession and 809 to 176 passes, Manchester City truly showed a great possession-oriented game. Although Manchester City played five times more passes than Bournemouth, Eddie Howe’s team actually played almost twice as many long balls (60 to 38) as City. It may sound somewhat superficial, but these figures already tell us everything we need to know about the tactical approach of both coaches.

Bournemouth defend in a passive 5-4-1 shape

As stated earlier, Eddie Howe used a 5-4-1 formation. The following image provides an example of this.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Bournemouth defending in a passive 5-4-1 shape

The back line was positioned rather wide. The reason for that is that City’s wingers Sterling and Bernardo Silva were most of the time positioned extremely wide as well. Pep Guardiola wants his wingers to stay near the sideline in order to maximise the playing space. Thus, he makes it more difficult for the opponent to defend, as they have to keep an eye on the whole width of the field. Additionally, having extremely gifted players, Guardiola wants to provoke one-on-one situations for his wingers. Because of these reasons, the back-five may have been a reasonable idea from Eddie Howe.

In this image, we see right-back Kyle Walker near the sideline, while Bernardo Silva decided to stay more in the half-space. The reason for this is Kevin de Bruyne, who fell back to help with the build-up. As he isn’t positioned in the half-space between the lines, Bernardo Silva takes his position and Kyle Walker now provides width.

The midfield line of Bournemouth is rather passive and only wants to block passing lanes. Neither Bernardo Silva nor David Silva can receive the ball between the lines, but this causes a rather huge gap between the two central midfielders, opening a passing option to Aguero. While this image doesn’t exactly show Bournemouth defending very deep around the own box, the following images provide much more extreme examples.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Every Bournemouth player is around the box – no space available for City

Here, we get an idea of why City only managed to score one goal. Bournemouth not only defended extremely deep, but also incredibly compact. The distance between the centre-backs and striker King is more or less 15 meters. De Bruyne and Silva are in the middle of the circled area, between the lines. Once one of them receives the ball, it isn’t quite unrealistic that up to four or five opponents would attack within a second. Therefore, playing through the middle seems impossible. City were allowed to do whatever they wanted until the area where Joshua King was positioned. Bournemouth didn’t put pressure on the ball, since they weren’t afraid of a long ball. But when City played into the final third, Bournemouth would defend aggressively, and with so many players. Thus, City tried to stay calm and move the ball as well as the opponent from one side to the other.

Bournemouth were aggressive on the wings

As Bournemouth knew that Guardiola wanted to create one-on-one situations for his wingers, they were very aggressive defending on the wings.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Bournemouth shifting to the wing and closing it

Here, Sterling receives the ball on the wing. But there is no chance that he could create a one-on-one situation. David Silva and Zinchenko support him, like De Bruyne and Walker did on the other wing. But most of the time, there was no chance of breaking through. Zinchenko tried a few crosses, but with Aguero in the box against three centre-backs, this was not the way to go. When Bournemouth had enough time to shift to the wing, the task would become more and more difficult. So, City occasionally used an interesting approach to prevent Bournemouth from shifting this aggressively.

City try to prevent Bournemouth from shifting to the wings

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
City’s wing attack with Zinchenko and Sterling

In this image, Zinchenko builds-up the attack from the left half-space. Notice that Bournemouth haven’t shifted yet to the wing in order to close it. Sterling makes a short-run for Zinchenko.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Sterling tricks the defender

Now we see that Sterling’s run was a move to trick the defender. Sterling changes his moving direction rapidly and makes a run behind the back line into the open space. Zinchenko seizes the opportunity and plays the ball into the open space.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Sterling breaks through

Sterling receives the ball and the defender is overplayed. So this attacking pattern was an idea to find a solution against this kind of defensive approach.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Bournemouth with a lot of defenders in the box

When City were able to break through, this was nonetheless no guarantee that they would get a good scoring opportunity. This image shows a situation where Sterling is through, but six Bournemouth players are still in the box ready to defend. Seconds later, every player of Bournemouth is in the box. The fact that the area in front of goalkeeper Boruc was crowded the whole time made it difficult for City to score.

False full-backs and Silva and De Bruyne between the lines – business as usual at City

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Walker in the half-space during the build-up – De Bruyne and Silva between the lines

In the build-up, sometimes Kyle Walker would stay in the half-space instead of being near the sideline. The same occurs for left back Zinchenko. Often analysed throughout the season, this is nothing new. It seems though that with time, the players are now better aware of when to stay wide and when to stay in the half space. De Bruyne and David Silva tried to play their usual game between the lines, but as we have mentioned, this was somehow difficult in this particular game.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Silva and de Bruyne between the lines – but little space

In this game, the distance between the two defending lines of Bournemouth was very little. On top of that, the midfield-four of Bournemouth always tried to close the passing lane to David Silva and De Bruyne. This was their main aim. Therefore, De Bruyne and David Silva weren’t able to get the others into action

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Silva can turn, but the continuation remains difficult

In those rare occasions where Silva or De Bruyne received the ball between the lines and were able to turn, the tightness of the available space was obvious. The continuation of the attack in the final third was then very difficult. Here, Silva was able to turn and attack the back line. But he has so little time that he has to make an instant decision. Obviously, the first idea that comes to mind is to play the ball through to Aguero. But the Argentinian is tightly marked and there is no space behind the back line, so even though Aguero receives the ball, he isn’t able to produce something productive.

City’s gegenpress was remarkable

Bournemouth, on the other hand, weren’t particularly interested in building-up from the back. Instead, their plan was to play a long ball to King as soon as they gained possession. But City were always able to regain possession instantly, so it was no surprise that Bournemouth didn’t even have a single shot throughout the game.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Immediate pressure – Gundogan misplaced

Here, we see an example of City losing the ball. David Silva and De Bruyne immediately put pressure on the ball. Gundogan is somewhat misplaced.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Stones fills the gap defending forward

However, Stones is there to fill the gap. As he slips, Otamendi wins the ball from Fraser. In this particular match, the City defenders could be enormously aggressive defending forward, as only Joshua King provided some potential danger. Throughout the whole game, City didn’t run into a dangerous counter-attack. Nonetheless, bearing in mind that City are highly ambitious in the Champions League, Pep Guardiola might want to pray that Fernandinho will be ready soon. Gundogan is a great player, but covering his teammates in the immediate press after losing possession might not be one of his many strengths.

Lucky goal secures well-deserved victory

Even though Manchester City overall did play a good game, it was still difficult for them to score. The shot statistics suggest that City had many shots, but few were really dangerous. In fact, the only goal of the game resulted from a situation where Bournemouth couldn’t clear the ball and in a chaotic moment, David Silva received the ball. He then played the ball to Mahrez, who received the ball in the following position.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
Mahrez gets the ball from Silva after a chaotic situation

Because of an injury, Kevin de Bruyne had to be substituted. So Mahrez came into the game, playing on the right-wing while Bernardo Silva moved to the centre. When Mahrez got the scoring opportunity, he took his chance. Although the shot itself wasn’t all that great, he managed to score the only goal of the game.

In the last minutes of the game, people were expecting Bournemouth to risk more, as they still had theoretical drawing chances. But the following image is a good example for the missing braveness of Bournemouth.

Manchester City Bournemouth Premier League Tactical Analysis Analysis
A rare attack for Bournemouth

Only three players attack, while City have six players. After being able to overplay the press of City, which was difficult enough throughout the game, one would expect that the Bournemouth players would try to attack fearlessly as the game is going to end soon. But in this game, there was no way Bournemouth would ever score.


City played like they always do under Guardiola. High possession figures, many short passes. Eddie Howe on the other side had a totally different approach, as Bournemouth concentrated on defending as deep as possible. Hence, it’s no surprise that Bournemouth didn’t even have a single shot throughout the game. Defensively, they did a great job though. As the centre was closed, City tried to attack through the wings, but Bournemouth managed to defend properly. In the end, a lucky moment led to the only goal scored by Mahrez. With this crucial win, City are back at the top of the table in the Premier League.

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