After Liverpool’s dramatic win over Spurs, Manchester City knew they had to win to stay ahead of the pack. While not as clinical as we’ve come to expect, City still performed dominantly to secure the victory and returned to the top of the table.
After the injustice Warnock suffered against Chelsea, his hopes of an upset would have been diminished going into this game. A victory at the Etihad would have reduced the point-gap to two – with Burnley, Southampton and Brighton all above on 33 points.
With one eye on the FA Cup this Saturday, Guardiola made seven changes to the side that was victorious at Craven Cottage. Amongst the new faces was 18-year-old Phil Foden, who made his first league start for Manchester City. Meanwhile, Cardiff only made one change, with the introduction of Joe Ralls for Harry Arter.
Cardiff man-marking exploited by Man City
Cardiff endeavoured to man-mark Manchester City, which played into the home side’s hands. Camarasa and Niasse were tasked with marking Fernandinho, Gunnarsson on Foden and Ralls on De Bruyne. Both Ecuele Manga and Morrison shared the responsibility of quelling Jesus, while Cardiff’s full-backs and wide midfielders marshalled City’s wingers and full-backs respectively.
In City’s build-up, when Fernandinho was not presented with a dangerous progressive passing option, Jesus often dropped deep and brought a Cardiff defender with him. As circled in the image below, the defender, in this case, Ecuele Manga, left a gaping hole in Cardiff’s defence which instigated a myriad of problems.
Firstly, as the ball was played back to Fernandinho he was able to drive forward away from his markers, Niasse and Camarasa. Ahead of him was an onrushing Sané set to ghost passed Morrison and De Bruyne, marked by Ralls, who had to plug the hole left by Manga which left De Bruyne free. This move was replicated continually by City’s attack with the likes of De Bruyne and Foden penetrating the space vacated by Jesus.
Manchester City’s midfielders and attackers were constantly making these dynamic runs in order to catch Cardiff’s defensive shape off-guard.
One of the benefits of playing against a man-marking system is that you dictate where your marker goes. The home side understood this well as can be seen by De Bruyne and Foden (circled) pushing up high and wide to vacate space in the middle for Jesus to drop into.
Furthermore, Manchester City’s customary width stretched Cardiff’s back line with their full-backs often caught ball-watching and oblivious to inside runs. Given the individual quality and speed of City’s wingers, a split-second lapse of concentration from Cardiff defenders would prove costly.
City were dominant throughout as they were not pressed by Cardiff in the first phase of build-up. Rather, Cardiff initiated the press when City arrived in their half. This lack of pressure allowed John Stones and Aymeric Laporte time on the ball to pick a pass, drive forward or recycle possession.
Manchester City’s dynamic runners
Manchester City repeatedly exploited the gaps in Cardiff’s defence with darting runs. As evidenced in the image below, the likes of De Bruyne made runs down either channel to get in behind the away side’s defence.
A hallmark of Guardiola’s side this season has been the interchangeability of his attacking five. This not only shows the advanced skill-set of the players at his disposal but it also demonstrates that each City player understands how to excel in each position.
For instance, De Bruyne and Foden swapped positions with Mahrez and Sané to confuse their markers and rejuvenate their attacking shape.
The intelligent and willing forward runners combined with those capable of picking a penetrative pass make City’s transition on the counter almost seamless. This was also acquiesced by Cardiff’s man-oriented defensive approach, as their back line was often staggered trying to keep Manchester City’s attacking five at bay.
Cardiff on the other hand, seldom as their chances were, found their transitions to be virtually toothless against City. Nevertheless, with Kyle Walker caught out of position, Cardiff were presented with a chance to break on the left with Junior Hoilett.
But a lethargic pass from Niasse to Hoilett slowed the intensity of their counter down, allowing the home side to regroup. For a side as well-drilled as Manchester City, it was imperative for them to get the ball up the pitch much quicker to capitalise on their exposed defence.
This was ultimately the difference between the two sides on the night.
In the end, it was City’s individual quality and intensity that won them the game. The disparity between the two sides in transition was akin to night and day.
Cardiff saw very little of the ball and when presented with a decent opportunity to break, they had little movement and support going forward. Meanwhile, City sought to counter-press to maintain pressure on the away side in their own half.
Inevitably, Cardiff’s defensive set-up was going to falter as they’ve conceded 61 goals this season – the second most in the league. Warnock will undoubtedly be focused on his side’s relegation six-pointer, with a trip to Turf Moor in roughly a fortnight’s time.
Meanwhile for City, the games continue to come thick and fast. Their next test could see them stand one step away from lifting the FA Cup. Having made only one substitution in this victory, Guardiola is certainly hoping to secure at least a double for Manchester City this season.
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