Manchester City are the chameleon team who are always one step ahead

Manchester City could be the ultimate chameleon team.

Jurgen Klopp spoke well after his Liverpool side were knocked out of the Carabao Cup round of 16 by Manchester City on Christmas Eve.

“We all know Manchester City,” he said. “Different games have different ideas and you always have to get used to it in the game. You never know what’s going to happen.”

But while opposing managers try to find solutions to face City – either by studying what happened before or adapting to what’s in front of them – Guardiola and his staff have also been busy figuring out what they face. The answer.

City’s possession game has been sorely tested away from home over the past few weeks, first at Elland Road and then at Stamford Bridge. Leeds United’s 4-3-3 formation made it harder for City to reach their No 10s – Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan – in possession while their 3-2- 4-1 formation.

However, the thing about City is that even if you stop them at one stage, they can beat you at other stages. Limiting City’s threat in possession didn’t stop City’s train in transition, and Leeds were lucky to concede just once in the first half – unsurprisingly, in transition.

Then at Stamford Bridge, Graham Potter used a similar method to disable City in the first half without the ball. In the second game, however, Guardiola adjusted and City emerged as the better side after bringing in Rico Lewis and keeping Rodri in midfield when they didn’t have the ball.

Lewis’ role in the double pivot of a 3-2-4-1 formation is bolder than Bernardo Silva’s, and the youngster’s forward movement provides overload on the right. This, combined with City’s increased pressing and counter-pressing in the second half, saw Guardiola’s side secure an important victory after dropping points against Everton.

Three days after that Chelsea league game, they met in the third round of the FA Cup. Likewise, City started with the same formation when on the ball – 3-2-4-1, with Sergio Gomez paired with Rodri inside.

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Chelsea continued to play in a reduced 4-3-3 without the ball, with Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech manning City’s double in front of the midfield three.

This time, Manchester City was ready. Eight minutes later, they changed possession, placing Bernardo next to Rodri and extending the attacking range with Gomez and Kyle Walker at full-back. When they had the ball, they went from a 3-2-4-1 to a 4-2-4/4-2-3-1.

It was a good solution to Chelsea’s narrow 4-3-3 formation – Mount and Ziyech were still marking City’s two holding midfielders, leaving room for City’s full-backs. They had time on the ball as Chelsea’s midfield three couldn’t take the pressure for fear of Manchester City running through them.

As a result, City managed to switch the game from one side to the other, with no pressure on the full-backs to execute their next move. Here, Aymeric Laporte passes the ball to Walker on the right and you can see Mateo Kovacic’s initial position…

…which allows Walker to comfortably catch the ball without pressure.

Then, when City wanted to move the ball to the other side, it was the same scene. In the tackle that followed, Gomez occupied acres of space as Conor Gallagher positioned himself infield to keep Chelsea’s midfield three compact. So when Manuel Akanji plays diagonally…

… Gomez can handle the ball with ease, while Gallagher is still moving the defense around the field.

Walker and Gomez’s wide movements caused Chelsea trouble more than once. In this instance, Gallagher stuck to his midfield position while ignoring Gomez…

…so when Cole Palmer (light blue) moves into the space vacated by Bashir Humphreys – he moves to mark Phil Foden – Trevor Chalobah is in the second pair One situation.

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Palmer runs behind him (light blue) and Gomez runs free in front of him (yellow). Chalobah’s body orientation says it all — he doesn’t know whether to adjust his size to get the ball to Gomez or pass to Palmer. Laporte opts for the latter, passing the ball behind Chalobah…

… Palmer should score from this position.

In another example, Lewis Hall (67) was in a narrow position to keep Chelsea’s defense compact, while Walker ran down the right touchline. Around the middle circle, Kovacic didn’t even realize what was happening behind him, whether it was Riyad Mahrez floating into the air or Walker providing width.

Rodri noticed Walker’s run and passed to the England right-back…

…who can easily control it, because Hall can’t step forward and oppress him because of Mahrez’s presence. Kovacic, meanwhile, was late.

Therefore, Walker has enough time and space to pick a Manchester City player. He opted to pass the ball to a marked Foden instead of Julian Alvarez, who took a free-kick inside the box. Choosing the Argentine would have given City a better chance.

Throughout the first half, both Walker and Gomez could receive the ball on the wing. Here, Kovacic is far from Walker — who is asking for a switch — and the ball is on the other side. So, when Rodri passed the ball to Akanji…

… The Swiss defender found Walker easily, as Kovacic was far away and Hall couldn’t put in because of the threat of Mahrez behind him.

Once Walker has the ball here and Hall moves forward, Chelsea’s defense has to move to cover. This created a gap on the other side of the pitch, with Gallagher moving inside to defend the middle of the pitch, while Gomez kept his wide position on the left, making the gap even wider. After Manchester City passed the ball down the right…

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…They switched it to the left and Gallagher was miles away from Gomez.

He receives the ball without Chelsea players pressing him. Starting this attack from the left, City won a corner which led to their first penalty, which Alvarez scored.

City’s third goal was a 17-run pass that ended with Walker cutting into Foden, also as a result of play switching from one side to the other.

Before the goal, City attacked from the right, while on the other side, Gomez and Gallagher maintained wide positions around the center circle.

So when Walker dribbled past Hall, the game started because Ziyech was marking Rodri and Gallagher was in midfield. Both keep away from Gomez on the left.

City held possession for a few seconds, so Kovacic cut inside to protect the center of the pitch. Once again, with this tight positioning and Mount’s move to mark Bernardo, Walker was freed and signaled a switch to City’s right.

As Walker started running forward, Rodri conceded and passed the ball to Mahrez.

With Kovacic unable to recover that far from his narrow midfield position, Hall was stuck in a two-on-one situation. Then Mahrez found Walker’s run…

… the City defender pulled the ball back to allow Foden to score City’s third goal and effectively end the game.

Porter switched to a back five at half-time to limit City’s attack on the full-backs, but it was too late. The game is over.

Guardiola’s City are known for their adaptations in the game. Start with a certain shape, then switch mid-game. Or swap players to provide a different solution. It gives them an edge whenever they need it.

Maybe Klopp missed a line. Different games have different ideas, and there are different ideas in the same game.

Although he was right about one thing: at Manchester City, you never know what’s going to happen.

(Above: BBC Sport)


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