Manchester City set out to wear Brighton down with possession, create enough chances to score, and keep a clean sheet. Pep Guardiola’s use of three central defenders forfeited attacking players in the wide areas, but gave City a defensive solidity against counter attacks that was missed for all of the 2016/17 season. Predictably, it was City’s patience that paid off against Brighton. City’s long stretches of possession wore Brighton out to the point of submission in the 70th minute when Dale Stephens was caught in possession by Kevin De Bruyne, which led to a Sergio Aguero goal. From that point, the match was all but over. City added another through a Lewis Dunk own goal and Brighton were never able to generate anything offensively after sitting back for almost all of the first 75 minutes. In the end, City put in a good performance that they can build upon for the rest of the season.
Manchester City’s 3-5-2
Pep Guardiola’s decision to use three central defenders in a 3-5-2 provided Manchester City with a defensive solidity that was rarely seen last season. City held possession exceptionally well, finishing the match with 78.1% possession with only 16% of the match being played in City’s defensive third. That is hardly a surprising statistic and it is something that City could have accomplished regardless of tactical formation. But, what impressed me was City’s defensive play upon losing possession. Last season, when Pep often opted to use two central defenders, City were always culpable for giving the opposition at least a couple of high-quality chances from counter attacks, regardless of City’s dominance in possession. Against Brighton, though, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi, and John Stones immediately shut off any attempts by Brighton to move the ball forward. The only quality chances conceded by City were three corner kicks. For stretches of the match, it was almost comical how quickly City’s central defenders struck down any attempts by Brighton.
Even though City failed to score until the 70th minute, they created ample chances throughout the match and the result was never really in question. In fact, despite City only scoring two goals, they easily could have put five or six past Brighton: Gabriel Jesus could have done better on an admittedly tough chance that ended in a disallowed goal for hand ball, Gabriel Jesus could have slotted away his header chance, Sergio Aguero failed to finish after being clear through on goal, Gabriel Jesus had another disallowed goal due to David Silva mistiming his run by a fraction, and the two chances that did result in City goals.
In addition, for those that watched Manchester City under Pep Guardiola last season, it was hardly a surprise that City finally scored after the 60th minute; part of Guardiola’s game plan utilizes possession to wear out the opposition in the opening half, and then capitalizes on chances in the second half when the other side is tired. Against lower half Premier League teams that set up to defend, that tactic has paid off more than a few times for City. It is no surprise that the first goal of the match came from a momentary lapse in concentration by Dale Stephens in the 70th minute.
With all of that being said, City could have done much better. City were excellent with their passing accuracy against Brighton. Long balls and short passes were largely spot on, but they lacked a certain urgency that is imperative to breaking down tightly packed defenses. When City switched play with cross field balls to Kyle Walker and Danilo it opened up space. When David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne combined with Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Danilo, and Walker to play quick one twos it opened up space. When Manchester City moved the ball quickly they created opportunities. For too much of the match, City played a slow possession game just for the sake of keeping hold of the ball. I expect City to play faster and with more purpose as they get into the swing of the season.
Fernandinho, in particular, seemed to slow down City’s possession a bit too much against Brighton. Fernandinho does a great job of shielding the back line and recycling possession when City only use two central defenders, but with three central defenders, it is imperative that City’s defensive midfielder can start positive attacking moves from deep. Because of his passing ability, Yaya Toure would have been a better option as City’s defensive midfielder in front of their back three against Brighton. Nonetheless, Fernandinho did well to help cut off any of Brighton’s attempts to move the ball forward themselves.
Manchester City’s three at the back allowed them to keep a solid defensive shape, while allowing the midfield and attack to be as fluid as need be. Walker and Danilo were given license to push forward and provide width, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne could push into the gaps between Brighton’s defense and midfield, and Aguero and Jesus could exploit space out wide or in the middle of the pitch. In theory, City’s three at the back should have been tactically perfect, but in practice, Brighton played so narrow that Aguero, Jesus, Silva, and De Bruyne seemed to get in each other’s way for almost the entirety of the first half. When Jesus started to drop deeper in the second half, City immediately started to reap the rewards. Aguero had more space and more freedom to make forward and diagonal runs without Jesus directly alongside him, which eventually led to City’s opening goal.
Manchester City’s three at the back was successful and should be a viable option moving forward, but City missed having the out and out wingers available to them in their four at the back systems. City clogged up the middle of the pitch with their 3-5-2 to such an extent against Brighton that it severely inhibited their attack. There simply wasn’t space in the middle of the pitch for all of City’s creative players to find space. Some of City’s most promising moves came when Silva and De Bruyne moved further out wide and combined with short passing. The only space afforded to City by Brighton was in the wide areas. Danilo and Walker, both of whom played quite well as wing backs, often found themselves in acres of space. In fact, on more than a few occasions they both made very positive attacking runs. The problem is that they simply aren’t natural wingers. Wingers like Sané, Sterling, or even just moving Jesus out to the flanks would have stretched Brighton’s defense a bit wider, creating more room in the middle for Aguero, De Bruyne, and Silva. Sterling and Sané always have a knack for making incisive runs at just the right time, which Danilo and Walker cannot because they have significantly more defensive responsibility.
I disagree with those that think David Silva “showed his age” against Brighton. Silva and De Bruyne were quiet for stretches of the match due to tactical systems, not poor individual performances. In Pep’s system, Silva and De Bruyne operate between the opposition’s central players and their wide players. Jamie Murphy and Solly March, Brighton’s wingers, were narrow to the extent that there was very little space between them and Brighton’s central midfield pairing. This lack of space forced Silva and De Bruyne to move slightly further forward into the gap between Brighton’s defensive line and their midfield, which caused chaos between City’s attacking midfielders and their strikers. Silva and De Bruyne ended up congesting space for all of City’s attacking players. That obstruction was simply due to City’s game plan from the off. City didn’t have wingers to stretch out Brighton’s defense, which meant that there was little to no space in the middle of the field. Once Gabriel Jesus began to drop deeper, which provided more space up front, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne began to take hold of the match, ultimately combining in the 70th minute in the build up to Aguero’s goal.
Could Manchester City have created more chances by sacrificing one of their three central defenders for another midfielder? Absolutely, but they would’ve conceded more than a few quality chances themselves. It’s important to remember that four at the back and three at the back systems will both have advantages and disadvantages for City. The three at the back doesn’t allow City to exploit wide areas, and it can sometimes clog up the center of the pitch detrimentally, but it provides protection against counter attacks, where City were most vulnerable last season. The four at the back allows City to play some of the best free flowing attacking football I have seen in a long time, but they were always susceptible to direct counter attacks.
Pep Guardiola’s 3-5-2 was pragmatic. It was safe. It was conservative. Last season, City were often subject to criticism over their gung-ho attacking style. It was typical of City last season to throw every thing they had at the opposition’s defense with the hope to outscore the other team and use possession as a first line of defense. Against Brighton, Pep opted for a more defensive and calculated style, a style that ensured City could keep a clean sheet, while simultaneously creating enough chances to score.
I can’t really see too many positive things to take away for those wondering what this match says about Brighton’s future in the Premier League. Yes, Brighton kept the match scoreless for 70 minutes against a star studded City side, but that number is a bit flattering given that City could have undoubtedly found themselves up a goal much earlier in the match had they been able to finish. I also do not find it particularly impressive or reflective of a solid defense that Brighton were able to mitigate City’s attack by keeping all eleven men behind the ball when out of possession. That is not a slight to Brighton’s style of play today, in fact, I think that there is certainly merit in a defensive style if it is a club’s best chance at a victory, but a defense is not necessarily good just because it can fend off attacks with every player in defense.
The fact of the matter is that this result and performance will not be indicative of Brighton’s chances at survival. Last season, Middlesbrough gave City quite a bit of trouble in one of their fixtures with a very similar style as Brighton’s today. Boro used all of their players in defense and were eventually able to get a result against a great City side. But, Boro’s defensive style was their downfall; they simply did not score enough goals to have a chance at survival. Brighton will show a different and much less defensive style against teams outside of the Premier League’s top six if they want to stay up. Brighton’s ability to take hold of matches, dictate play, and create opportunities of their own will be the deciding factors to their survival. Brighton did not give themselves a chance against City. They didn’t even give themselves an attacking option to relieve pressure. This was Brighton’s first Premier League match, their supporters created a great atmosphere, and I’m confident this type of strictly defensive performance will be few and far between if Chris Hughton wants to keep his side up.