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How to beat Man City: Five tactical things every team must do

Manchester City show no sign of slowing down. In fact, their 6-1 destruction of Huddersfield Town at the Etihad last weekend suggests Pep Guardiola has even more weapons in his arsenal this season, has an even greater variety of tactical tricks with which to score a decisive goal.

The Catalan traditionally uses the opening few games of a new season to trial formations and bank them for later use, which explains why City played with overlapping full-backs and wingers that cut inside against Arsenal (the reverse of their main strategy in 2017/18) before switching to a crossing-heavy 3-5-2 against Huddersfield. We will doubtless see plenty more formations, innovations, and tweaks in the coming weeks.

However, David Wagner's side somewhat flattered City by deploying the tactics that earned them an exceptionally lucky 0-0 draw at the Etihad in May. That result was an anomaly, not an example, whereas every other team that took points from City last season - Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton, Burnley, and Crystal Palace – broadly followed a set of rules that provides us with a template.

Using those five matches, coupled with analysis of the potential weak spots in Man City's 2018/19 line-up, we take a look at five things clubs must do to halt the champions:

1) Press high and be fearless

Liverpool have taught us that bravery and confrontational tactics are by a distance the best way to stop City. High pressing, that attempts to ruffle feathers and disrupt the rhythm of Guardiola's possession, has formed been the best defence ever since the Catalan's days as Barcelona manager, and although it is an extremely high risk approach there really isn't any other.

Huddersfield backed off pitifully last weekend, looking visibly frightened as they chose not to close down their opponents until they entered the final third. This simply cannot work against a team that boasts such variety in their attacking play. Burnley's 1-1 draw at Turf Moor last season was a good example of a bold, snap-at-the-heels approach:

To stand off is to allow City to build confidence and pull the defence around the pitch; they will happily remain patient and wait for the smallest gap to exploit. Consequently a low block and an absence of pressing gives Guardiola's team a crucial psychological advantage. Fearlessness is the biggest weapon against the champions.

2) Counter-attack down City's left flank

The introduction of Benjamin Mendy has dramatically improved City's attacking down the left but has also made them considerably more vulnerable. After the Arsenal victory Guardiola was asked to comment on Mendy's excellent attacking performance, popping up as a centre-forward at times, and to the journalists' surprise said the Frenchman was "not good. Mendy is Mendy. It is what it is. Sometimes you want to kill him."

A lack of discipline means Mendy can abandon his defensive duties on the left, perhaps explaining why Guardiola switched to a three-man defence against Huddersfield. Clearly opposition forwards can find joy on the counter if they lurk to the right of centre and if defenders are instructed to clear the ball towards this side of the pitch.

3) Lay traps for Fernandinho

Man City's 33-year-old defensive midfielder is beginning to look his age after failing to impress at the World Cup and notably slowing down towards the end of last season. Guardiola's attempts to sign Jorginho, before he eventually chose Chelsea, are testament to the burgeoning issue at the base of midfield.

Capitalising on this certainly isn't easy although one thing confrontational opponents can do is lay traps that expose his (relative) lack of speed in possession. Teams should look to close off the passing angles towards David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan by sitting just in front of these dual number eights – just as Manchester United did in their 3-2 win in April – and leaving Fernandinho free for the centre-backs to pass to.

When he receives the ball on the half turn, that is the time to pincer press, win possession, and shift the ball quickly into the channel behind Mendy. Nine times out of ten Fernandinho will cope just fine – he is still an outstanding footballer – but if there is a weak point in the City midfield it is concerning the Brazilian's composure and speed of thought.

4) Go for speed up front and hit long balls into the channels

Another major error made by Huddersfield was to assume Steve Mounie could hold up the ball and win headers, using physicality to move the visitors up the field. However, City play so high up the pitch that it's very difficult to counter-attack without significant speed or using the channels to gain ground. Winning throw-ins in the City half is the way to keep the game as even as possible, not to mention moving the team up into a position to have another bite at a high press.

Romelu Lukaku played an important role in the 3-2 win at the Etihad, while Wilfried Zaha was an important player from the left flank for Crystal Palace when the sides drew 0-0 at Selhurst Park in December. It goes without saying that speed in the forward positions – coupled with a propensity to punt it long when necessary – was a key part of Liverpool's strategy in the Premier League and Champions League against Man City.

5) Concede the flanks

It may seem strange to recommend a narrow defensive blockade given Bernardo Silva and Mendy swung 19 crosses into the box between them against Huddersfield, but the impact of this tactic was indirect. The Terriers dealt well with the majority – Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus struggle to win headers against tall defenders – but instead were gradually dragged into a wide shape by City's constant shifting of the ball from flank to flank.

By being drawn out to close down the flanks the visitors left gaps between full-back and centre-back (allowing City to get to the byline at the corner of the penalty area) and caused holes to appear between the width of the defensive and midfield lines. It is within this space that David Silva pulled the strings.

Staying narrow – which means conceding the flanks even when the ball is shifted across to Mendy in space – is the only way to stay compact in the area. Any other strategy plays right into Guardiola's hands.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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