18th July, 2023
Amidst an impressive reign of recent dominance in English football, it’s easy to overlook the unexpected hurdle Manchester City faced on their path to securing their fifth Premier League title in six years.
During the 2022-23 league season, just past its halfway mark, concerns arose at the Etihad.
City had conceded two or more goals in eight of their initial 29 matches across all competitions.
This led to questions, now seemingly comical in hindsight, about whether the prodigious striker Erling Haaland and his prolific goal-scoring actually improved the team. With a five-point deficit from the top spot and a recent loss to rival Manchester United, manager Pep Guardiola declared the title race beyond reach, stating, “I don’t care about the Premier League or the Carabao Cup, we cannot win.”
Surprisingly, the sky-blue machine appeared vulnerable and many bettors took advantage on the Melbet NG platform with their amazing bonuses.
However, in the face of a seemingly disarrayed season, the Mastermind of the Cityzens, renowned for his tactical tinkering, did what he does best. He made a minor adjustment to his pioneering tactical approach, and City embarked on a remarkable 25-match unbeaten streak that secured the league title.
In a season defined by fine margins, this single tweak gave City an historic treble as they lobbed over their city rivals in the FA Cup final and Inter Milan in the UEFA Champions League final.
Pep Guardiola, a master of tactical adaptations, faced a significant challenge ahead of Manchester City’s monumental 2022/23 campaign: incorporating the team’s major summer signing and new number nine, Erling Haaland.
Haaland’s performance was nothing short of spectacular from the moment he arrived in English football, boasting 52 goals in all competitions in his debut season.
However, it took some time for the team as a whole to hit their stride. When they eventually did, the results aligned with expectations set by City during the Guardiola era.
Between their defeat to Tottenham in early February and an ultimately inconsequential loss to Brentford in late May, City secured 20 wins and five draws, forming the foundation for their treble pursuit.
Despite possessing high technical abilities throughout the squad, City’s reliance on short build-up play didn’t always work in their favor. Well-organized opposition presses reduced their space and time on the ball, causing problems even for players of City’s caliber.
As a result, possession didn’t always translate into progression.
With Haaland’s presence, Guardiola now had a realistic option of playing a direct ball into the forward line.
Opponents who previously employed an effective high press against City now had to think twice, considering a forward with the ability to protect and receive longer passes, with supporting teammates in numbers.
Analyzing Guardiola’s team development without highlighting the impact of their new number nine especially in this past season would be incomplete.
The manager not only leveraged Haaland’s potential but also adapted his team to exploit it to the fullest.
As previously mentioned, if progression was challenging against a formidable opposition press, Haaland’s ability to receive various direct balls with his back to goal opened up opportunities for his teammates to exploit the space behind defenders drawn out of position to track him.
City has long relied on high-quality set-piece delivery, courtesy of players like De Bruyne, Gündogan, and Riyad Mahrez, who excel in dead-ball situations.
Haaland’s addition added a new dimension, not only in attacking the first ball but also capitalizing on second balls and rebounds, with most of their defenders providing height and physicality in both boxes.
Consequently, City relied more on direct crosses and deliveries into the box, deviating from the traditional Guardiola approach.
Additionally, teams are so preoccupied with City’s direct threat during set-pieces that it allows Guardiola’s team to exploit vulnerabilities with more nuanced deliveries.
Gündogan’s second goal in the FA Cup final victory over Manchester United serves as an excellent example.
With United packing the box to counter City’s physical presence, De Bruyne cleverly delivered a clipped ball to a completely unmarked Gündogan on the edge of the area.
In the 2022/23 season, City’s defensive organization shifted to a more conventional 4-4-2 formation.
From their adapted 3-2-4-1 in-possession shape, one of the double pivots dropped into the defensive line, while the other pushed up into the midfield line.
One of the number 10s advanced to press alongside the striker, effectively creating the 4-4-2 structure. The relatively narrow midfield line of four provided City with a protective central overload, forcing opponents wide.
With this setup, City employed a closed funnel structure to press opponents, often forcing them to play long balls into City’s increasingly solid defensive line or backward, encouraging City’s effective high press.