A 2-0 win over Fulham secured a back-to-back victory for Manchester City for the first time in the Premier League this season. The match dynamics resembled familiar game management from Pep Guardiola’s team against a non-top six side. They were relentless in the first twenty minutes, followed by a noticeably calmer tempo thereafter.
Fulham made a structural change to their defensive tactics that thrived against Leicester City last week. However, this played into Manchester City’s hands due to their quality in between the lines in the final third. Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez were allowed far too much space and were unplayable at times. The shaky start was subsequently followed by a far more composed Fulham in the second half.
In this match report, we provide a tactical analysis breaking down key elements that affected the outcome of the contest. The home team’s high tempo and rotations through the centre in waves were overwhelming for their opposition. Conversely, the away team looked to be solid and operated through quick transitions on the break. Despite glimpses from Scott Parker’s side, the inherent difference in the quality between both teams was evident.
Man City’s midfield in their 4-2-3-1 had the average positions and player roles of a traditional number six, eight, and 10. Although Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan played as double pivots, the former was positioned deeper, with the latter further forward.
They were, however, closer to each other than they were to De Bruyne, who was camped behind Fulham’s second defensive line. De Bruyne’s average position was similar to that of Gabriel Jesus’ in the final third. Their interplay and rotations caused several marking issues for their opposition.
On the other side, Fulham’s 3-4-1-2 was entirely based on player roles in attack and defence. They defended in a 5-2-3 off the ball in the first half. However, they encountered a ton of problems due to the free central spaces for blue shirts in the final third. Consequently, Parker made a structural alteration into a 4-1-4-1 off the ball with the same player roles. This made a considerable difference.
Moreover, they have routinely employed switching into a 4-2-3-1 in possession. However, they were often positionally unaware during transitions, as City were quite fast at winning the ball back.
As we shall establish in the following section, Man City’s early lead, in conjunction with their uncontested domination of the ball, prevented Fulham from implementing their game plan.
The relationship between ball possession and expected goals (xG) is relevant to understanding the tactical battle between the two teams. For 69% of their possession, Man City’s xG was 2.9, compared to Fulham’s 0.2. While the correlation never implies causation between these variables, their relationship provides insights when the analyst considers game dynamics.
Man City were 2-0 up after 25 minutes. Additionally, their in-game possession was notably higher than their average of 60% in the league this season. The extreme lack of possession made it notably harder for Fulham to execute swift counter-attacks. This is illustrated in the following image.
In addition to having considerably fewer passes, the average positioning of the Fulham players implies a lack of structural consistency by Parker’s team. Their most frequent pass combination (15) between Antonee Robinson and Ademola Lookman was a semi-diagonal pass on the left-hand side of the pitch. However, Lookman started as a right-sided striker. This portrays a positional unawareness on the ball that hindered the potency of Fulham’s attacks.
It is noteworthy that Man City’s build-up and attacking prowess chiefly contributed to this. They were equidistantly positioned in Fulham’s half by occupying central spaces. Rodri, De Bruyne, and Mahrez were prominent figures in their possession chains, having xGChain values of 1.39, 1.39, and 1.38 respectively. Rodri often initiated attacks as De Bruyne and Mahrez broke lines.
Interestingly, the outputs of De Bruyne and Mahrez indicate that the former was the attacker and the latter was the playmaker. De Bruyne had one goal, one assist, and six shots, whilst Mahrez recorded five key passes. The difference between his xGChain value and xGBuild-up (total xG in a possession chain without key passes and shots) value was 1.15. This is notably high and reflects a high playmaking output from the Algerian.
Gabriel Jesus functioned as a false nine to help increase the presence of Raheem Sterling, De Bruyne, and Mahrez. Despite registering no shots, his heat map outlines his role.
The above heat map suggests that he was tasked with engaging Fulham players in order to create spaces for his teammates. He was, therefore, ever-present in City’s rotations, which we expand on in the next section.
Man City’s possession and Fulham’s structural problems
Considering City’s pressure in the first 20 minutes, it may come as a surprise that they didn’t score more. In classic Guardiola fashion, they lined up a 2-3-2-3 and 3-4-3 at times in possession.
Joao Cancelo rotated as an inverted full-back and made routine underlaps higher up the pitch. Furthermore, Rodri tucked in between the two centre-backs in order to initiate key possession chains.
In the following image, the positioning of Rodri and Gundogan tells De Bruyne where to position himself as a passing option.
The above position illustrates how Fulham’s defensive structure in the first half played into Man City’s quality. They had more yellow shirts in their first defensive line than their second defensive line. Consequently, De Bruyne, in an unmarked position, managed to permeate through the midfield into the final third with ease.
This set-up was visibly counter-intuitive because of Man City’s quality. City are arguably the best possession-controlling team in the world. They are, therefore, bound to bypass the first defensive line, due to their sheer quality.
As a team that was not looking to actively fight for possession, Fulham should have started with their 6-4 catenaccio to eliminate spaces in the midfield. Man City’s between-the-lines play prompted several Fulham defenders to chase blue shirts in a man-marking style.
The resulting spaces vacated by the Fulham players were exploited by City’s superior quality. Consider the following position.
The above image summarises the aforementioned tactics. City’s rotation, i.e. Jesus dropping deep, prompts Harrison Reed to chase after the Brazilian. This opens up space for Cancelo to drive into the resulting free space. His pass to Sterling ultimately won the team their penalty.
At this point, the damage had been done. Despite conceding the goals, due to City’s quality more than anything, Parker would be disappointed with his team’s lack of compactness in the first half. However, their structural holes were reprimanded in the second half.
The above position makes it harder for Man City to freely operate between the lines, as Fulham have more shirts occupying central spaces. Their back four transposes into a back five if the ball is progressed to the wings – with Bobby Decordova-Reid and Lookman becoming the tip of the chain on each flank.
Furthermore, an integral central two of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa forced Gundogan to drop back alongside Rodri and John Stones to make his next pass.
City’s double-pivot has been criticised by analysts for not only lacking a deeper creative option but also being vulnerable on the break. Fulham would be disappointed to have not tested them enough in this area.
Fulham’s potential on the right
Although some teams have been figuring out how to get behind City’s back-line, it is easier said than done. City have allowed approximately six passes from their opposition per defensive action, which is indicative of a high defensive tempo.
Consider the tracking back of Mahrez and Sterling in the above position. The former blocks the most likely passing lane, whilst the latter blocks the longer option if the first pass is made. Sterling is, moreover, well-positioned to burst into a counter-attack.
Thus, Fulham’s best chance to string together quick passes would have been through more set-pieces. Consider the following position.
After winning a second-ball due to a better-positioned catenaccio, Anguissa’s close control permitted a neat interplay in the final third.
Fulham arrived at a 4 v 3 on the right-most quarter of the pitch, which triggered an overload. As a consequence of this, Ivan Cavaleiro was able to register his team’s first shot on target.
In retrospect, this was Fulham’s most viable option for counterplay. Scott Parker prefers overloads on the right, as evidenced by Decordova-Reid’s dynamic performance against Leicester. This may have been a potent resource, especially in conjunction with exploiting Benjamin Mendy’s lacklustre performance.
Despite criticism based on comparisons with their arch-rivals Liverpool, Manchester City have quietly built a foundation that will likely turn into a run of form. Conversely, Fulham’s glimpses of positivity must translate into structural consistency, as they face Liverpool at home next.
In this match report, we provided an analysis of the tactical friction between the two sides. Man City’s overwhelming waves of attack in the first 20 minutes was fueled by Fulham’s naivety at the centre of the pitch. Consequently, their exorbitant amount of possession made it harder for Fulham to create valuable possession chains.
Man City will look to extend their defensive record against a rejuvenated Man United who would cause them relatively more problems on paper. Despite vulnerabilities on the break, their inherent quality should extend into the mentality of their players.
On the other hand, while Fulham have potential in their unique defence to attack rotation, they are yet to be their best selves, as they struggle to leave the relegation zone.