The second international break of the season came at what was perhaps a good time for Everton. Following a blistering start to the season which contained six matches and no defeats, the Toffees entered the layoff on the back of three matches without a win. The hope now is that the players will return with a renewed focus and will shake off their poor run.
Unfortunately, Everton’s first task this month is to travel to the Etihad Stadium to take on league leaders Manchester City.
Manchester City overview
With the Manuel Pellegrini era winding to a close, City signed Pep Guardiola to a three-year contract in February of this year. The team was still stocked with talent but the feeling was that the squad was aging, things had gotten a bit stale, and new blood was needed.
It didn’t take long for the revolution to get underway—after just one match fans of the English game were treated to inverted fullbacks and juego de posición. Ten wins out of ten matches later and even the most skeptical of critics had to admit that this guy was probably a pretty good manager. What they were waiting for I’m not sure, but that’s neither here nor there.
Make no mistake, this team has been outstanding so far this year, especially in attack. So far they are tied for first in the league in goals scored and they lead the league in expected goals according to Michael Caley’s model. Defensively they are fifth and sixth respectively in those metrics, but they’ve been able to make up for it with superior firepower. Overall they’re first in both goal differential and expected goal differential. In short, it’s fair to say that City fully deserve to be in first place right now despite their loss against Spurs.
A key component to City’s attacking success has been creating high quality chances. A few weeks ago in my Bournemouth preview I talked about using expected goals per shot as a measure of chance quality. Man City currently lead the league in that department, which is a function not only of their exceptional attacking talent but also of a concerted effort to resist taking poor shots and instead focus on strategies that are known to be more likely to produce goals. In other words, they rarely cross (lowest cross/total pass ratio in the league), they don’t shoot from outside the box a lot (fourth lowest ratio of outside the box shots to total shots in the league) and their midfield boasts three of the league’s most prolific through-ballers so far according to WhoScored (Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, and Fernandinho).
City are perennially near the top of the league in possession, and this season is proving no different. This is no guarantor of success though—Leicester City had a better shot quality last year despite averaging only 45% possession. Under Guardiola however, Man City are not only holding the ball more than anyone else but they are doing more with it. This should worry fans of every team, not least of us Toffees who are next on the fixture list.
A thorough dive into Guardiola’s tactics requires not only more time and more expertise than I have, but it has been done elsewhere to great effect. A short but sweet explainer of positional play can be found here. The most intriguing bit in light of the above discussion of shot quality is that under positional play possession is a tool and not philosophy. Guardiola doesn’t want the ball just for the sake of having the ball, but because he knows how to use it to manipulate the opponent. Every pass and every movement has a purpose.
As you might expect, Guardiola’s style requires technically gifted footballers at every position. Enter Claudio Bravo and John Stones in the offseason—two players with certain flaws but with a great amount of comfort in possession. Again, these players aren’t just wanted because Guardiola thinks their passing is pretty, but because Guardiola wants to build up a certain way, even against intense pressing. Bravo is essentially an extra man in possession that many other teams to do not have, and that numerical advantage creates stability out of the back. As such, City rarely go long to start unless they are facing an extremely high press, as happened against Tottenham. Generally Bravo will pass short to Stones or Nicolás Otamendi, who are comfortable distributing to almost any player in front of them.
Once they break past the initial press, City will look to use their intelligent movement to drag defenders out of place. Silva and de Bruyne are especially skilled in this regard, though Fernandinho’s dynamism is probably a bit underrated and İlkay Gündoğan is highly intelligent as well. In the Spielverlagerung City preview I linked above, Tom Payne notes that poor spacing and a static disposition off the ball often handcuffed City’s attacks. Guardiola seems to have fixed that to a certain extent so far, as the midfield has been clicking and central attacking players are seeing plenty of the ball:
De Bruyne and Silva have had scorching starts to the season, and Everton should hope that de Bruyne’s injury rules him out of this weekend’s match, lest he get back to pulling off crap like this:
Of course even if he isn’t in the lineup, they still have to deal with Silva who on his day is nearly unplayable. Even in defeat he caused Spurs all sorts of problems with his ability to find a through ball.
Man City simply attack on a higher level than most of the league at this point. They are both quick and methodical, creative and disciplined. With that being said, they are not perfect.
Troubles versus Celtic and Spurs
In all of my praise I’ve been notably quite thus far about the fact that City actually did manage to lose a game last week. Much of that defeat had to do with Spurs’ wonderful pressing game, one of the most impressive aspects of which was its relentlessness. Below is the buildup to Tottenham’s first goal. Note that City actually do manage to get the ball past the initial press into the midfield, but that Spurs don’t simply back off at that point. Instead, they keep the pressure on and eventually it pays off.
This is all well and good but before you get too much hope, it’s just not reasonable to expect Everton to press like Spurs did. Liverpool are probably the only other team in the league with a press as well-drilled as Tottenham’s, and it’s taken Pochettino two seasons to get it to this point.
With that being said, it does show that City have a certain vulnerability in that they are still learning a new system and it is not perfect. Like any possession-oriented team, they are not immune to being caught out without proper numbers in behind. Before his goal, Son had a chance from a through ball out of a midfield turnover:
The goal itself also came from a situation where City’s defenders were caught ball-watching a bit rather than watching for potential runners.
This sort of approach requires an incredible amount of energy, and Celtic were visibly gassed by the middle of the second half of their Champions League tie. Even Spurs had to sit back a bit eventually, and by the end City had created about as many chances as their opponent.
Everton’s defense has been pretty solid this year, but I don’t think they can reasonably expect to keep City from generating scoring opportunities, unless a few of their attackers all have off days. They also cannot reasonably expect to press City with the intensity and coordination required to disrupt their buildup. Their best hope is in defense to remain extremely disciplined in their marking and to press only in specific situations when they have the energy and structure to pull it off. Easier said than done, I suppose.
On the attacking side, it will be interesting to see is Koeman goes with a more direct approach, using the speed of Yannick Bolasie, Gerard Deulofeu, and/or Kevin Mirallas to try to create one-on-ones versus Stones and Otamendi. As we know, Stones is somewhat vulnerable in this regard and Fernandinho, while an excellent player, does not always offer the requisite protection to his center backs on the counter. Given that Ross Barkley has struggled this season, it would seem ill-advised to try to use him as a number ten in a methodical buildup.
City are the firm favorites here, and as an Everton fan perhaps the best way to look at this match is as a measuring stick to see how far this team really has come since the end of last season.