Manchester City’s campaign to be the first repeat champions of the Premier League since their crosstown rivals Manchester United in 2008-09 got off to an auspicious start on Sunday, but then quickly took a big hit with news of Kevin De Bruyne‘s injury.
With Arsenal fairly comfortably dispatched thanks to goals from Sterling and Bernardo Silva, one can be forgiven in thinking that relegation favorites Huddersfield Town will be a much easier task, even without City’s talisman. However, in some ways the Terriers visit is perhaps a truer test of how far City have progressed than an Arsenal side still feeling out what Unai Emery wants from them, and will allow fans to see how City intend to cope with De Bruyne’s absence.
Kevin De Bruyne Last Season
🔑 Most Chances Created (106)
🅰️ Most Assists (16)
— Premier League Stat Man (@EPLStatman) August 15, 2018
When asked on what new ideas he had for the upcoming season, City manager Pep Guardiola focused his attention on how to attack teams with 10 men behind the ball.
“The fundamentals will be the same but we found a lot problems attacking against the 5-4-1 formation and the one, the striker being with the holding midfielder and 10 players being so deep. We are thinking about how you counter against that system.”
While he didn’t specifically refer to them, Huddersfield spring to mind as one such team, as their deep-lying 5-3-2 formation they played against City earned them a point at the Etihad last season (and was one of three games all season where City had fewer shots on target than their opponents).
City averaged 79.5% of the possession in their two games against Town but struggled to turn that advantage into shots, recording 29 shots and just seven shots on target in total across the two games. In 2017/18, City averaged 17.5 and seven per game respectively.
Chelsea showed how to beat Huddersfield
In this early season though, City might look to borrow the blueprint of Huddersfield’s previous opponent in Chelsea. Though obviously still a work in progress under new manager Sarri, one of the successes the Blues had was getting Marcos Alonso in forward positions. The left-back earned a penalty, hit the crossbar with an excellent overhead attempt, and combined with Willian to provide a lot of danger on that flank.
Notably, Alonso’s penalty award came not from an overlapping run wide, but from a run forward from the left half-space into the penalty area. Chelsea’s first goal meanwhile was made by Willian taking the ball to the endline and whipping in a vicious left-foot cross for N’Golo Kante to attack.
The success of attack-minded, narrow fullbacks and dangerous, quick left wingers against Huddersfield should bode well for City, as it was City’s left side that shone brightest against Arsenal. Mendy and Sterling had the highest Usage Rates on the team (Usage Rate is a measure that looks at the percentage of a team’s possessions a given player was involved in the final action), the former notching two assists and the latter a goal.
City’s new system
Much has been written already about Mendy’s role in City’s new system, with Kyle Walker sliding from right-back to form a three-man backline and Mendy pushed into a narrow left-midfield role, yet still managing to overlap wide of Sterling when necessary.
With Kevin De Bruyne (the City player with the highest Usage Rate last season) now out as well, it’s good that City have an alternate plan in possession. Moreover, with the attention on the left, whoever is playing on the right (presumably Mahrez or Sané) will be free to occupy tons of space and break quickly should the long switch arrive their way.
|Manchester City Usage Rates vs Arsenal|
|Player||Usage Rate||Success Rate|
When City lose the ball, it will be tough for Huddersfield to make much progress. Aaron Mooy, technically a former City player, is the creative hub and set-piece taker, someone perfectly suited to be the best player on a poor team.
They had some success targeting Mounie long and Alex Pritchard found himself in some good spaces against Chelsea. City’s defense should be better schooled than Chelsea’s though; the Blues have resurrected the comedy stylings of David Luiz and switched away from Conte’s well-drilled back three.
Moreover, Huddersfield sold their player with the highest xG total last season in Tom Ince, and that’s from an attack which posted the lowest xG last season of any team that wasn’t relegated (per Understat).
City are rightly heavily favored here and should have more than enough, even without De Bruyne, to beat Huddersfield. However, the approach they take to do so will give us better insight in how they intend to counter teams sitting in a deep block. As the first of a stretch of five matches against sides outside the projected top six, their ability to break down such defenses will be critically important to keep the title charge moving apace.