Premier League, August 25 2018
Manchester City needed a set-piece to rescue a point at Molineux, as Wolves proved tough opponents for the defending Premier League champions. City had started the season with two convincing wins, but struggled to overcome a smart performance from Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. Wolves rode their luck in the opening period, with City twice hitting the woodwork, but they posed a threat on the counter and eventually got their noses controversially ahead when Willy Boly’s diving header rolled off his hand and into the back of Ederson’s net. Centre-back Aymeric Laporte was the unlikely saviour in the 69th minute, rising highest at an Ilkay Gundogan free-kick to net his first goal in a City shirt. The visitors rattled the woodwork for a third time with almost the last kick of the game, as Sergio Aguero’s free-kick glanced off the bar to cap off a frustrating afternoon for Pep Guardiola and his players.
10 / 2
SHOTS / ON TARGET
19 / 5
Passes / Accurate
14 / 1 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
7 / 2 / 0
Wolves set up in their usual 3-4-3 shape in possession. Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho offered the deep central options, Matt Doherty and Jonny Castro provided the width, while the attacking trio of Raul Jimenez, Helder Costa and Diogo Jota attempted to penetrate the back three of Manchester City.
They displayed a clear game plan and as a result spent limited time in possession of the ball – over the 90 minutes, they recorded only 30 per cent possession. When building, they would try to play their usual possession-based game and would use central defender Willy Boly to bring the ball out from the back where possible.
The hosts were smart in trying to attract individual City players towards them to create spaces beyond and further up the pitch. Bernardo Silva, for example, would close down Boly, leaving Kyle Walker to push up to shut down Jonny – this left space behind Walker and potentially the rest of City’s back line for Jota to attack.
City became wise to their opponents’ tactics, however, and soon started to press more aggressively in an attempt to limit the home side’s time on the ball. Wolves’ main threat quickly became the counter-attack, with their attacking players on the front foot as soon as possession was regained. They had a first-half goal correctly disallowed from effective counter-attacking play.
Wolves operated in a 5-4-1 mid-block out of possession. The wide players Jonny and Doherty would join Bennett, Coady and Boly to create a back line of five, while Jota and Helder Costa would drop from the front line to support Neves and Moutinho in the second line.
They were uninterested in regaining possession until the ball was in their own half, seldom pressing City in theirs. Even when their opponents crossed the halfway line, Wolves rarely pressed to tackle, preferring to prevent City players from turning and/or penetrating. Instead, they would patiently wait for a mistake: a heavy touch that could lead to a tackle, an opportunity to intercept, or a more direct pass in the air that could be cleared and regained as a second ball.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s team were very well organised out of possession, and limited City to few clear-cut openings on goal. They will have been hugely disappointed to have conceded from a set-piece, rather than a brilliant piece of build-up – as has been the norm with the defending Premier League champions.
Manchester City used a very fluid in-possession structure, best explained as a 3-1-4-2. Fernandinho provided the central pivot, allowing Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva to create the width, while Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva would be positioned between the defensive and midfield lines of Wolves’ block – although Gundogan would often come deep to get on the ball. Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling generally looked to pin the hosts’ back line, but both dropped on occasions too.
City clearly favoured attacking Wolves’ right-hand side, with Aymeric Laporte frequently bringing the ball out from defence before playing into midfield. The triangle of Gundogan, Sterling and Mendy on this side would move collectively in an attempt to pull the Wolves players out of position and create an opening for penetration. In the first half, there were several instances of the ball being chipped over the space between Ryan Bennett and Matt Doherty for the run of Sterling or the deeper run of Gundogan, although little came from this in the early stages.
The visitors still targeted this area as the game progressed, but David Silva came over to overload the play in City’s favour and trouble individuals within Wolves’ block. They were patient in trying to unlock this block, and Aguero and Sterling had to be smart with their positioning. The pair would often start high on the shoulders of Wolves’ back line, before making very late movements two or three yards deep of the line to receive the ball to feet, either to create combination opportunities or shooting opportunities for themselves.
The introduction of Gabriel Jesus shortly after the hour mark allowed Sterling to move out to the right and run at Jonny with more success than Bernardo Silva, and also afforded City the option of playing with two central strikers.
Pep Guardiola’s players spent very little time out of possession, but their structure was still dependent on where the ball was. They were happy to send Mendy and Bernardo Silva high to press the wing-backs or the outside centre-backs in Wolves’ back three, but when the ball was in the middle third, the ballside wing-back would join the defensive line to create a back four. The far-side wing-back would remain in the midfield unit alongside Fernandinho and the dropping Gundogan, in what effectively became a 4-3-2-1.
In having numbers around the ball and between the lines when in possession, City could initiate a quick counter-press to nullify Wolves’ opportunities on the break. The pace of Kyle Walker on the recovery in particular meant that any early attempts in behind the City defence were largely dealt with – but they were far from untroubled against a Wolves side impressively unfazed by the quality of their opposition.
Author: Tony Hodson