When Huddersfield Town were promoted to the Premier League, many believed they would find theirselves back in the Championship before long. Their progression via the play-offs yielded only 1 goal from open play and required two penalty shoot out wins. However, after gaining 15 points from their first twelve games, it seemed they may well be more equipped for the fight than most presumed.
David Wagner’s side haven’t been prolific in front of goal, but their defensive frailties seem to have been the crux of their season so far. Before this weekend’s visit of Manchester City, the Terriers had conceded 17 league goals, including 4 in their previous match against slow starters AFC Bournemouth.
City on the other hand, have made their best ever start to a Premier League season, dropping only 2 points in 12 games – scoring 40 goals in that time. City’s attacking impetus comes from their fluid system, where players are encouraged to vacate their traditional positions to create space for their team mates.
The amount of time that City spend without the ball is minimised by high retention rates. This allows their defenders to spend less time pursuing the opposition. When it comes to defending, this is the key principal for Pep Guardiola. In fact it could be argued, after conceding only 7 goals in the league before their trip to the John Smith Stadium, that the Sky Blues’ defence has benefited the most from their improved fluidity.
“…because when you have possession, you have the ball and it is impossible the opponent can score a goal.” – Pep Guardiola
The match between Terriers and Citizens was billed as a walk over, but little did Pep’s side know, they would have to work harder than expected for their three points.
As predicted, Huddersfield began the match with a 4-1-4-1, in an attempted to reduce the space between their defence and midfield. Wagner chose three midfielders with high work rates and endurance, allowing the inclusion of the more attack minded Tom Ince. Though none of players in the starting eleven seemed like overly defensive choices, Wagner was clear pre-match, that he had a plan for dealing with City.
“There will be no surprises – we know everything we have to know. It’s not about finding their weaknesses, it’s how you can handle and manage their strengths. We have found an idea and we have been working on this.” – David Wagner in his pre-match presser vs. Man City
Coverage had City lining up in a 4-3-3, with Nicolas Otamendi returning from suspension to replace the injured John Stones. Sergio Aguero was chosen to spearhead the attack, while Gabriel Jesus was seemingly rested for their midweek game against Southampton. Though Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker were positioned at full back pre-match, in previous games they had tended to drift into central midfield whilst in possession. This allows the more attack minded Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, to create uncertainty in the opposition’s defensive shape by floating between the back lines.
How did the tactics play out?
Huddersfield’s 4-1-4-1 quickly developed into a 5-3-2-0, with left winger Rajiv van La Parra slotting into left wing back. This gave the right sided midfielder Ince, the freedom to stay slightly higher on the pitch. This tactical nuance created an ‘out ball’ from defence to attack.
When the opposition’s centre backs were in possession, Huddersfield striker Depoitre would drop into a number 10 position. At first glance, this looks like a ‘safety in numbers’ approach. However after a short period, it was evident that his presence in midfield was to block the passing lanes into the opposition’s creative players. This was an important inclusion, as Pep’s sides tend to use their defender’s ability to recycle possession to build attacks.
For the first 20 minutes of the game, City’s centre backs found it difficult to find the feet of Silva and De Bruyne. When they did receive the ball, the duo were harried by tenacious midfielders; Mooy, Williams and Hogg. This nullified their passing ability and vision, forcing them to play first time passes to avoid losing possession. In both player’s early match stats, Silva and De Bruyne completed 16 passes from 17 touches and 19 passes from 21 touches respectively.
In an attempt to bring more creativity into the game, Guardiola changed tact. Whilst City were on the ball, he would ask Otamendi to push into central midfield next to Fernandinho. Not only did this allow another option when distributing from defence to attack, it created another passing option for the more advanced players to use if required.
With this change, auxiliary central midfielders Delph and Walker were pushed out to provide width, allowing wingers Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling to drift into central areas. This created a front 5 for Manchester City, with; Aguero, Sane, Sterling, De Bruyne and Silva all taking up positions behind the opposition’s midfield.
Although this switch gave more options in attack, the drawbacks were noticeable. The decision left City open to counter attacks, with club captain Vincent Kompany their only blockade. Despite a lack of attacking intent from the hosts, it was a risk to vacate such a large area of the pitch so early in proceedings. However, this also shows how much Guardiola trusts his new goalkeeper, Ederson. The ‘sweeper keeper’ role is critical in Pep’s ethos. If the keeper can not position himself to cover counter attacks, the high line enacted by City’s defenders becomes ineffective – resulting in counter attacking opportunities.
City began to hold possession in Huddersfield’s half, and despite not creating many clear cut chances, it felt like it was only a matter of time before the deadlock was broken. However, it was the unlikely hosts that would edge in front. A rare corner was flicked on by Christopher Schindler, before a deflection off Otamendi’s took the ball past Ederson. Though this was against the run of play, given City’s dominance of possession, it was the exact avenue in which Wagner would have expected to score.
When the teams returned from half time, there was a shift in tempo from City. After only 90 seconds, Huddersfield left back Scott Malone brought down Sterling in the box, forcing referee Craig Pawson to point to the spot. The agility demonstrated by City’s number 7 in the lead up to the goal, was a testament to the level of coaching from his manager, as well as the application displayed by Sterling.
After Aguero equalised from the penalty spot, Huddersfield began to struggle to hold City’s attack. As the match became more stretched, Ince became ineffective. Without an outlet to drag their defence away from the 18 yard line, it felt like a matter of time before the visitors would take the lead.
The game remained level until the final ten minutes, where Guardiola made his final attacking shift. The Spaniard chose to bring on Jesus for Kompany. Bringing off a defender for a forward may seem the conventional choice when a manager is chasing a win – especially for an elite club facing a newly promoted side. But with Kompany acting as the only defender – despite Pep’s use of the sweeper keeper – the substitution left City light on cover. Not only did the change see City more sparse in the defensive transition, but also lacking height on set pieces.
Regardless of any inefficiencies caused by the change, Pep saw an instant impact. A through ball was played into the Huddersfield box for Jesus to latch onto. The Dane, Jonas Lossl, parried the resulting shot into the midriff of Sterling, which saw the ball spiral into the far corner of the goal.
With his team now losing, Wagner attempted to enact positive changes. The addition of summer signing Steve Mounie, as well as a switch to a more traditional 4-4-2, allowed the Terriers to have more threat whilst in possession. However, it was all too late, with the visitors taking 3 points back to Manchester.
What did we learn?
The opening 20 minutes of Huddersfield’s performance was impressive. Their disciplined approach lent itself to preventing City from having the space in which to create the amount of chances they are accustomed to. Ultimately, it came at the cost of having no impetus in attack. Despite the result, there were positives to take from an admirable defensive display.
For Guardiola, the switch to a more progressive system in possession, demonstrated his ability to be proactive in altering a game’s state. Despite no initial impact in terms of goals, the change allowed his side to take control of the match. Pep’s second and most impactful change came with the removal of his team’s defensive cover. After depriving the opponents of possession, the gamble of another forward came with much lower risk, resulting in another win for Manchester City.