It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Manchester City’s first half against Borussia Dortmund one of their worst performances in possession in the last two seasons.
It was slow and not the kind of slow that Pep Guardiola likes. City lacked pace until Guardiola made a triple substitution around the hour mark, bringing on Bernardo Silva, Julian Alvarez and Phil Foden in place of Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish.
These latter two weren’t exclusively City‘s worst players in a half that will be quickly forgotten by neutrals, as well as City fans. However, the inclusion of Mahrez and Grealish as City’s widest players raises an important question: together, are they City’s best options on the wing?
Cancelo’s incredible cross or Haaland’s superb finishing – which was better?
Mahrez and Grealish primarily want the ball played into their feet, rather than attacking space. So when both are deployed as City wide attackers, there is a drop in runs behind opposing defenses from the flanks.
Previously, Guardiola’s City had Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling operating on a large scale. They are two players who can both attack from space but are also comfortable with the ball being played at their feet. Then, the arrival of Mahrez reduced the number of these runs, despite the Algerian trying to integrate them into his game.
With the rise of Foden and Gabriel Jesus’ ability to play wide, Guardiola had a mix of wide players – some attacking space, others wanting the ball at their feet, and a few could do both. .
The sale of Sane in 2020, followed by both Jesus and Sterling this summer, has reduced Guardiola’s wide regular options, leaving him with Foden, Mahrez and Grealish.
Alvarez could be an option as a tight winger and Bernardo has also featured as a wide player, but that doesn’t change the fact that Guardiola has gone from having a plethora of different options to relying mainly on three players, two of which play the same way.
Against Dortmund on Wednesday, Guardiola started the game with Grealish and Mahrez as his widest players…
…and ball-to-foot players are usually important because they often succeed in one-on-one situations, but having a mix offers different options.
For example, changes of play to the other side are more dangerous with a wide player looking to attack the space behind the opposition’s full-back – especially with City’s central midfielders who often make races in the surface.
Here you can see Gundogan’s run between Thomas Meunier and Niklas Sule drawing in the former, which frees up space for Grealish to attack behind Dortmund’s right-back.
Mahrez could change the game to Grealish…
…but characteristically Grealish stops his jog and signals that the ball should be played at his feet rather than into space…
…which deprives Mahrez of the opportunity to get the ball behind the Dortmund defense (blue arrow) and allows the Dortmund defensive block to move comfortably.
A lack of runs behind a defense makes any team more predictable, with the opposition primarily worrying about what’s happening in front of them rather than what’s happening behind them. Confusing the opponent’s defense is why Guardiola loves these runs.
After substitutions, Guardiola moved Kevin De Bruyne to be the wider player on the right side and Foden to play on the left, rotating with Bernardo. Both have shown how important the races behind are.
In the 65th minute, Foden slipped behind the Dortmund defense to offer De Bruyne another passing option than Erling Haaland…
… then when the Belgian puts Haaland in goal, Foden still continues his run in case the Norwegian striker plays him through goal.
Minutes later, and in a reverse situation to that of Grealish pictured above, De Bruyne looks to make a run behind Raphael Guerreiro, overloaded due to Alvarez’s positioning. Joao Cancelo spots De Bruyne’s run…
… but his pass narrowly misses his Belgian teammate.
Guardiola compared this Dortmund game to the one against the same team 17 months ago. In that 2020-21 Champions League quarter-final encounter, ironically, the winning goal in the first leg came from a wide player looking to sneak past the defence.
As De Bruyne searches for overtaking options on the other side, Foden begins his race into space…
…and when he realizes Gundogan will be at the end of De Bruyne’s pass, he lets it go…
… so the German can set it up to score the winner.
The bottom line here is that Foden’s initial run behind the defense puts him in scoring position. If he hadn’t done that race, Gundogan wouldn’t have had that overtaking option.
Guardiola and his coaching staff have a knack for improving players. Sergio Aguero is a perfect example.
Now, with Jesus and Sterling sold, will Mahrez and Grealish improve that aspect of their game or will the City manager find other solutions?