Why Manchester City’s win over Fulham was one of their greatest performances


Manchester City often do this with 10 men. You don’t win, because the odds are always against you, but you can be more and more confident that they will keep trying to dominate and push for goals.

That’s how Fulham won on Saturday in one of those results that seems important.

Erling Haaland’s 95th-minute penalty was their last winner since Raheem Sterling scored in the 96th minute against Southampton in November 2017, and it was certainly one of those results in what turned out to be the season of 100 points.

Late goals like this always add to that sense of gravity, but even more so here considering City had sent off Joao Cancelo 70 minutes earlier. With that in mind, they were phenomenal.

If you had turned the game on at half-time, it wouldn’t have been obvious that City had 10 men – they had 73% possession in the first half and 71% at full-time.

It has been a similar story in three of the last four matches in which they have received a red card, including against Aston Villa in April 2021 and Crystal Palace last season. City fans might even remember how Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich played them off the park with a man down in 2014, only for Sergio Agüero to surprise them with a late hat-trick, highlighting the role that have the energy levels.

PL Since 2016-17Games with a player sent offTotal redsWdLPTS

arsenal

20

21

6

6

8

24

Manchester City

14

15

6

1

7

19

everton

19

20

4

7

8

19

Manchester United

10

10

4

2

4

14

City of Leicester

15

15

3

5

7

14

Watford

19

19

4

2

13

14

Brighton and Hove Albion

15

16

3

4

8

13

Liverpool

6

6

3

2

1

11

Tottenham Hotspur

10

11

3

1

6

10

West Ham United

15

15

1

7

7

10

However, the approach of the opposition is quite important – teams tend to stick to their game plan even with an extra man against City, and this often involves sitting back and waiting for counter-attacks.

Fulham manager Marco Silva shed some light on his side’s thinking.

“We knew with the ball it wasn’t going to make a big difference to them, because they have the quality,” he said. “Of course, if we showed the ability to keep the ball more and be brave, it could be difficult for them and I don’t think we did that with enough quality.

“Being a bit braver on the ball could have been different,” he continued. “We are talking about a team that in the Premier League the average goals scored here at the Etihad is more than four goals per game, we know the quality they have.”

So there was an element of Fulham that didn’t push as hard as other teams, perhaps for fear of what City might do to them.

Palace last season, however, stuck to their approach and ultimately did well. They were already 1-0 up when City sent off Aymeric Laporte, but had to weather the storm after the break as City played as they did on Saturday. They still controlled possession, pressed for chances and a draw had been ruled out. They were more direct than on Saturday and Palace’s threat at the break – they had more quality than Fulham in that regard – led to a second goal from Conor Gallagher.

This result shows how difficult these games are: there is always danger. One of the biggest challenges, as much as scoring a goal yourself, is not to score anymore.

That was a big part of City’s approach on Saturday.

“We played at the right pace,” Guardiola said. “With 10 vs. 11 you can’t attack as fast because they will attack faster.

“I think Bernardo (Silva), (Ilkay) Gundogan, Manu (Akanji), all the people in the middle are so intuitive, (they know) how to go to their positions and when we’re not able to take it they drop a bit and wait, and when you feel it, leave.

“That can happen because we have long possessions, we can’t attack as quickly. We have to bide our time.”

Kevin De Bruyne added: “You have to find your moments, whereas (with 11) you can go all out. But then it’s more difficult because they have one more man.”

Broadly speaking, City needed to be patient, otherwise the counter-attacks could kill them. They were more patient against Fulham than they were against Palace.

Their tactical approach on Saturday paid off thanks to that last-minute penalty, but win, lose or draw, they played brilliantly. They didn’t create that many chances, but they were tactically very good – to maintain control – and individually excellent.

City were completely reorganized after the red, with Nathan Ake, formerly a centre-back, suddenly left-back attacking on the outside, with John Stones pushing up the right, this time more inside. Bernardo dropped from the right wing to the back of midfield alongside Gundogan, with Rodri moving to centre-back.

The goal, basically, was to still have men back and forth, but not get caught in between. It’s not easy.

Guardiola changed the set-up several times in the second half, constantly trying new things and then correcting them if they didn’t work. Sometimes three at the back, sometimes four, sometimes Gundogan joining the forwards, sometimes staying deeper.

“After the red card, at some points they made the decision to go almost man-on-man without the ball and they have that ability, and the physicality to do it well,” highlighted Marco Silva.

Guardiola also pointed it out. “We talk about when their goalkeeper has the ball, trying to go man-to-man or being high even with one player down.” It’s a brave but necessary approach because, as De Bruyne says, “it’s difficult because you can’t put pressure on”.


Last weekend, Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers said of City: “If you play with four at the back, City will play with five (up front). If you play with five, they will try to get six.”

City, despite being a man down, still had five men lined up in the front line at times, with De Bruyne and Jack Grealish incredibly wide, and at other times in different roles.

They could also bring in the quality of Haaland and Phil Foden to help change the game. These changes could have signaled a more direct approach, but Guardiola’s men were patient enough to control the counter.

The players were smart enough to do that, and indeed this game of a game produced some of the most impressive individual performances ever by these top players.

Guardiola made this point in the same breath. “We were patient and tried not to concede the goal, of course in the last moments they had some counter-attacks, but you saw the reverse (recovery) of John (Stones), he is not a winger but he played incredible. like Bernardo, Rodri, everyone”.

This may sound like hyperbole to someone who never watched the game, or even to those who did, but there were some all-time performances on the field at the weekend.

“Bernardo, Gundogan, Rodri, Kevin above all, they were all fantastic today,” said Guardiola.

Those four were remarkable. When Marco Silva talked about City having the physical ability to go man-to-man, it was largely down to this quartet, who made up for the player disadvantage with an incredible work rate.

Guardiola said that after beating Brighton a fortnight ago, his players were too exhausted to even pick up the phone. After this, they may not be online until mid-week.

Rodri and Bernardo have mixed between midfield and central, whether they had to recover the ball or pass it. “Rodri helped us to do this double job, to be a midfielder and a central defender,” said Guardiola, as you can see in the examples below. Gundogan had to sit in the middle of the field and enter the first line. De Bruyne was everywhere.

This game has to be up there with De Bruyne’s best in a City shirt, for effort as much as anything else.

At one point, already looking at his feet, he sprinted down the left flank, burst past his man, carried the ball to the byline and curled in a beautiful left-footed cross. Haaland headed another, but the Norwegian was offside. And he won the penalty in the end, of course.

“Today he put the team on his shoulders,” said Guardiola.

“Everyone was outstanding,” he added, proud as punch, after leading his players to take a lap of appreciation on the pitch.

He liked that one and had every reason to.


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