After a short break over the chock-full festive period, Complete Preview is back as Aston Villa host Manchester City at Villa Park.

Words: Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon


The last time we previewed Manchester City, we looked at the star-studded line-up and the 4-3-3 philosophy that Pep Guardiola is so famous for perfecting. But this time, with City and Villa come to Villa Park in relatively good form, we look at Manchester City’s effectiveness in front of goal and how Aston Villa might hope to the win the tactical battle.

Predicted Manchester City formation: 4-3-3

Predicted line-up for Manchester City: Ederson (returning from injury), Walker, Fernandinho, Otamendi, Mendy, De Bruyne, Gundogan, Rodri, Sterling, Foden, Jesus

How do Manchester City deal with a back three?

Against a stubborn Sheffield United just before the turn of the new decade, City struggled to break down Chris Wilder’s congested defensive system. In the first half, it was difficult for them to find that killer pass to open up the defence – which they’re usually so good at – with the extra Sheffield defender making it much more difficult for Manchester City to find room in-and-around the Sheffield United box.

In game situation for City against Sheffield

Second half. City are attacking after winning the ball from a piece of Sheffield United build-up play. The Manchester City front three of Aguero, Sterling and Mahrez are trying to find space against Sheffield’s narrow back three and the additional fullbacks who are covering the sides of their defence. The defensive system is working and that line of five defenders is blocking-off De Bruyne’s options on the ball. Kevin De Bruyne loses the ball with a searching pass into the attackers.

City win the ball back again, almost immediately, and it costs Sheffield. The United left-back has a momentary bout of confusion, moving up the pitch very slightly to try and win the ball – but in doing so the five is broken. Aguero makes a run outside of the narrow back three and De Bruyne finds him with a perfectly-weighted pass. The rest writes itself. Aguero is through on goal.

That is how easy it is to concede against Manchester City – you only need to lose your shape once and they will punish you. Pep’s team are not as efficient playing against a back five because their football and personnel upfront doesn’t lend itself to crosses into the box to a big, traditional striker. Instead, City bank on the fact that most teams playing a rigid defensive system will make an error at some point in the game.

City are potent when given the space. Even in their loss against Wolves, Manchester City scored when Nuno’s men failed to create that back five. Sterling ran outside of the back three and his electric place left him through on goal with time and space. It’s the exact same pattern that created the goals against Sheffield, and it only takes a momentary lapse of concentration from the defending team.

Man City score against every opponent they face. So how do you beat them?

Manchester City are not defensively rigid. Whilst they do have the third best expected goals against tally in the league, remember they also hold the most possession on average – seeing an average of 60.5% of the ball per game. Compare that to Aston Villa’s average of 46.4% possession and you might say that Man City have almost 30% less time throughout their league games to concede chances. Possession is Manchester City’s main form of defence – win the ball, keep the ball, and don’t concede.

City have the highest expected goals against per shot conceded – suggesting that they don’t defend effectively when they do so. Indeed, attack as the best from of defence doesn’t always work, with the reigning champions conceding 1.14 goals per match. In a team with many world class players, that leaves a lot to be desired.

Use the long ball over the top

Wolverhampton Wanderers have been Manchester City’s bogey team this season. Against Pep’s men, Wolves played the back three well. They used the pace of Jota and Adama Traore to get in behind the Champions on a number of occassions.

Manchester City have gradually been moved their defensive line higher up the pitch over the last couple of seasons in Pep’s pursuit of more goals. It is an admirable philosophy, but it means that City face 56 long balls per game which have an average effectiveness of 15%.

You can see the attractiveness of trying a simple long ball over their high defensive line as much as possible.

In-game situation for City against Wolves

Wolves win a free-kick in their match against Manchester City in December. Coady receives the ball from Neves on the edge of his own box and gets his head up. The ball over the top completely catches Manchester City out – at this point, they didn’t have a backline at all – just three defensive players running without synchronisation or positioning – Jota can’t believe his fortune to be running through on goal, well clear with space between him and the nearest City defender.

Ederson comes out and makes the foul, and City go down to ten men.

A false nine, or fluid front three could be the best approach

Trezeguet and El Ghazi have split the opinion of fans this season. Both have had periods of good form, and El Ghazi remains quite productive . in terms of goals and assists. However, they are inconsistent. But what you can say about both players – is that both players will try to run in-behind and cause problems for defenders.

A front three of Jack Grealish, El Ghazi and Trezeguet could be a good set-up for Aston Villa to try a direct approach against Pep’s men. Trezeguet is fast and could try running beyond the back four, and given Tyrone Mings’ ability on the ball, you might see this come off with good effect.

Equally, El Ghazi can cause problems in two ways. He isn’t as quick as Trezeguet, but he likes to stay wide and try to overload fullbacks. Against the marauding Kyle Walker, this might give him the opportunity to isolate Otamendi. He’s also a physical presence in the box, and if he can get to the back post he might cause problems for City’s fullbacks in the air.

Who is Aston Villa’s most effective passer?

Luiz, Grealish and Hourihane have Aston Villa’s best passing percentage statistics. But if Aston Villa are to try and create lots of chances with effective passing. Aston Villa may want to try through balls more than usual and this might catch out Pep Guardiola.

Jota has Aston Villa’s best statistics for through balls per 90 minutes, at 0.5 when he’s played at Villa Park. He has a good passing range and created the goal with a beautiful ball over the top against Fulham. Jota is the outside shout for a call-up as a sub or surprise starter in this game.

Equally, Tyrone Mings is a longball threat for Aston Villa. He produces 3.1 per 90 minutes and whilst we know that isn’t the highest in the side – Hause makes 4 per 90) – we know that Tyrone often tries a longball with real purpose rather than the usual punt from a centre-back.


Villa are obvious underdogs here against an incredible attacking side. Frankly, all the teams who have beaten City did it with a slice of luck. Villa may need a penalty saved, a man sent off for City, or just an off-day from Pep’s side. The reality is that City will come to score goals, so Villa need to limit their chances and play very effective (maybe not pretty) football to try and exploit City’s slight weaknesses in defence.

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