At the end of the 2020/2021 season, Argentine striker Sergio Aguero played his 275th and last game for Manchester City. In the ten years spent in the team, Aguero had become the most symbolic and decisive player in the victories with which City had overturned the balance of the English league and his city, taking the place of Manchester United as the reference team thanks to the enormous investments of his ownership, the Abu Dhabi United Group.
At the end of Aguero’s last game in Manchester, his manager Pep Guardiola was interviewed and he repeated moved: “We can’t replace him, we can’t.” Then Aguero was replaced by Norwegian centre-forward Erling Haaland, whose signing a year ago made City a complete and perhaps definitive team. Haaland played a record season in which he was able to score 52 goals in 52 games, but in addition to the goals and the physical dominance he demonstrates every time he plays, he has allowed an already winning team to become the best expression of itself : if they beat Inter in the Champions League final on Saturday night, they will become the eighth team in the history of European football to have won the three most important competitions at their disposal, the so-called treble o triplet.
Already in 2021, the City coached by Guardiola had had the opportunity to win everything in one season, but lost the Champions League final, which they had reached facing many difficulties. In that season he had effectively played without a center forward. This was nothing new for Guardiola, given the successes achieved in Barcelona with the so-called “false nine”, a role he conceived by lowering Lionel Messi’s position to give him the opportunity to aim at the defenses, gaining speed and freeing up space for full-backs and attacking midfielders to enter .
At City, however, it was not a technical choice, but a necessity. Between injuries and coronavirus positivity, the two real forwards, Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, had only managed to play a few games without ever getting really fit. Guardiola then trained the team to do without strikers, in an English championship that up until then had never been won without them, and in contrast to all their main rivals, who instead relied heavily on their centre-forwards (Tottenham with Harry Kane, Liverpool with Firmino, United with Cavani, Arsenal with Aubameyang).
In the centre-forward role City used six different players, but no centre-forward. Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Bernando Silva, Ferran Torres, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan took turns among them. Gundogan — not the most offensive of the six — was the team’s top scorer with 17 goals and the other five went on to score at least ten apiece. In this way, even if Gundogan was only the tenth player in the Premier League scorer table, City won the championship 13 points behind the second.
Without strikers City’s game changed, while always maintaining the same system in which all players manage spaces and movements in order to always be connected with each other. The intensity of the offensive pressing decreased slightly, for example, and there was more focus on interrupting the opposing passing lines, to then appear already in attack with various possibilities available.
Even without a centre-forward, however, City eventually paid for their offensive imbalance. In the Champions League final against Chelsea she was put in great difficulty by the opponents, who took advantage of the space allowed behind the defense, whose line remained high to support the pressing and ball recovery in the opponent’s half. And just like that, with a long ball to overtake the high defense, Chelsea scored the goal that decided the match and didn’t let City win their first Champions League.
Two years after that final, City have found in Haaland a point of reference in attack who can get chances to score at any time. He was thus able to better balance the owners and put together a real defense. In past years, Guardiola had often used midfielders adapted to central defenders and very attacking full-backs: this year’s City instead plays with three or four defenders and, depending on the opponent, has one or both central defenders set up play, with a midfielder who, if necessary, is placed in front of the opponent’s centre-forward to isolate him from the rest of his teammates.
With newfound defensive strength and a striker who scores once a game, City have become a team with no apparent weaknesses. She is a master in ball possession, also thanks to the great quality of all her players, good at occupying the empty spaces of the pitch and getting away from the opponents. He continues to press a lot and, even if with greater prudence, in the Champions League they were the best team for the number of possessions recovered and for the number of goals born from steals in the opponent’s half.
Sometimes, however, someone still manages to surprise Guardiola and his enormous technical staff made up of eight assistant coaches, not to mention dozens of other employees who collect and analyze data and who specifically prepare some areas. It happened recently in the Premier League with Brentford and Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton. In fact, City remain a team that sets up the action quickly by gradually releasing the ball from the defence, whose line, when compared to those of the other big European teams, always remains higher than normal on the pitch, allowing spaces behind them that can be exploited by those who know how to take advantage of it.
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