Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Manchester City don't trust Phil Foden to play as a holding midfielder

Manchester City were hamstrung to start against Real Madrid because they didn’t trust Foden to play as a holding midfielder. They could skip the first step by having Foden wide left instead of Silva, to keep Silva at right-wing the whole match.

Pep Guardiola in the summer on Phil Foden:

He’s a midfield player but in time he’s going to learn to play as a holding midfielder, even, because he has the ability to learn.

Figure 1.1 - Manuel Akanji inverts from center-back, Bernardo Silva moves wide left, almost acting as a full-back.

Pep Guardiola mentioned after the match he does “not have any regret” after their loss. This is a well executed game-plan, revolving around the position of De Bruyne, Foden, and Bernardo Silva.

  • Withstand pressure by having Bernardo Silva rotate wide left.
  • Allow Phil Foden to rotate with Kevin De Bruyne on the right when Real Madrid ease off.
  • Move Kevin De Bruyne to the left, Foden inside right, Bernardo Silva to the right-wing, and give Manuel Akanji more freedom to roam when Real Madrid aren’t pressing high, defending deeper, and are fatigued.

The Community Shield revealed that a good way to defend against a high-press is to have a holding midfielder rotate wide left of the left center-back. They are more press resistant than a defender, and are more reliable passing under pressure.

Mateo Kovacic rotated wide left in the second half of the first leg against Real Madrid, and Bernardo Silva did the same in the first half of the second leg. If they trusted Foden, they’d use him there in the first half.

Figure 2.1 - Bernardo Silva free in the half-space with space behind him to turn in to.
Figure 3.1 - Phil Foden drops into the half-space to receive the ball and Thomas Partey follows.
Figure 3.2 - Phil Foden lowers his body to prepare to pivot around Thomas Partey.
Figure 2.3 - Phil Foden pivots around Thomas Partey.

You want Phil Foden in that half-space, central, on the turn, not Bernardo Silva. Silva normally plays on the right-wing but Pep Guardiola doesn’t consider Phil Foden to be a holding midfielder, yet. For that reason, they have to compensate based on the conditions of the match.

They start with the most conservative tactic.

Figure 4.1 - Phil Foden plays a wall pass off Manuel Akanji to play Kevin De Bruyne in down the wing.
Figure 4.2 - Kevin De Bruyne crosses. Erling Haaland cuts to the far-post to open space for the cut-back to Bernardo Silva on the near-post. Jack Grealish is free on the back-post.

Foden and Grealish, retain, they’ll never beat their man one-v-one. Foden will always be the pass before the final pass when he plays on the wing.

You want Silva there on the right-wing in place of Foden, so that Foden can attack the space Silva is attacking behind Erling Haaland in Figure 4.2.

City sacrifice that better dynamic in the final third of De Bruyne and Foden central to have Bernardo wide left when they are under pressure.

Figure 5.1 - Phil Foden rotates with Kevin De Bruyne, moving infield into the pockets, central.

Once Manchester City become more comfortable in possession, after 20 minutes pass; then Phil Foden can switch with Kevin De Bruyne to get into those pockets, central. But it doesn’t happen from the start of the match, it doesn’t happen enough, and when it does happen, it happens too late into the half for Foden to make an impact.

Figure 6.1 - Manchester City overload the left-wing. Rodri drives forward with the ball. Phil Foden holds width off-camera on the right-wing.
Figure 7.1 - Phil Foden rotated with Bernardo Silva, infield into the pockets, central. Manuel Akanji rotates with Kevin De Bruyne.

In the second half, when Real Madrid back off, that’s when Manchester City makes the change to have Bernardo Silva move to the right-wing. Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden move central, and Manuel Akanji has more freedom to move away from Rodri.

Figure 8.1 - Manuel Akanji is played in to the byline and cuts back to Kevin De Bruyne.
Figure 8.2 - Kevin De Bruyne skies the ball over the post.

Manchester City created better chances in the second half with De Bruyne and Foden central. All that was missing was the finish.

Pep Guardiola:

Johan Cruyff said, “luck doesn’t exist”, and I agree with him. We couldn’t score tonight, we couldn’t score the extra goal. We did almost everything to almost do it, and to lose like this it hurts, but sometimes you have to say, what a fantastic way to lose.

But with that distrust in Foden in the first phase as a holding midfielder, they limited the amount of exposure they had to having De Bruyne and Foden central at the same time to only the second half onwards.

Match: Manchester City 1-1 (4-4 aggregate, 3-4 penalties) Real Madrid, 17 April 2024

Players: Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne

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