Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Manchester City's rotations

Manchester City used constant positional rotations between the forwards and midfield to disrupt Brighton’s man-marking. Combing positional and relational principles together is the edge for a functional attack and defense. Positions are temporary.

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When in their own half or in the middle third, City’s two separate groups rotated either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Julian Alvarez, Kevin De Bruyne, and Phil Foden in the forward group. Bernardo Silva, Rodri, and Mateo Kovacic in the midfield group.

The four defenders Josko Gvardiol, Nathan Ake, Manuel Akanji, and Kyle Walker did not initially move from their positions.

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As time passes, and the game remains at a standstill, City start to become more adventurous and bold. Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovacic rotate back, Nathan Ake moves forward into the space Kovacic vacated, Kevin De Bruyne moves into the space Ake vacated.

Brighton are forced to abandon their man-marking for more of a zonal approach, because it will be impossible to follow and track all six midfielders and forwards across the pitch. It goes to my theory from Bologna versus Roma, when they were rotating.

This constant unpredictability is a tool most teams in Europe do not have. It’s one of the reasons why I think Bologna is so solid defensively. The opponent’s forwards are frequently out of their position because they’re chasing their marker, the Bologna players, around the pitch, into other zones.

When Roma win the ball, their players are out of sorts, while every Bologna player is ready to defend in all situations.

If you follow, you leave space, if you don’t you’ll likely always allow a free pass because there is always a free man. If you follow and win back the ball, your forwards won’t be in position to take full advantage.

Figure 2.1 - Last season on 27 May 2023, Levi Colwill steps forward to mark Kevin De Bruyne.
Figure 2.2 - Levi Colwill is caught upfield marking a man. Erling Haaland lays the ball off to Riyad Mahrez.
Figure 2.3 - Erling Haaland peels around Jan Paul van Hecke, and Riyad Mahrez plays Haaland in on goal.

In last season’s match at the Amex, Brighton had their central-defenders follow City’s highest forwards deep. De Bruyne drops, right center-back Levi Colwill follows him deep. That then opens space for Haaland to attack on the right side, and he’s played in.

Surprisingly, Brighton didn’t rectify this flaw in their defense and repeated that movement this season.

Figure 3.1 - Brighton right center-back Jan Paul van Hecke drops with Julian Alvarez.
Figure 3.2 - Brighton right center-back Jan Paul van Hecke drops with Phil Foden. Ederson plays a pass over the top to Kyle Walker.

The rotations disorient and allow City to always have a pass free, they drop Julian Alvarez to bait Van Hecke to drop, then they play the ball over the top from Ederson to Kyle Walker. It’s an easily manipulated reproducible move that makes Brighton look naive.

Figure 4.1 - Phil Foden drops to receive the ball, and Jan Paul van Hecke follows. Foden passes wide right to Kyle Walker.
Figure 4.2 - Kyle Walker crosses to Kevin De Bruyne, and De Bruyne heads in the ball for the goal.

The same issue came up for Kevin De Bruyne’s goal. Van Hecke follows Foden, then De Bruyne can attack the space Van Hecke would normally be tasked with defending.

It’s all about manipulating the opponent off-the-ball. That is the edge teams are going to look for now. Every team is optimized to stop rigid positional play. Those games end in stalemates.

The defenders didn’t really get involved in the rotations in this match against Brighton, but City did have John Stones, Manuel Akanji, and Rodri rotate in the FA Cup match. John Stones and Manuel Akanji alternated between one playing in the midfield pivot and one staying back at center-back, with Rodri occasionally rotating back to center-back.

Figure 5.1 - Illustration of potential rotations in the future with the defense, midfield, and forwards.

Imagine if and when they combine the positional rotations like what we saw in the FA Cup, with the rotations between the midfield and forwards that we saw against Brighton.

  • Manuel Akanji can now play on the right, left, and center of defense, and in the midfield.
  • John Stones can play as a holding midfielder, or on the right of defense.
  • Rodri can play either left or right center-back.
  • Josko Gvardiol and Nathan Ake can play at left-back or left center-back, and both are comfortable further forward.
  • Kyle Walker can play at left-back and left-center-back, but he is an outlier because can’t invert into the midfield.
  • The only other outlier is Ruben Dias because he can only play in the center of defense or at right center-back.
  • Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovacic can rotate wide to fill for Akanji, Ake, Walker, or Gvardiol.

It comes down to trust. In order for a pragmatic coach like Pep Guardiola to allow players to roam, he needs to trust that they can operate in the midfield, in defense, up top. Normally you wouldn’t trust a center-back to play in the midfield, or a midfielder to play as a center-back, but their team is now built to rotate.

They are one step away from functioning like Bologna, all that is missing rotations that include the defenders. Not only is it more entertaining, it works.

Match: Brighton 0-4 Manchester City, 25 April 2024

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