Man City Show the Value of Counter-Attacking for Big Teams

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Football isn’t always easy for the big teams. They often come up against well organised defensive units and, most of the time, those units will sit back in a compact shape to make themselves difficult to penetrate. This means scoring isn’t a straightforward proposition, and sometimes, despite the quality of player lining up for the best sides, it doesn’t even happen at all.

It’s for this reason that big teams need to be more than just dominant in possession. They need more than just creative passers, more than sharp movement between the lines and more than a fox-in-the-box type to finish off chances. They also need speed and power to pose an alternative threat, to give them the versatility to counter-attack when the possession game, otherwise known as Plan A, isn’t working.

In recent times, teams like Barcelona have demonstrated the value of this. They might have Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets to dominate the possession game, but they also have more dynamic movers such as Neymar and Luis Suarez to make them a more well-rounded outfit. Barca do, of course, also have legend Lionel Messi, who Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli recently compared to Batman, but this ability to change gears and remain adaptable has been key to the Catalan club’s success under Luis Enrique.

Even more recently, on Thursday night at the Olympic Stadium, Manchester City showed off the importance of flexibility in their thumping 4-0 win over West Ham. Pep Guardiola’s men may have enjoyed 70% of possession, but for all of their slower passages of attacking build-up play, they did most of their damage on the break.

Their first goal of the eventual rout was a great example of this, as it started with a wayward pass from West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell. Kevin De Bruyne latched on to it in the centre of defence,  and with the majority of West Ham’s players completely out of position in a defensive sense, the Belgian had plenty of time to drive forward and assess his options. He quickly settled on Gabriel Jesus, who was running in behind the opposition defence. De Bruyne found him with an incisive vertical ball, and Jesus responded with a sharp, first-time return pass to tee up De Bruyne. The onrushing midfielder finished the move with a precise side-footed finish, and with that, City had completed an extraordinarily clinical counter-attack.

Two of the club’s other three goals on the night were equally clinical. For their second, De Bruyne played a quick forward pass from inside his own half after an interception. This allowed Leroy Sane, who was charging in behind along the left-hand side,  to square up to Hammers fullback Sam Byram, beat him with a superb piece of skill and sprint towards the byline. The young winger  maintained the move’s momentum by playing a neat cutback into the feet of David Silva, who knocked the ball into the back of the net for another.

City’s third was just as simple, with Sane intercepting a stray pass from Pedro Obiang before playing in Raheem Sterling on the right. The former Liverpool man then slid a quick pass into Jesus, who was up against an unset West Ham defence, at which point the young Brazilian tapped in City’s third first-half goal, effectively ending the contest before the interval.

The interesting thing here is that City only registered 4 shots on target for the match, three of which were the goals described above. The other was a second-half penalty scored by Yaya Toure, but the fact that City generated such high-quality opportunities from their counter-attacking game is indicative of the importance of a top team having this string to their bow. When they can’t break through a deep-sitting opposition defence, they need the tools to hurt them in transition. They need to have the dynamism and speed to get at the opposition immediately after a turnover, before the defence and midfield has been afforded the opportunity to fold back into shape. For City, their fleet-footed frontline, which featured Jesus, Sane and Sterling, gave them the speed to capitalise upon the slick passing of their midfield group, and when combined with De Bruyne and Silva streaming forward in support, City’s attacking transitions were superb.

This is the kind of flexibility big teams need to succeed, because a possession-based Plan A doesn’t always bring about the required results.