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Manchester City and Liverpool played out the English top-flight curtain-raiser on Sunday. It was a very ‘pre-season between two top sides’ kind of game, both one in which both sides clearly wanted to win, but also that neither seemed too fussed about losing.
City started the match with such speed and tenacity that raises playfully cynical questions in the back of the mind about doping in football, before promptly dialling things back after they scored in the 12th minute. The tempo that they fell to in the second half pushes the doping questions back for another time (want to feel old - Operation Puerto was over a decade ago), but also pushes some worry into the minds of City fans.
They probably shouldn’t be too concerned, though. This was, after all, a game in which Claudio Bravo regularly joined John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi as the central column of a temporary back three.
It’s interesting in its novelty, but also in its purpose. It essentially means that City’s ‘first line’ of build-up has three players in it instead of two, matching Liverpool’s first line of defence. No longer outnumbered by that Liverpool first line, it’s easier for them to pass through it.
City’s practice of pushing their attacking players right up onto the opposition’s defence doesn’t just peg the defenders back, but it makes the midfield more cautious as well.
It’s weird to think that Pep Guardiola was one of the figureheads of a possession football-style that packed the central midfield. Now, he’s vacating it.
The pushing of attackers onto the opposing defence is nothing new — teams like Guardiola’s have been on the verge of being 2-3-5s for a while — but that first stage of build-up is.
Will we see it more often this season? Guardiola is constantly tinkering to improve and evolve his sides, and the three-man first line of defence is a fairly common one. This is a potential solution that doesn’t require moving another outfielder to centre-back.
In their own pressing, they made the unusual choice (unusual relative to most other football teams) of putting four players in the first line of their defensive block. This may have been due to Liverpool’s full-backs staying pretty deep in build-up, though, so it might not be something that we see regularly during the season.
In these scenarios, David Silva would step up, with Rodri (or Rodrigo? everyone seems to call him the former; his shirt and City’s website say the latter) and Kevin de Bruyne hanging back in midfield.
It’ll be interesting if this is something City use regularly from hereon in. Silva would mostly sit on or near the deepest central midfielder — against Liverpool, Fabinho — and often move up into the ‘second striker’ position when a pass was made between centre-backs and/or goalkeeper. Often midfielders will only move forward if they’re marking a player who’s dropping deep, but this seemed quite a neat way of transitioning from quite a conventional defensive shape, with three members of the team in the first line, to a more aggressive one.
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Grumbles about Maguire-Van Dijk comparisons
Harry Maguire has moved for £80m and signed a six (SIX!) year contract (with an option of a seventh). I’ve written about the move here with a bit more analysis of the defender here, so I’m not going to go into more detail on that here.
However, there’ve been a couple of strands of the inevitable comparisons to Virgil van Dijk that have irked me. Mainly, the irritant is the “nobody knew Virgil van Dijk was Virgil van Dijk until he moved” line.
Every transfer is a gamble. Just because Van Dijk worked out as well as he has doesn’t mean that £75m was necessarily the right price for him. It’s possible (though unlikely) that we’re living in the 1 in 100 timeline where the transfer worked. In that case, even though the move happened to be a treat, it wouldn’t have been a clever deal. It would’ve been a lucky one. (Equally, the reverse could be true, if we’d arrived in the 1 in 100 timeline where it didn’t work).
Van Dijk to Liverpool had a higher chance of working out than Maguire to United does. I think, because of his defending quality, there are real concerns about the Maguire move. I had uncertainty about the Van Dijk transfer, but I don’t think that I had any real concern that it would go badly wrong.
It’s stupid to reduce transfers to a binary “good deal/bad deal” depending on how a player performed once they arrived. The end result should of course be taken into account, but random stuff happens. People get lucky, and unlucky. If you don’t believe me, go watch Sliding Doors.
We’ll also never know what could have happened if United had spent some of that £80m on a different centre-back. Maguire may turn out to be a decent and reliable first-team player, but in a world of rising sea levels there are plenty more fish out there. We’ll never know if a £40m centre-back could have done just as good a job as Maguire, with the remaining £40m being able to be spent elsewhere on the squad.
I want to make a prediction on Maguire, but a lot depends on the situation he finds himself in. As I mentioned in one of my previous writings on the move, Chris Smalling was lauded for a period of time under Louis van Gaal, principally because the system happened to align with what suited him.
I don’t know how likely it is that United will click this season. If they do, it’ll make things easier for Maguire. I think his ‘calming influence’, the, probably briefed by the club, buzzword that’s being thrown around the papers will help his fellow defenders and, a couple of iffy moments aside, his defending will be fine. If he scores a couple of goals from set-pieces, he’ll be considered a hero.
If the team doesn’t click, though, I don’t think Maguire is defensively equipped to handle the footballing fall-out. His personality — something that I can’t judge from watching on TV — may well help things, but I think he’ll be shown up on the field.
But it all depends on if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gets things working in midfield.
Either way, go watch Sliding Doors.
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