After Liverpool’s late collapse against Crystal Palace on Monday, there would be no such squandering of a vital lead in the title race on Wednesday as Manchester City put themselves top with a 4-0 win over Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium. Villa came into this match safe and secure from the drop but still managed to put together a well drilled and disciplined defensive stand for a little over an hour to try and leave more drama for the Premier League’s finale on Sunday afternoon. But they offered very little in an attacking sense from the onset of the match, leaving City only the defence task of cracking the defence open to take control of the title battle.
Villa prepared to stop City’s glorious attacking abilities by playing a back five with Ryan Bertrand the left-back, Matthew Lowton at right-back and deployed between them from left to right, the centerbacks, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker and Ron Vlaar. The midfield trio consisted of Ashley Westwood centrally, flanked by Karim El Ahmadi to his right and Fabian Delph to his left. Up top, Andreas Weimann paired with Jordan Bowery. The American, Brad Guzan was in net.
The home team set out in a 4-2-3-1 with Joe Hart in goal with Aleksander Kolarov, Martin Demichelis, Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta lining up from left to right in front of him. The defensive midfield pairing was Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia and between them and lone striker, Edin Dzeko, were James Milner, David Silva and Samir Nasri from right to left in the three attacking midfield spots. The vast majority of the contest was played in Villa’s half who spent extremely long periods defending and their wing-backs were nearly permanently on the back line, any transition to a 3-5-2 by Villa, as is typical with back fives, was extremely rare. Likewise, City spent more time in a 2-3-4-1 than anything resembling their base formation.
Villa’s defensive block was setup very well to counter all the usual problems poised by City’s attack this season. Most noticeable was Delph and Bertrand on their left and Lowton and El Ahmadi on their right side’s ability to prevent City from creating 2v1s in the wide areas through use of their fullbacks. Delph and Bertrand had to deal with Milner staying out wide and Zabaleta’s willingness to get forward and they were able to stay tight to both of them. This would normally open up space for Silva against a back four either in between the lines or the pocket between the left-back and left centerback but Villa had three centerbacks meaning Clark was able to mark Silva on attempted overloads and still left two centerbacks to deal with Dzeko. If Silva looked to move between the lines the unoccupied Westwood could pick him up.
This is a bit to follow, but, normally someone tracking Silva from a central position would allow Toure to move forward into that vacated central space but since Villa were effectively playing a 5-3-2-0 Weimann was present alongside Bowery to track either of City’s defensive mids moving forward. That even still left El Ahmadi to track Nasri when he came inside looking to get on the ball with the fifth defender, the right-back, able to pickup Kolarov stretching play on his side. All the while they did this while still retaining the key spare man on the center forward at almost all times. The only free players City had were their two centerbacks who did wander into Villa’s half but never enough to risk leaving Weimann or Bowery with an open counter.
Villa had the perfect setup to defend against City. And lost by four goals.
How is that possible? First of all, in positioning themselves to defend everything City is known to do to unlock defences they left themselves with no route of attack of their own. That’s a sign of how strong a side City is, not just their incredible goal scoring record this season, but in order to stop everything they can do, you also stop yourself. Villa were also without Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor as attacking options, had both or either been in the side perhaps their rare chances would have been taken better.
What that meant for City was they had ninety minutes to try everything they could think of to nick a goal and take the three points, that it only took them sixty-four minutes and then another eight or so after that to get 2-0 up meant they left Aston Villa with no real reason to continue their defensive display and City tacked on two more against a side that probably realised they were beaten, gave it their best and that the result didn’t matter to them anyways.
And City did try everything to break down Villa, Dzeko in particular, in the first ten minutes he twice made smart runs just onside onto short through balls that created a chance and a corner for City. The first time he made a right to left run behind Villa’s back line in an offside position and ever so briefly slipped himself back onside as the pass was played. The second time he made a more traditional straight ahead run from an onside position but timed the move perfectly and was narrowly denied a chance but won a corner. That suggested that Villa needed to drop the line a bit deeper or keep a better eye on Dzeko.
Early in the second half, Dzeko was onside from a long pass from inside City’s half from Toure, in a rare instance when Villa had pushed up, over the top of the back line but he was unable to get control of it. Had he, he would have been in on goal one on one with Guzan. Dzeko’s other role was that of a traditional center forward, positioning himself inside the area to receive a cross. That was the eventual way he bagged both of his goals. For all his hard work, Dzeko only received the ball twenty times and had just three attempts but two of them went in and both came from Zabaleta crosses.
The crosses came frequently from City in the first half but just three of twenty found a target. Again, Bertrand and Lowton mostly stayed diligent defending out wide and had help as well to keep from being overloaded and even when a City player did get in position for a cross, Villa had spare men in the area to clear them out. Late on in the first half a Zabaleta cross found Nasri running for the near post but his effort was just wide.
Meanwhile, it took nearly half an hour for Aston Villa to have any sort of sustained possession. On twenty-eight minutes Bertrand intercepted a pass inside City’s area and switched fields to Weimann who was unable to get a shot away cleanly. In brief moments of possession they did have the ability to utilise their 3v1 at the back to cycle possession around but the instances to Weimann it were rare. A slip from Zabaleta allowed Villa to get in behind and Villa managed their only shot, which was wide of the target, from inside the area in the opening half.
Villa’s best chance to score came and went in the thirty-ninth minute when Weimann broke 1v1 against Zabaleta, who managed to slightly deflect Weimar’s shot and gave a corner to Villa, the break itself had come from a simple clearance to Weimann from a City corner. These were the types of chances Villa needed to and were unable to create to at least give themselves a chance of going up 1-0 and allowing them to be able to concede and still leave with a point.
In the second half, Villa switched to a 5-4-1 with Weimann now dropping into the second line to defend on the right side and was now responsible to track Kolarov’s forward movements. This allowed Toure to venture a little further forward and Villa dropped deeper still than the first half. On fifty-nine minutes, Bowery went off, Leandro Bacuna came on and went wide right and now Weimann was “up” top alone. Manuel Pelligrini immediately brought on Stevan Jovetic for Milner and City went 4-4-2 with Silva going wide right.
This move caused Bertrand issues out wide, before the switch he picked up Milner who was further forward than Zabaleta and mostly in a wide position which left Delph to deal with Zabaleta as Delph could move wide from a central area. But now the more advanced City player, Silva, on that side, was more likely to move centrally and if he did and Bertrand tracked him, Zabaleta would have more space out wide as Delph was also mindful of Silva coming into his zone. The two needed to switch, Delph needed to track Silva like El Ahmadi tracked Nasri on the other side and Bertrand needed to pickup Zabaleta, in similar fashion to Lowton tracking Kolarov in the first half.
Villa didn’t react to the change in time however and just four minutes after the substitutions, Zabaleta overlapped on the right without anyone tight to him quick enough and his cross found Dzeko for the opening goal. Eight minutes on from that Silva found Zabaleta free to cross again, the initial shot was saved but Dzeko’s rebound was not, City were 2-0 up and the points were theirs.
Zabaleta’s persistent work on the right flank created five chances, one of which was saved and then blasted home and the assist for the opener. He completed 92 of 97 passes and received a pass 87 times almost all of which were in wide positions. The crosses were from good areas, mostly low, well struck and from wide right of the area, he was not simply pumping them in from a deep position. In the end it wasn’t anything overly spectacular from City that broke the deadlock they just kept stretching the play as much as possible and eventually found what they needed.
In the seventy-ninth minute Callum Robinson came on for Villa, Clark went off and they switched to 4-4-2, City by this time had subbed on Fernandinho for Silva and were playing something resembling a 4-3-3 with Toure in advance of Fernandinho and Garcia. Villa weren’t able to offer much in the final phase going forward and the changes of both team’s formations, as well as the scoreline, meant they were not defending with the same discipline as they had in the opening hour. They did hit the bar from a Weimann shot inside the area off a free kick but once they opened up a bit at the back City were almost certain to tack on more goals and wound up with a comfortable 4-0 win.