Manchester City won their second Premier League title in three seasons on Sunday with an easy 2-0 victory over West Ham United. For the second time in a week a lower table team already safe from relegation presented Manchester City with a defensive tactical setup to try and stop their impressive goal scoring capabilities. And for the second time in a week, City’s persistence in attack pushed them through the defensive block and earned them three points and ultimately, the league title for 2013-14.
West Ham, much like Aston Villa midweek, set out with the intent of having very little possession, putting City under next to no pressure in their own half and hoping to hit on the counter and maybe skip out of Manchester with a win or at least a point. Villa played a 5-3-2-0, their initial setup did a solid job of defending the middle areas and held City’s fullback duo of Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta at bay for the opening hour. Only a tactical switch by City and Villa’s inability to react to it quickly opened the scoring as Villa were pierced twice in eight minutes from crosses from Zabaleta.
West Ham’s defensive setup didn’t last as long as Villa’s as they were broken down within the first half and essentially done and on vacation five minutes into the second half. Sam Allardyce must have been aware of Zabaleta’s influence against Villa as he went one step further than Paul Lambert’s back five and operated with a back six with Stewart Downing on the right and Mohamed Diame on the left acting as wingbacks that were almost permanent fullbacks due to City enjoying 69% possession. It was a smart move to keep six at the back with City fielding both Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero up top, West Ham maintained a 4v2 with their back line against them and the wingbacks marked City’s fullbacks.
The flaw in West Ham’s plan was twofold, once again, in setting up to defend four Manchester City players with six men, they left themselves with little options to counter with. They did deploy Andy Carroll up front and he did keep himself up around the center circle when West Ham were pinned in, as a lone center forward should, to make himself available but City’s pressure on West Ham when they won back possession made it difficult to accurately locate Carroll. And when they did he was far too isolated to have any sort of influence as Diame and and Downing were often too deep to play balls off too and West Ham lacked willing runners from central midfield areas as well, they had a target man capable of winning aerial challenges and holding the ball up but his lack of pace and lack of support made him relatively useless.
Carroll received a pass just twenty times and only once outside the width of the eighteen yard box in City’s half and completed twelve of seventeen passes with no attempts on goal. Stewart Downing did a better job to get West Ham moving forward, receiving a pass 34 times, 24 times in City’s half, he created two chances(one from a corner) and completed a pair of crosses from open play that found a target inside the area. But he was usually tracked well by Kolarov and also had to contend with Martin Demichelis coming over to help Kolarov isolate Downing in the wider areas.
With West Ham offering up three shots, none on target, throughout the entire match City were comfortable in knowing a single goal was probably good enough to clinch the title in style. The route to goal was presented to them with West Ham’s other flaw in their defensive setup. With six at the back and a striker taking up an actual forward position(unlike Villa’s two “forwards” who sat as deep as attacking mids typically would) that only left three West Ham players to defend the central areas in front of their defensive line. It meant that City’s midfield four could maintain a constant 4v3 in this area and with the selection of both Samir Nasri and David Silva, both of whom drift centrally when fielded wide, City took what was handed to them and looked to score from this area of the pitch.
City attempted to do so in two ways, one would see either Nasri or Silva look to play a 1-2 with Dzeko and get on the ball in the area and take on West Ham’s defenders where they would have to be extra careful not to commit a foul and concede a penalty. This type of intricate short passing and dribbling in tight spaces takes players with the utmost technical ability to pull off but City do have that type of talent, West Ham did well to keep from conceding a penalty and kept Nasri, Silva and Aguero from getting clean looks on goal from close range. What they could not do however was stop City from shooting from distance.
On twenty-five minutes, Kolarov forced a save from Adrian from a shot well out of the area and Yaya Toure put in a few shots from outside the area in the first half as well, including the opening goal in the thirty-ninth minute, City shot from outside the area but within the width of the area seven times, two on target, one blocked, three wide and then finally the goal from Nasri shooting from the right and in off the far post. This is not the zone of the pitch you would want to leave free or give up a numerical inferiority in but had they opted for a 5-4-1 it still would have only been even in midfield and “only” 3v2 at the back against Aguero and Dzeko. West Ham also would have been pinned back and even more narrow, leaving even less support for Carroll and less options to break out wide.
It is this problem that saw Villa midweek realize that without at least a few world class players to counter attack through, if you want to stop all of City’s attacking ambitions, you also kill off all of your own. But we have also seen teams like Spurs decide to try and take City on, put them on the back foot and not concede possession so easily, give them a real open game…and get torn to pieces. City’s caliber of players is such that it takes not only an excellent defensive game plan but also a group of top attacking talent able to operate in a cohesive and dangerous manner to threaten them enough so that they cannot simply pour everyone forward if you are to have a chance of beating them. One or the other, a good defensive block or a brave attacking force, is not good enough when Manchester City are on form. And that’s why they are champions of the Premier League.