In our latest analysis series: Game of Numbers, we break down the various tactical undertones of the modern game, most notably the roles that individual players hold on the pitch to help their teams explore avenues for greatness. Positions are often broken down into ‘numbers’ to describe the areas of the field that a player may operate. This series aims to illustrate the ever-changing, fluid nature of those roles, and the ways in which various footballing teams may use the same players in the same roles to completely different effect. This is Issue No. 2, featuring the following:
- Walker & Cancelo as ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ vs. West Ham United
- Bruno Guimaraes as a pocket picking ‘DLP’ vs. Nottingham Forest
Let’s jump into Game of Numbers Issue No. 2.
WALKER & CANCELO BACK WHERE THEY BELONGEmbed from Getty Images
Leave it to Manchester City to always be doing something interesting from a tactical perspective. Tactics were bound to change at the Ethiad with a new striker entering the door. City even made strides to accommodate Erling Haaland by purchasing yellow shirts for everybody. But the real tactical change against West Ham United came out from the back, with the re-emergence of an old City favourite that quietly died down in 2021-22. In large part, Bernardo Silva’s ‘Bernardo Silva Role’ meant that the City fullbacks were responsible for inverting less in build-up phases, as the Portuguese playmaker drifted toward the ball to help the Citizens break through central corridors instead. But with no Silva in the lineup, City built out from the back in their old 2+3 shape, with Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker in close proximity to the immaculate Rodri.
Following into the final third, Joao Cancelo would even progress into the half-spaces to receive in that inverted slot from Rodri himself, where he could then play forward passes to an overloaded left-hand side where Grealish, Gundogan and Haaland sought space. Cancelo buzzed around looking to get on the ball at every opportunity, touching the ball 129 times, and his role in playing forward passes at the right moment consistently broke West Ham’s attempts to track his movement. In deep build-up phases, they even sometimes drifted inside one at a time (usually Walker), maintaining the sort of ‘double-pivot’ they’d have with Silva in the team. This then allowed for variation, where the fullbacks could still venture wide in build-up phases all the way into the final third.
The important note is not that City bamboozled their way around West Ham’s defense through their intelligent movement and passing, but how the Hammers’ response to to the City tweak only allowed for greater Guardiola dominance. The Hammers completely narrowed their defensive block in reaction to Cancelo and Walker’s movement in-field, allowing passes to come wide to the likes of Grealish and Foden. In other words, the magnetic attention from Bowen and Fornals to narrow the width of the field, allowed that width of the field to become completely exposed. It’s one thing to be compact and resolute defensively. But David Moyes’ team over-compacted themselves (particularly in the first half), thus leaving more space out wide for Guardiola’s men to exploit.
The tactic also worked in the ways we previously spoke about in our discussion of the ‘Bernardo Silva Role’. In attracting that attention from West Ham’s wide-men, Cancelo and Walker opened up more space for Rodri to thrive as the extraordinary ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker’ we all know and love. West Ham’s 4-2-2-2-esque press meant that space could be sought by Rodri through the centre anyway, but the fullbacks were key in drawing attention away from the Spaniard in City’s second goal.
As the Hammers pressed high up the pitch, Rodri then found himself in acres of space to play forward into KDB, who then threaded the needle onto Erling Haaland. In the end, Moyes could never find the balance between compactness and openness, and suffered in both regards in the space of a ninety minute match thanks to Guardiola’s ‘Inverted Fullbacks’.Embed from Getty Images
Manchester City are always adaptive with their tactics, and it’s not to say that Cancelo, Zinchenko and Walker never inverted back in 2021-22. But it will be interesting to see the degree to which City continue to deploy their ‘Inverted Fullback’ tactic moving forward, particularly if Bernardo Silva makes his way back into the team, and back into the ‘Bernardo Silva Role’ that we spoke about in Issue No. 1. For now, City roll on as expected, with Erling Haaland firing on all cylinders and the ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ back where they belong.
BRUNO GUIMARAES AS THE POCKET PICKEREmbed from Getty Images
Bruno Guimarães came to Newcastle United to much acclaim. At the time, most of Europe’s biggest sides were linked to the Lyon midfielder – even being tipped as a future replacement for Brazilian stars like Fabinho and Fernandinho. But when he arrived at St. James’ Park, many fans were pleasantly surprised to see his incredible box-to-box engine. It didn’t take long for fans and analysts alike to realize that Bruno may not be best when restricted to a firmly deeper role. Jonjo Shelvey continued as the team’s ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker‘ instead, and excelled in anchoring a midfield of box-to-box engines either side of him.Embed from Getty Images
But evidently not the be-all end-all, Shelvey still left more to be desired in the position. He completed a career high 67.5% of his long passes, with 4.32 passes into the final third per 90. An excellent switcher of play who can clearly operate in the role to great effect, Shelvey found his passes blocked less than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues (0.27). That’s not to say that they weren’t intercepted, but illustrates a fun tidbit to elucidate the type of player the Magpies have at their disposal. What this means is that the Newcastle midfielder is incredibly efficient in timing his risky passes over the top, and significantly more likely to play long passes over the top whenever it becomes advantageous to do so, resulting in fewer blocks that would be seen with short passing. Illustrating this, the 30-year old attempted 10.9 short passes, 15.9 medium passes, and 13.9 long passes per 90 in 2021-22. Find me another ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker’ who prioritizes passing long to a greater degree than short passing in a top ten side.Embed from Getty Images
Where Shelvey left more to be desired was not only in providing a player who could pull off long passes to an even greater effect, but someone who could generate chances to a higher rate in the final third. Again, the Newcastle midfielder was excellent in switching play and helping the Magpies find space out wide to cross the ball into the box. But he was never an incisive passer, capable of breaking lines in the final third. Enter Bruno Guimarães in the first match of the 2022-23 season.Embed from Getty Images
Deployed as the ‘number 6’, Bruno swung from side to side with swagger and panache, playing passes forward for fun. He completed 13 passes into the final third (according to FotMob) and created 3 chances, dominating the play with his 96 touches of the ball. Bruno always found the exact right pocket of space to receive the ball as he drifted toward the situation, and then found his way to even more brilliance upon finding the exact right pass into the gap for Miguel Almiron to run onto in behind.
The Brazilian used Almiron’s speedy running power to constantly exploit the gaps left between Forest’s left-centre-back and wing-back, where the Paraguayan midfielder could then cut-back a cross inside the eighteen. The 24-year-old’s success was in always ensuring a closer connection to the teammates around him, where he could play both progressive passes into the box, and seek moments to carry the ball forward himself.Embed from Getty Images
Guimarães completed 10 progressive carries on the opening day, and 5 of his 8 dribbles forward (63%). In doing so, he found himself more involved in initial build-up phases than Shelvey of last season, attempting 40 short passes, 21 medium and 9 long. Magnificent in pulling off each of his precision passes from short and medium range, the Brazilian will now only need to improve upon his accuracy over greater distances – after completing just 44% of his long passes on the opening day. But what he might lack in Shelvey’s long passing range, he certainly makes up for his ability to break lines on the dribble. This allows Guimarães the ability to operate in the ‘DLP’ role almost like Mahmoud Dahoud does for Borussia Dortmund, where he’s essential to progressing through the thirds and driving the team forward, even if not displaying moments of long-passing excellence like a typical ‘DLP.’Embed from Getty Images
There’s no denying that Bruno may be better suited to a role that allows his infectious energy to take center stage. But he demonstrated that he is more than capable in playing in the deepest ‘number 6’ role, inspiring his side to a 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest.
RECAPEmbed from Getty Images
In Issue No. 2 of Game Numbers, we’ve discussed the following…
- Walker and Cancelo’s role as ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ vs. West Ham United, causing the Hammers to over-compact in defensive phases.
- Bruno Guimaraes’ stolen show display vs. Nottingham Forest, operating as a pocket picking ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker’ in ways Jonjo Shelvey could never accomplish.
What stood out to you during this weekend’s matches in the new European season? Be sure to share your thoughts below and contribute to the discussion! Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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