Stoke 1-4 Man City

​In Pep Guardiola’s second Premier League encounter, Manchester City faced Stoke City, who defeated the Sky Blues 2-0 at the Britannia Stadium last season. I analyse the key tactical aspects deriving from this match.


Stoke City deployed a conventional 4-3-3 formation, aiming to add numbers in advanced positions, while switching to a 4-5-1 without possession, in order to congest space within midfield areas. 

Given – Bardsley, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters – Allen, Imbula, Whelan – Bojan, Diouf, Arnautovic

Manchester City began the anticipated encounter with a spin-off of Guardiola’s preferred formation; 4-1-2-3, deploying a 4-1-4-1, with an attacking midfield quartet aiming to drive into the half spaces and send passes through towards the lone striker. 

Caballero – Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov – Fernandinho – Navas, De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling – Aguero  

Inverted Full back variations

As expected, both full backs; Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov drifted inside into the half spaces during the games infancy, thus becoming Inverted Full Backs. This was in order to add extra numbers within midfield areas, and to allow further space for diagonal passes to be played to either Winger.  However, Manchester City’s approach to deploying Inverted Full backs was much more restricted against Stoke City. On a few occasions during the first half, Manchester City were very lucky not to concede following effective counter attacks from Stoke City, and these counter attacks came as a result of poor positioning and awareness on behalf of Zabaleta. Occupying the right half space while undertaking the Inverted Full Back role, Stoke City’s left winger, Marko Arnautovic, was able to expose the space usually covered by a Right Back. Forcing Zabaleta to retreat from the half space which then left the midfield space exposed, causing a temporary disfigurement of Manchester City’s structure. Perhaps the defensive block should function without possession of the ball in future games.

This particular example, conveys that Guardiola’s system could be exposed through raw pace and runs into exposed defensive lines, spearheaded by counter attacking football. Further problems were at large, with Stoke City making a justifiable penalty claim, following Kolarov’s foul on Joe Allen.

Subsequently, Manchester City partially relinquished the roaming of both Full Backs, who would drop to natural wide areas without the ball in order to maintain defensive structure. This benefited, as Stoke created less chances during the Second half. Regardless of the newly found conservativeness, Full Backs were still able to roam the half spaces during the process of chance creation; Zabaleta made am advancing run into Stoke City’s 18-yard box following patient possessional build up orchestrated by John Stones, attracting pressure from the opposition. Yet another in game tactical change immersed a sense of balance within Manchester City’s formation structure. For example, the change oversaw 1 Full Back (Zabaleta) drifting into the half spaces/holding midfield areas taking up the Inverted Full Back role. Contrastingly, the remaining Full Back (Kolarov), maintain the traditional role, and made advancing runs. This in itself allowed a extra passing option; with David Silva playing diagonal passes through towards Kolarov between midfield. 

Guardiola’s intensive counter pressing

An encounter that was arguably slow considering the patient possessional build up of Manchester City, Guardiola’s side however displayed a sheer contradiction when pressurising Stoke City during respective build up play. Deploying counter pressing tactics, Kevin De Bruyne exemplified the intensity Guardiola demands from his players by tracking back and making tackles from an attacking midfield role. The hard work made without possession of the ball relinquished Stoke City’s chance creation and emphasised the improvement of defensive contribution, and subsequently the overall performance of Winger Raheem Sterling under Pep Guardiola (During the first half, Sterling made 4 successful tackles, more than any other player.). Guardiola’s press is rather intriguing, as the counter press congests admirable amounts of space, functioning players in 3 or 4 versus 1 situations. This situation meant rash mistakes were made by the opposition leading to the giving away of possession. 

60:01 :Example of City’s counterpressing.

When close to Stoke City’s goal, Manchester City deployed a press which functioned with two banks of three, congesting greater amounts of space in defensive and midfield spaces, while still able to win possession with enough players forward.  

Threat within Wing-play

The significance of width in midfield during attacking build up relinquished the attacking capabilities of Stoke City’s Full Backs (Phil Bardsley and Erik Pieters), inevitably forcing the maintenance of both Full Backs within defensive zones. In comparison to the first Premier League encounter; a 2-1 victory over Sunderland, Raheem Sterling was deployed on the left hand side of an attacking midfield quartet, which allowed the England international to cut inside to attack the half spaces, while Jesus Navas fixated on the outside of the opposite flank. The contrast between the functions of both wingers offered balance within the formation build up play, and links with the balance offered by the Full Backs, with Zabaleta drifting into the holding midfield area, and Kolarov overlapping Raheem Sterling. Positioned on the left side of midfield allowed Sterling to be more confident on the ball, being able to drift into the half spaces and shoot from an array of angles. Though unable to score as a result of poor finishing which does need improving, Sterling’s ability to find good spaces and attack at will allows further chance creation for Manchester City. 

Though not functioning as a “False 9”, Sergio Aguero dropped slightly deep into the half spaces, so he could attract possession of the ball, and bring the ball forward, almost holding up possession to allow both Navas and Sterling to make identical runs into the penalty area, while still allowing space for the “8’s” (De Bruyne and Silva) to run into. As a result of Manchester City’s mishap regarding Zabaleta’s poor positional awareness, some of Stoke City’s attacks came through attacking within wide areas. The substitution made, with Navas replaced by fellow Spaniard Nolito, Manchester City had an alternative threat from wide midfield areas, in the sense that the £13.5m signing offered competent off ball movement. Perfectly timed runs into exposed spaces within the Penalty area resulted in two well worked goals.

Flexibility within formation and player movement

The structure of Manchester City’s formation was indeed very flexible, but was very organised when passing; triangle passing options allowed possessional build up to swift and progressive. This links with the foundations and playing style laid down by Guardiola during his reign as manager of FC Barcelona, specifically 2009-2011. The formation itself was very flexible, changing within the match; beginning as a 4-1-4-1, the formation changed to a 2-3-4-1 or a 3-2-4-1 depending on the positioning and movement of the Full Backs/deployment of Inverted Full Backs. 

Fernandinho was positioned further forward, with less intention to drop alongside the centre back pairing of Stones and Otamendi. Yet, the Brazilian international was still able to play vertical passes between the defensive line, and congest space across the midfield. 

Stoke City would have had a greater impact on the game, if Imbula were to have had more opportunities in an attacking sense. Forced to cover for Joe Allen and Glen Whelan; both Allen and Whelan were in theoretical duels with De Bruyne and Silva, and were unable to relinquish the movement and ball playing of either. Imbula had limited chances to carry the ball through tight spaces which would have suited the counter attack method perfectly. 


A game dominated by Manchester City for large quantities, with the spontaneous increase in momentum on Stoke City’s behalf, Pep Guardiola can take comfort from the implementation of confidence in wide areas and the continuation of goals, but may need to be aware of the threat to in game formation structure on the counter attack.


Author: Ryan Quinn

A freelance football journalist, focusing on the historical and tactical sides of the beautiful game.