Talking Tactics

Can Guardiola find a solution at left-back and shackle Salah?

By Adrian Clarke 21 Nov 2023
Man City-Ake-Guardiola-Josko G

Adrian Clarke on who out of Ake and Gvardiol will occupy Man City's most vulnerable position

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 13.

Manchester City

Identifying weaknesses in this outstanding Man City team is not easy, but the champions have shown occasional vulnerability down the left side of their defence this season ahead of Saturday's huge showdown with Liverpool.

Pep Guardiola has not used a specialist left-back in any of their 12 Premier League matches, opting for central defenders Josko Gvardiol or Nathan Ake there, as well as the versatile Rico Lewis.

City’s opponents have generally targeted that side and experienced some success with this tactic.

PL starts on left side of defence
2023/24 Gvardiol Ake Lewis
Left-back in a 4 6 2 1
Left centre-back in a 3 2 1 0

Liverpool will almost certainly try to follow suit at the Etihad Stadium, especially with Mohamed Salah eager to build on his tally of 11 goals scored against City in all competitions.

No individual has ever scored more times against a team managed by Guardiola and he is only one away from racking up 150 Premier League goals, and just two strikes from hitting 200 in all competitions for the Reds.

His duel with Man City’s chosen left-back could decide the outcome of this match.

See: Where does Salah rank among greatest as he targets 150th goal?

Gvardiol exposed in new role

Summer signing Gvardiol has started on the left in eight of City’s 12 Premier League matches, so he is perhaps favourite to be selected there.

While the bulk of his performances have been solid, there have been some challenging moments for the Croatia international, who made his name as a top class centre-back.

Chelsea’s second goal in that unforgettable 4-4 draw before the international break did expose how uncomfortable he can look in a left-back role.

Getting himself into a poor position, Gvardiol turned the wrong way from a forward pass; an error which allowed Reece James to cut inside him and cross for Raheem Sterling to score.

Sterling's goal v Man City

From a positional sense, Gvardiol is still getting to grips with the left-back spot. Another minor error from him was exposed by West Ham United earlier on this season.

Following a pass made infield he was too slow to press the ball, leaving space for the Hammers to bypass him and release Vladimir Coufal down the right (see below).

JWP v Man City

Fellow newcomer Jeremy Doku was caught on his heels and from Coufal’s unopposed cross, James Ward-Prowse scored.

Ake's weakness

If Ake is given the nod to start on the left of City’s three or four-man defence, do not be surprised if Liverpool aim a series of longer passes over his head.

This has been Ake’s Achilles' heel this season, with two goals stemming from passes clipped over him for runners to chase.

See: How Guardiola and Klopp's tactics have continuously evolved

Often tempted infield to mark opposition forwards, he can leave space out wide.

In those situations, if Man City’s line is held too high, the likes of Virgil van Dijk certainly have the quality to turn Ake and put him in a foot race with Salah.

Nelson Semedo caught Ake on his heels with a forward run beyond him in City’s 2-1 defeat at Wolves.

From his burst and subsequent cross (see below), Hwang Hee-chan scored the winning goal.

Hawng goal v Man City

Although only a consolation effort, Max Aarons was left with a huge amount of space to run into from a long diagonal pass in AFC Bournemouth’s 6-1 loss at Man City.

Ake was dragged inside and was let down by Doku’s failure to track Aarons' run on the outside (see below). The Cherries right-back crossed for Luis Sinisterra to score.

Luis Sinisterra goal v Manchester City

Liverpool may look to replicate this type of move on Sunday, especially if Doku starts ahead of Jack Grealish.

The Reds' pace in behind means they will go direct at times, so it is vital that Man City get the position of their defensive line correct.

They were caught out by Salah from a simple Alisson goal-kick in the 1-0 defeat at Anfield in 2022/23.

And one long pass from Arsenal caused the disarray that led to Gabriel Martinelli’s winning goal at Emirates Stadium earlier this season, too.

Obvious area to target

While most weeks Man City cope just fine without a specialist left-back, it is one area of possible weakness that stands out when scrutinising their defensive play.

Half of their 12 concessions can at least in part be attributed to mistakes made by Ake, Gvardiol or Doku on that side.

In addition to the four goals mentioned already, Pedro Neto skipped past Ake with a lengthy dribble to lay on Wolverhampton Wanderers' opening goal.

And Gvardiol was slow to close down Jayden Bogle inside the box at Sheffield United for the Blades’ goal in a 2-1 win at Bramall Lane.

This has been the Premier League's heavyweight clash in recent seasons and Liverpool will be sure to target City's left side to gain a crucial advantage.


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