Manchester City’s dream of a quadruple is still alive, but only just. Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Swansea City in the FA Cup had more than a slice of good fortune about it, with many believing the Championship side did enough to earn the shock victory.
Under Pep Guardiola, City have established themselves as perhaps the greatest club side in Premier League history, yet their transition to knockout football has left a lot to be desired.
How can a side who are supposed to be so dominant ‘only’ boast two Carabao Cup victories in three seasons? Simple – Guardiola does not know how to adjust his tactics for knockout football.
The Spaniard only knows how to attack. He wants his teams to dominate possession, dictate the tempo of the game and flat-out bully their opponents, and this City side have regularly done that. On any given day, they could net five, six or seven goals without even breaking a sweat.
In the Premier League, suffering a 6-0 defeat could be fatal to a team’s aspirations. Such a blow to your goal difference could be the difference between finishing 17th or 18th, or even fourth or fifth. Teams set up with 11 men behind the ball in the hope of conceding as few goals as possible, and perhaps stealing a positive result in the process.
However, the landscape changes in knockout football. Take Saturday’s game as an example – if Swansea had lost 6-0, would anything have changed? No. City would still be viewed as dominant, whilst the Swans would accept they were beaten by the superior team and move on.
With the pressure off, Swansea decided they would attack, just as many teams in knockout football have done against Guardiola’s City.
This is where his tactics come into question. Guardiola only know how to attack, with full-backs often operating as secondary wingers, as City set out to dominate opponents. However, this leaves them vulnerable in defence.
In league football, teams are reluctant to press forwards and exploit that space, fearing an inevitable counter attack from City’s electric forward line which could lead to a disastrous goal. In cup football, teams run at them. Losing a solitary game is no real problem for the likes of Swansea, so they instead set out to win.
Their two goals came as a result of City’s defenders being too far up the pitch – a problem which is seldom capitalised on in the Premier League.
Fortunately for Guardiola, his team are simply stunning in attack. More often than not, their dominance leads to goals and victories. However, when they are not at their best, things can go wrong, and especially in knockout football.
Their talent will likely carry them to plenty more success in the future, but Guardiola needs to realise the threat posed by knockout competitions. If he continues to try and overwhelm opponents, Guardiola risks throwing away any chances of a quadruple.