With one hand effectively on the Premier League trophy, Manchester City shifted focus to the FA Cup on Saturday, where they faced Everton in the quarter-finals.
The Cityzens had won their last three matches after the derby defeat in the league, while their winning streak before that included a scalp of the Toffees at Goodison Park just over a month ago.
Everton’s form had been stop-start, to say the least – they had lost their last two matches, won three in a row before that but lost another two prior.
It was impossible to tell which version of Carlo Ancelotti’s side was going to turn up here, but if it had anything to do with another nine-goal cup thriller, most fans would have been quite happy.
However, that was not the case as Everton came up with a very resolute defensive effort. In the aforementioned Premier League match, the hosts employed a 4-1-4-1 in their effort to contain City, but that did not quite work. Ancelotti went for a different system in this match, so let us break it down.
Everton’s defensive set-up
Everton defended just as they lined up on paper – in a 5-3-2.
You can see the 5-3-2 in practice here.
In their own defensive third, Everton looked to minimise the space between the lines – particularly between midfield and defence. Therefore, they were quite compact, as you can see here.
To enable this compactness, Everton could not press, so they set up camp at the halfway line. They only had a front-two against City’s four-man build-up (a back-three of Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte plus Fernandinho), so they were happy to let their opponents have possession as long as it ensured defensive stability. This should explain why the visitors saw 74.1% of the ball.
In the midfield, Gylfi Sigurðsson and André Gomes had the simple job of marking İlkay Gündoğan and Bernardo Silva respectively.
The advantage of letting City have a 4v2 advantage in the build-up was visible in midfield, as Allan was the spare man here. So, if Sigurðsson or Gomes lost their man or went up to apply a light press, the Brazilian international could cover for them.
More importantly, the three-man midfield meant that the back-five would get some crucial assistance in containing City’s front-five.
In the attacking phase for the visitors, Oleksandr Zinchenko pushed up alongside the front-three while Silva or Gündoğanto came central in a sort of a false-nine role to create a typical five-man line up top.
Everton’s back-five could take them man-for-man, but due to their frequent rotations, they needed to receive support from the midfield, which was possible due to the presence of an extra man.
With this compact defensive set-up, Everton ensured that they did not allow to have any space in important areas while simultaneously keeping a numerical advantage in such danger zones.
City’s match-winning changes
Pep Guardiola is outstanding at several things, but substitutions have not been one of his strong points this season. While his changes have never been bad or negative, the main issue is that he usually likes to hold his cards in this regard.
In this season’s Premier League, for example, he has averaged under two substitutions per match. The Spaniard made three changes in this match, and they proved to be the difference. Alongside them, though, he also made a couple of key tactical tweaks that altered the course of this match.
In the first half, only Kyle Walker had the license to carry the ball forward from the back-three. This, along with Silva’s ventures to the right, dragged Everton to their left as Richarlison and often Gomes had to come across to close them down. This naturally opened up space on the other side, but since Aymeric Laporte was instructed to stay back, it went unused.
City’s first change saw Silva come off for Riyad Mahrez, which meant that Phil Foden shifted to midfield.
The Algerian international provided natural width on the right, further stretching Everton and opening up space on the left, which Laporte was allowed to access.
The second Manchester City substitution involved Kevin De Bruyne, who replaced Raheem Sterling and freed up Foden to go back on the wing, but this time on the left. This proved to be crucial in the opening goal.
It started with another foray forward from Laporte, but notice Foden’s position. He has dropped back here, dragging Mason Holgate out of the backline with him. Laporte notices this, so he plays a pass to De Bruyne and continues his run to attack the space vacated by Foden.
The Belgian midfielder went to attack it as well, but he was brought down. The loose ball found its way to Laporte, though, who could have a hit from the area that Holgate should have been defending.
Although the French centre-back could only hit the post after a stunning save from João Virgínia, Gündoğan was there at the right place at the right time again to turn the rebound in.
With a goal becoming a necessity, Everton switched to a back-four and prepared to throw the kitchen sink at City. To combat this, Guardiola replaced Gündoğan with Rodri, hoping to hold on to the 1-0.
He got more than he bargained for, as Rodri played De Bruyne through on goal with his first touch, and the Belgian international sealed the win with a calm finish.
All things considered, this was an ideal match for Manchester City. Key players such as Ederson, John Stones and João Cancelo were rested (Mahrez, De Bruyne and Rodri did not have too much to do either), while the likes of Zack Steffen, Raheem Sterling and Oleksandr Zinchenko got a run out after sitting a couple of games out (a lot more in Steffen’s case). Laporte and especially Fernanrdinho looked quite impressive, and above all, the visitors booked a semifinal spot without having to play extra time.
Everton should not be too disappointed either, as they gave the best team in the land a serious run for their money for over 80 minutes. Virgínia’s display should give fans hope for the future of their goalkeeping position, while the rest of the defence – Ben Godfrey in particular – were not too bad either.
Stats courtesy WhoScored and Premier League.