Despite their £100 million acquisition of Jack Grealish, it seemed that Manchester City missed out on their main target during the summer transfer window: a striker.
The club’s heavy links to Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane suggested Pep Guardiola recognized that, without Sergio Aguero, the club lacked a forward of similar finishing ability and predatory instincts.
However, Tottenham’s stubbornness in transfer negotiations and Manchester United’s last-minute move for the Portuguese meant that Man City entered this season without a genuine number nine. It’s had significant ramifications on how Guardiola has had to setup the team and could influence City’s capacity to lift major silverware this campaign.
This season, Guardiola has almost exclusively set his team up as a 4-3-3 with a false nine. Rather than looking to play off the shoulder of the opposition defense and feed off crosses and through-balls, a false nine’s remit is to drop deeper to create overloads in other areas of the pitch and drag defenders out of position to make space for other players to exploit.
It’s a role that requires extremely technically and tactically adept players and a coach who is able to orchestrate a highly fluid attacking setup. For City, they not only have among the most famous exponents of the tactic as a coach, but also a slew of attacking midfielders and forwards who can fulfill this role. So it’s not as if they require a conventional striker to be able to score goals.
However, it does give City’s attack slightly different strengths and weaknesses. Using a false nine enables them enjoy even tighter control over the tempo and possession of games because it makes it easier for them to create numerical superiority in midfield or out wide.
The likes of Grealish, Phil Foden, or Raheem Sterling can drift from their nominal centre-forward role to overload the opposition and facilitate the quick, forward interchanges of passing that Guardiola espouses. When these overloads are created out wide, City are able to drag the opposition to one flank and quickly switch the play to the other flank.
Against PSG in the Champions League, City routinely were able to create numerical superiorities on the left before switching to Riyad Mahrez.
The below diagram are an example of how City used this tactic against PSG. Grealish (number 10), Bernardo Silva (number 20) and Joao Cancelo have a 3 vs 2 out wide, giving Cancelo the time and space to find Mahrez with a long diagonal. Because PSG’s defense was initially stretched towards City’s left flank, Nuno Mendes’ (number 25) movement to defend Mahrez creates a gap in the PSG backline that Kevin de Bruyne can exploit.
While this is an example of a repeated way City arrived in dangerous attacking areas against PSG, Guardiola’s team consistently failed to convert this offensive danger into goals against them and other opposition this campaign.
A striker would make them more clinical in these scenarios. For instance, if Sterling (number 7) were an elite number nine, he would likely occupy more than one defender in the penalty area due to their physical presence. That alone would create more space in the box for De Bruyne, giving him more room to find a better shooting angle and more time to strike the ball.
A number nine would also pose as an aerial target for Mahrez for a cross, giving him another option and making the PSG defense wary of the multiple ways in which City could hurt them. It’s not necessarily the added threat of an individual striker that could increase the side’s goal-scoring: rather, it’s the variety it would bring to the City attack.
Of course, it would also help to have a specialist goal-scorer who has greater predatory instincts and a wider range of finishes than the likes of Silva, De Bruyne, Foden, and Grealish.
In playing without a striker, Guardiola has been able to accentuate some of Manchester City’s offensive strengths but has been unable to fully compensate for a lack of instinctive, goal-scoring forward.
The result has been that in a select few yet important fixtures against the likes of Tottenham, PSG and Liverpool, City were unable to translate their offensive pressure and chance creation into goals.
Whether it will be a large enough issue to stop them from lifting the Premier League or Champions League this season remains to be seen.