How Manchester City used their tight full-backs to control midfield against West Ham


“They were so good. Tactically, they completely outdid us today.

West Ham United manager David Moyes was so impressed with Manchester City’s performance against his club yesterday that he spent half his post-match press conference talking about Pep Guardiola’s side . Specifically, their narrow full-backs.


“We found it very difficult today. Tactically they have changed. (Kyle) Walker and (Joao) Cancelo almost played either side of Rodri. We struggled to outnumber them in midfield and then struggled when they came out wide. So today, tactically, they were much better. We hadn’t prepared for this because we hadn’t really seen it.

Moyes is both incorrect and correct, as City have already tried this the previous season and it failed, away to Tottenham and at home to Southampton, when Guardiola was frustrated with his side’s surge.

However, we didn’t really see it as this before.

Last season, when City used their full-backs inside the pitch, they were static and provided no movement off the ball. At the London Stadium it was different, as Walker and Cancelo moved in next door to Rodri…

… but this time they were dynamic and made moves off the ball to help City’s possession game.

In the example below, Walker is making an inside run to provide an overtaking option for Nathan Ake…

…or here when Cancelo can’t find Walker’s run inside and plays it safe for Rodri.

The important moves, however, were behind the West Ham midfielder. With everyone busy, making unpredictable runs past the West Ham midfielders meant Cancelo or Walker could receive the ball in space or clear another City player due to their movement.

Here Rodri finds Cancelo, whose initial tight position allows him to sneak past Jarrod Bowen into space, with Vladimir Coufal scoring Jack Grealish, Ben Johnson pinned by Ilkay Gundogan and Tomas Soucek blocking the passing lane to Gundogan.

Now a threatening player between the lines, Cancelo could have found Gundogan’s run but he dribbles inside past Soucek…

… and plays it wide to Phil Foden, whose cross grazes Erling Haaland’s head.

Another example is the preparation of Kevin De Bruyne’s offside goal. Cancelo’s narrow position inside midfield attracts Declan Rice, meaning Grealish is free to receive the ball wide with Gundogan knocking Coufal out of play…

…then, as the West Ham right-back moves on to face Grealish, Gundogan goes free because Rice is still coming back and Johnson focuses on Haaland.

However, Gundogan is taken offside when Haaland tries to find the German’s run.

Rice and Soucek were constantly caught off guard because moving to Walker or Cancelo would free up De Bruyne or Gundogan. However, failing to follow City’s tight full-backs would give them free rein in the center of the pitch or in the half-spaces.

Take this example. Cancelo is positioned in the left half space while Walker is in a special position with City still maintaining their 2-3-5 construction form. Keep your eyes on Rice (West Ham, No 41).

As Grealish plays the ball into Cancelo, Rice goes up anticipating a pass into the free Walker. It takes him further away from De Bruyne, so when Cancelo plays a wide diagonal towards Foden…

… De Bruyne is free to attack space before playing a perfect low cross which Haaland and Gundogan fail to convert.

Again, you can see the tight positioning of Cancelo and Walker causing West Ham a problem. Said Benrahma signals Rice to get Walker back as he has to walk away to tag Foden…

…but Rice is more concerned with De Bruyne and that frees Walker.

With more confidence he plays that pass to Gundogan, who attacks the space vacated by Haaland, but on this occasion Walker takes a safer option to retain possession.

Positioning and movement off the ball from Walker and Cancelo contributed to both City goals.

Before the penalty you can spot Cancelo completely free with Soucek moving in to tag Gundogan.

Then, as the attack progresses, Soucek realizes he needs to get Cancelo back, who is the intended receiver of Rodri’s assist. This releases Gundogan….

…so Cancelo could find his run, before the German played the pass for Haaland to win the penalty that gave City the lead.

As for the second, it was a simple run from Cancelo that launched the attack.

Again Walker and Cancelo are close beside Rodri with Bowen scoring Cancelo.

Ake plays the ball to Grealish, who holds the ball until he sees a clear pass option. This is where Cancelo’s move creates the passing lane for Grealish.

Cancelo’s run here takes Bowen with him…

… and clears a passing lane in the free Rodri, who then finds De Bruyne and the end result is another Haaland goal.

After the game, Guardiola spoke about his use of inverted full-backs, saying: “I like having a lot of players in the middle, it’s like the kitchen in the apartment. We just want to create.

It gave City control of the midfield and turned what was a potentially tricky opener into a comfortable afternoon in east London.