Manchester City have been getting plaudits for their attacking style this season, despite
the recent defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League. While comparatives are always hard
in football, this City side is certainly one of the finest, and most attractive, seen in
the Premier League.
If one simply looked at the table of fouls conceded, Manchester City lalso ook like the
cleanest team in the Premier League. The two worst teams are Watford, with 386, and Everton,
with 404. The five best teams for fouls conceded are Manchester City, tied with Bournemouth,
Chelsea, Burnley, and Leicester City.
However, when one takes possession into account, Manchester City start to look a little less
angelic. Premier League sides have so far played 32 or 33 games this season and so it’s
possible to work out an approximate time spent in and out of possession. City have had an
average possession this season of 71.8% in the league, so the 28.2% of the time spent
out of possession means their opposition has had the ball for just over 800 minutes; the
next most dominate sides, Arsenal and Spurs, have seen their opposition keep the ball for
over 1000 minutes each. Factoring in fouls, it’s pretty clear that in the limited time
City’s opposition have the ball, they get fouled a lot.
To give context, the bottom two sides for fouls per minute when out of possession are
Bournemouth and Burnley, with 0.19 and 0.18 fouls per minute respectively. Burnley are
the cleanest team in the Premier League. So much for stereotypes.
Why do City foul so much, relative to how little time they spend with the ball? Pep
Guardiola’s sides have always kept the ball a lot, striving to use possession as the first
line of defence – when the opposition can’t get the ball, they can’t attack. But, Guardiola
teams also commit a lot of men forwards. As we have seen before, City’s typical 4-3-3
shape looks more like a 2-3-5 in attack, with the full backs either tucking in or pushing
up wide, and five men in attack.This leaves City clearly exposed to counter attacks, especially
out wide if the full backs have tucked in, or through the centre if they are out wide.
This is why every Guardiola side has had a player who acts as the tactical fouler, the
player who sits at the base of the 4-3-3’s midfield shape and is responsible for thwarting
attacks through the centre or covering over to the wide spaces should the danger be there.
At Barcelona, it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich Javi Martinez, and at City, it’s
Fernandinho. These players are obviously not just hatchet men – all show superb positional
awareness and much of their defensive work is done through being in the right place at
the right time to intercept or tackle. But they also have a job to stop attacks by any
The area patrolled by Fernandinho is in front of the centre backs, but also out wide and
pushing up. As City press high, Fernandinho will move forwards to press the central midfield
area, but much of the pressing is done by the front five players. Fernandinho is there
if the press fails, or to supplement it.
City also tactically foul to stop play developing out wide on the counter. According to the
Premier League’s site, City’s most fouling player is, of course, Fernandinho with 37.
Second to him, though, is Raheem Sterling, with 33. Kevin De Bruyne also has 27. These
players push into the wide spaces or half spaces when City are high up the pitch and,
should the City attack break down and the opposition attempt to counter, Sterling and
De Bruyne will commit tactical fouls high up the pitch to allow City to regain their
While Manchester City‘s team are fit and intelligent players with a strong positional
sense, their commitment to pushing men forwards leaves them vulnerable to the counter. The
aggressive pushing up of Nicolas Otamendi and the sweeping of Ederson can only secure
the back so much – it’s far more sensible for City to stop attacks in their tracks by
committing tactical fouls in the danger areas, rather than trying to regain a sensible defensive
Cynical or sensible, there’s no doubt that City’s fouling is deployed systemically
and cleverly, especially by Fernandinho and in the wide spaces. City would not be able
to commit so many men forwards if they were unable to stop counter attacks. Part of that
approach requires tactical fouling. It might not be as attractive as the rest of their
play, but it’s an integral part that allows the rest of their style to flourish.