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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Middlesbrough 0-2 Manchester City | Doubts in Middlesbrough’s structures prove decisive

Thom Ollig writes a detailed tactical analysis about the FA Cup match that ended Middlesbrough 0-2 Manchester City.

For many people, this game was a flashback to the clash between the clubs two years ago, a game where Middlesbrough as a Championship team sent City out of the FA cup, through everything but a defensive game plan. Now, two years later, the two teams are facing each other again in the cup, but under completely different circumstances. Middlesbrough is now a Premier League side with well-known players as Victor Valdes and Alvaro Negredo representing them, while City on the other hand, has completed a significant manager swap to say the least, in their transfer of Pep Guardiola.

Taking the last results between the two teams into account, as the fact that Boro have knocked out City in four of their last five meetings of the FA cup, a tight game between the two teams was expected. Things didn’t look too great for Boro coming up to this game though, as the only wins this year being their progression in the FA cup.


Middlesbrough (4-5-1): 12. Guzan – 17. Barragan 5. Bernardo 6. Gibson 2. Fabio – 37. Traore 14. De Roon 8. Clayton 7. Leadbitter 18. Stuani – 29. Gestede

Manchester City (4-3-3): 1. Bravo – 5. Zabaleta 24. Stones 30. Otamendi 22. Clichy – 42. Touré 17. De Bruyne 21. Silva – 7. Sterling 10. Agüero 19. Sané


Middlesbrough: Gestede → Negredo (26), Bernardo → Fry (50), Leadbitter → Ramirez (66)

Manchester City: Sané → Nolito (70), Touré → Fernando (86), Agüero → Iheanacho (90)

The tactical structure of Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough started as mentioned in a 4-5-1 in a very simple game plan. To lay down in a positional defending, letting their balance player Clayton adapt their pressure and overloads on the map, and attack direct by hitting on the counter, using their excellent target player Gestede.

Clayton though, wasn’t the player leading Boro in their defending, in fact lots of responsibility was put on De Roon. Every situation in City’s build up phase was led by his situational moves, which the team were forced to adapt to. For example, when Middlesbrough wanted to put pressure on the centre backs of Manchester City, De Roon tended to support Gestede, and thereby forced Clayton to push up in line with Leadbitter, in a 4-4-2 shape.

This way they could easily adapt to City’s overloads and put pressure on them in their build up phase.

When it comes to Middlesbrough’s attacking, as mentioned they wanted to harness Gestede and his target capabilities as much as possible, to attack direct against Manchester City. The plan was to search for Gestede, and then in second waves by primarily the wingers and De Roon, support him and hit City when they were disorganized defensively. Otherwise, in attacks with longer possession, Middlesbrough often searched attacks through the left flank, due to the differences between both the wingbacks and the wingers. While Traore is a fast, technically equipped wonderkid, Stuani is more of the intelligent target player who creates space for his team by occupying defenders in a smart way, and often like a typical goalscorer, tends to show up in the right place at the right time. Due to this difference, Karanka placed a more attacking wingback on the left flank in Fabio, which made it possible for Stuani to surge centrally into the pitch, and even into the box to make use of his heading abilities.

To make it possible for Fabio to make this overlaps though, Boro needed defensive compensation, and Karanka solved it perfectly by giving Barragan a more defensive role, which when Middlesbrough had possession, created a three man back line. This worked thanks to Traore and his unique skills, as he was able to keep both Sané and Clichy busy by himself, since Clichy needed support throughout the whole game.

This way Middlesbrough thought they were able to put pressure against City, without feeling especially vulnerable at the back.

To summarize their gameplan, Middlesbrough really worked at neutralizing Manchester City by playing a flexible formation, that was able to adapt to whatever Pep put on the field, and then harness every individual of his team, in creating a threat to City’s goal. But then, what was it that made City win this game, in the dominant way the Manchester club actually did?

The flexible formation of City defensively

Guardiola is known of putting out a very attacking-looking team, and this game was no exception. Guardiola formed just as Middlesbrough a 4-5-1 as their starting shape while defending, with Touré as the balance player with De Bruyne and Silva in front of him.

If Middlesbrough was flexible in their defending with De Roon, City was an upgrade. The Manchester club used their central midfielders in a very aggressive way, as De Bruyne and Silva pressed up high on the pitch, and the rest of the team followed. While one central midfielder occupied Clayton in his support of the centre backs in the build up phase, the other pushed up along the striker Agüero to put pressure on the centre backs, and helped in steering into pressure traps. While De Bruyne and Silva did this though, the attacking midfielders needed someone to cover for them, and Touré solved this perfectly throughout the game, and even tended to get help from the closest winger, when Middlesbrough played on the flanks. This along with the fact that the team followed meant that City was able to pull this off without leaving any space between the lines.

This worked perfectly as Manchester City had fast centre backs that adapted to this high pressure without any particular problem, and Middlesbrough had everything but a fast player up top in Gestede. It also made it very difficult for Middlesbrough to build up any special threat, as Boro thanks to this pressure had a hard time finding Gestede or any other player for that case, in their build up phase. The compactness both vertically and horizontally among City’s pressure was too much for Middlesbrough.

City lure Middlesbrough to split horizontally

When it came to the attacking part of Manchester City, they had just as their defending a very systematic shape that adapted perfectly to the early goal. It started like a standard build up phase, with the wingbacks pushing up wide, while Touré among the centre backs created a three man backline, to create a numerical advantage against Middlesbrough and their eventual pressure. The thing that caught attention this game though, was the wide positioning of the wingers, which created lots of space into the halfspaces, for the central midfielders (mostly De Bruyne) and Agüero to exploit.

Just as the wingers created space for Agüero to exploit, Agüero also created space for the wingers, by drawing defenders/Clayton with him.

To make it extra difficult for Middlesbrough, City also made lots of positional swaps throughout the game. This worked very well as Middlesbrough after the goal pushed up high.

Conceded goal followed by a desperate playstyle

As usual after you let a goal in, you want to get back into the game, as soon as possible. This game was no exception, as Middlesbrough after the early goal, although they had around 85 minutes left, tried to put aggressive pressure on City, a pressure not everyone seemed prepared for, neither in City or Middlesbrough. This doubt from Middlesbrough, became visible in City’s constant threatening counterattacks, as the space between the lines of Middlesbrough became too big, due to that the backline of Boro didn’t look too keen about pushing up their backline against players such as Agüero, Sané and Sterling. As soon as City played around Middlesbrough and their first pressure, the counter opportunities was everything but bad. Luckily for Middlesbrough though, City couldn’t utilize this opportunities, and only went into half time one goal ahead.


Although City only managed to score two goals of all the chances they created, the Manchester club should be satisfied, as their tactics punished Middlesbrough throughout the game. One shall though remember that the first goal helped out a lot, as it clearly made Middlesbrough both desperate and confused, which they made clear over and over again, and that resulted in the space between the lines.

The result of this game is what many expected, a Middlesbrough who still need to find the right, with Aitor Karanka having even more pressure on him, while City on the other hand, continue their progression finding an even level, and do that by securing a spot in the FA Cup semi finals.

Read all our tactical analyses here

Thom Ollig

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