Manchester City have had plenty of problems to deal with in the opening weeks of the season so their performance in Tuesday’s win over Marseille was exactly what they needed.
Some patchy form has seen City drop points in three of their first five Premier League games, and they were without any fit strikers in France after injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.
But Pep Guardiola’s side responded with an impressive display in a comfortable 3-0 victory that keeps them top of Group C and, as well as the result, there were plenty of positives all over the pitch.
No trouble this time vs five at the back
The graphic on the left shows where Marseille won the ball back – only three of their successful tackles (green triangles), interceptions (blue) and ball recoveries (yellow) took place in the City half. In contrast, 37% (23/62) of City’s successful challenges took place in the Marseille half, including when Kevin de Bruyne (17) won possession on the edge of the home side’s area to set up his side’s first goal.
I was really impressed by the intensity of the whole City team against Marseille, and I think the way they went after the French side had a lot to do with their front three.
Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres and Phil Foden set the tone from the start with their energy, with and without the ball, and their dynamism helped City impose themselves on the game right from the start.
Yes, Marseille sat in and stayed deep with five at the back so a lot of the game was being played in their half, but what was noticeable was how fast the turnover was whenever City lost possession.
How far did City force Marseille’s back-five back? During the first half, the average position of the touches of all 11 Marseille players was inside their own half. In contrast, even City’s centre-backs Aymeric Laporte (14) and Ruben Dias (3) were near the halfway line.
They would react quickly and win the ball back because of the pressure they put Marseille under – and they scored their first goal by forcing a mistake on the edge of the home side’s area.
It was very different to the way they struggled to make inroads against a similar formation in the first half of their draw with West Ham at the weekend – when Foden and Torres were both on the bench.
Heat maps of City’s possession in the first half of their games against West Ham (left) and Marseille (right). City had 66% of possession before the break against the Hammers and 68.2% against Marseille – but they operated much higher up the pitch against the French side.
No false nine role for Torres
To see Torres leading the line this time was a surprise, because I thought Sterling would get the job – and the Spaniard was no false nine either – his role was something different, which again was a bit unexpected.
Pep told him to go and stand on the shoulder of the Marseille centre-halves and use his pace try to get in behind their defence when he could.
It made perfect sense with Kevin de Bruyne on the pitch, because with a false nine who is dropping deep, the opposition defence can push right up, reducing the space for De Bruyne to operate in.
Instead, having someone fast playing as an actual number nine stretched the play and gave De Bruyne more room to maraud around in.
Torres did well in an unfamiliar position and the only thing I felt he was lacking was in the hold-up play City would get from Aguero or Jesus – although he did get better at it in the second half.
I’m not sure having him in that position would ever be seen as a long-term answer, but it certainly worked against Marseille.
I actually think Guardiola will mix things up with his attack while he is without Aguero and Jesus in the next few weeks, whether it’s with Sterling in an identical role to the one Torres played here, or as a false nine.
In the past Pep has used De Bruyne further forward on his own, or along with Bernardo Silva, so he has plenty of options.
Sterling, for example, can play anywhere across that front three. Pep regularly plays him on the left so he can cut inside on to his right to finish, or allow space for his full-back to drive wide around him.
He is very good at it, but I enjoying seeing him on the right against Marseille and he had a productive evening.
De Bruyne made 58 passes against Marseille and 47 of them were successful (green arrows) including his two assists (blue arrows)
De Bruyne was also a pleasure to watch, on his first start for City since 3 October.
Without him, they have not been quite as good as usual going forward in recent weeks but, when he is fully fit and playing like this, they have nothing to worry about in attack.
A slick team performance
City’s defence has been seen as suspect for a while now but they were so comfortable for the first hour or so on Tuesday that their centre-back pairing Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias could have put their slippers on.
It took Marseille until the final half hour to work out how to get past City’s press but, when they did, Laporte and Dias were ready.
Dias made a couple of really important clearing headers when dangerous balls were put into the City area, and it was a really good sign that he did not let his concentration levels drop after such an easy opening to the game.
City are 13th in the Premier League after two wins, two draws and a defeat in their first five games but they are top of their Champions League group after beating Porto 3-1 and Marseille 3-0
Every City player had that kind of focus, though, and there just seemed a really nice balance to the whole team.
Once they realised Marseille were not coming out of their own half, Ilkay Gundogan and Oleksandr Zinchenko were allowed to get forward and join in with the attack.
It turned into a very slick team performance. In total, 760 of City’s 821 passes were successful, which shows just how good they were, collectively as well as individually.
You have to remember that Marseille had lost their previous 10 Champions League games, so this was a game City were expected to win – but they made it look very easy.
Michael Brown was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.