I admit I was really concerned and vocal about the Nuno hire, but he completely turned me around in just one match. He demonstrated Sunday that he is the best tactical manager we have had since Martin Jol.
Nuno commented after the match that he wants to make the game easier/simpler for the players. And wow did he when you see how that game played out.
In Jose’s system, Tanganga would have dropped back and tucked in next to Sanchez and not influenced the match. Jose was ultra-paranoid about opponents firing in crosses from out wide (something all PL teams can defend easily, which shows just how lost he was). He would have left it up to Lucas and Skipp then to drop super deep and wide and defend Sterling and Grealish with Tanganga behind to assist.
There were so many pitfalls of this, as we saw over and over the last two seasons:
1) Lucas would have to cover ground from corner to corner. Sonny would have to do the same on the other side of the pitch.
2) If we won the ball back, Kane would be our only target up the pitch and would have to hold the ball up until our forwards could cover half the pitch to join him.
3) Opponents could bombard their fullbacks forward knowing that their 2 or 3 centre backs could easily handle Kane. This made it easy for pressing teams to pin us in our defensive half.
4) By dragging Hojbjerg (PEH) way out wide to touch, a simple wall pass around him would allow our opponents to get a direct run at our center backs. The same thing was repeated on the other side of the pitch when PEH was sitting in cup matches or when he got caught high up the pitch.
5) Winks, Ndombele, and Sissoko all have no natural defending skills and would be caught ball watching or out of position, which is why opponents had so many free, direct runs at our backline.
We have allowed 50 or more goals from the top of our goal box 10 yards in front of our backline since Dembélé left that never occurred with him as our #6. When we lost to Bayern, there were multiple mistakes made by them on every one of their goals. This was repeated over and over the last two seasons.
6) We saw against Zagreb how dreadful Sanchez is as a one-on-one defender when Sissoko watched Orsic dribble past him and score all 3 goals on Sanchez. I was devastated when Toby was let go because he is the best cover CB in Europe and one of the best one-on-one defenders too, but if you take away those situations by strengthening the midfield you don’t need Toby (and how much longer could he do that at his age?).
Toby’s weaknesses were that he could get out jumped by tall, athletic strikers on set pieces, and he didn’t have the pace to chase a forward down when they beat our high line (not like Jose ever played one, this was more in the Poch days) – there is no other way to cover for those, except to replace him with a more athletic defender like Romero.
Every answer Nuno had Sunday was just brilliant. First, he put both PEH and Skipp on the right side of the pitch, with Hojbjerg plastered right in front of Sanchez. Colombia does this too, so Sanchez is rarely left one-on-one (Sanchez did have two one-on-one defending situations in the match where they should have scored two goals, Torres whiffed on a simple tap-in at the 80th minute after running right past him).
Nuno then had Dele defending as a #6 on the left side of the pitch. This was basically a 4-3-3 when we were defending – adding much-needed steel to our defensive midfield. This formation, along with the correct personnel playing in their natural positions, really stood out to me.
One of the other keys to the match was having Tanganga and Reguilon step up in line with the holding mids and aggressively mark their wingers (when the ball was on their side of the pitch).
Tanganga was able to be super aggressive because he had 2 holding mids at all times with him to cover. Reguilon also had an outstanding match, completely shutting down Mahrez. The rare times Mahrez got around Reguilon, Dele was right behind him to clean up.
This setup simplified the game greatly for Lucas, Sonny and Bergwijn as they had limited defensive responsibilities and were able to stay higher up the pitch and counter together as a unit. Whenever one of City’s fullbacks came forward and we won the ball back, we were getting constant 3 on 2 or 4 on 3 counterattacks behind them (if Sonny was in form, we would have scored at least 4 goals). Our opponents are going to watch the video of this and be terrified of letting their fullbacks attack us.
The fact that Nuno started Skipp ahead of the other three I pointed out earlier gave me an early hint that Nuno might really know what he is doing. Our defensive midfield has been a gaping hole that I have been screaming about since Dembele left. Winks, Ndombele and Sissoko just cannot defend anyone on the other side from PEH. None of these players are natural defenders and have been played out of position. Sissoko is a natural right-winger – where he plays for France. Ndombele looks like a natural left-winger to me. Winks is a natural #8, but if he doesn’t improve his passing, he will be lucky to spend his career in the Championship. Nuno seems to have figured this out quickly.
Dele also deserves huge kudos for his part in the win. He is the one player in this setup that did have to cover ground from box to box. He gets so much stick here, but his work rate and defensive skills are stellar. There is a reason why City gave up trying to attack down our left early and Dele was a big part of that. I cannot see how anything we did Sunday could have been accomplished without him locking down the midfield on the left side of our defensive third.
What will be fun to see moving forward is how this setup looks with Romero instead of Sanchez. Will this allow Nuno to have Skipp defend the left side of the pitch and free up Dele to be more influential in attack (or play LoCelso more)?
If we stay as a 4-3-3 with Romero instead of Sanchez, can we start defending/trapping high up the pitch and pin our opponents into their defensive half, like we used to do with Poch?
With this setup, is there really any area left that we need to strengthen before the window closes? Perhaps one more defensive midfielder in case one of the three gets injured? I would love to see us get Laimer from Leipzig. He completely dominated us in our Champions League matches, was outstanding for Austria this summer, and appears to be out of favour with their new manager.