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UEFA Champions League

Why Man City's fullbacks are key to making Guardiola's striker less system work.

Club Brugge were expected to put Manchester City to the test on Tuesday evening, having outplayed but drawn with Paris Saint-Germain before defeating RB Leipzig in the Champions League group stage.

Instead, the Belgian champions were thrashed by Pep Guardiola's side, who scored five goals despite not having a striker on the field, and could have had a lot more.

It was a win that owed as much to hard effort and tactical understanding as it did to the greater quality of the beaten finalists from the previous season.

And nowhere was this more clear than in the wide areas, when Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo provided a further threat to City's powerful front three.

City's full-backs were unstoppable, forcing Brugge's dangerous wide forwards Noah Lang and Kamal Sowah to drop deep into their own half to assist in defense, but Walker and Cancelo were unstoppable even with that extra cover.

Cancelo scored the game's first goal on the half-hour mark to reward City's early dominance, and Walker added the third goal early in the second half after Riyad Mahrez's penalty just before the interval.

"[It was] one of the best performances we have done in Europe, definitely," Guardiola said post-match.

"I looked over Brugge in the international break. I looked at any games. I know how good they did against PSG."

The Catalan's use of full-backs was innovative last season, with Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko used as inverted defenders, with the pair regularly step into midfield to try to create an overload in the middle of the pitch, as Cancelo even popped up in the No.10's position at times.

In Belgium, though, he and Walker were clearly told to be far more direct, making both overlapping and underlapping runs to stretch out a young Brugge side and drag their players into uncomfortable positions.

Guardiola's usage of full-backs has been fascinating over the last season and a half as he has attempted to maximize his team's danger without a striker, and it was telling that both Cancelo and Walker were City's furthest players forward on the occasions they scored.

Cancelo's first goal was a wonderful example of his teammates' understanding and adaptability in this style.

Phil Foden started as City's 'false nine,' but the England international was willing to drop back as far as between centre-backs Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte, resuming his role as England's quarterback during the previous international break.

It was from such a position that he picked out Cancelo's run with a perfect 40-yard pass over the top of the Brugge defence, with the ex-Juventus defender able to provide a poked finish.

Cancelo has now scored twice in City's opening three Champions League matches - as many as he managed in his first 30 appearances in the competition.

City are keen to spread the goals around this season as Guardiola manoeuvres his side to cope without a number nine, and Walker's strike made him the 15th City player to score in 2021-22 from just 13 matches.

His goal was similar to Cancelo's in that he made the run into the penalty area from deep, though Kevin De Bruyne's through-ball into his path was far more straightforward than Foden's.

With Ferran Torres - the only player at the club comfortable playing as an orthodox striker - potentially out for up to three months with a metatarsal injury, Foden could spend the majority of the coming weeks playing in that 'false nine' position.

His high-pressing, link-up play and ability to play on the half-turn makes him the best fit for the role, and he has the confidence and awareness to drop off at the right times.

Guardiola was overjoyed with how his master plan came together, and he made sure to acknowledge Foden's contribution to Cancelo's opening only seconds after the ball rolled past Simon Mignolet's knees.

"With Phil, we discovered a lot of passes," Guardiola remarked. "We were trailed by runners. We had numerous opportunities to score additional goals. We are all quite pleased with our performance."

The only thing Foden's performance lacked was a goal, but he has already demonstrated this season that he is a threat in important games.

So have the full-backs, with Cancelo and Walker playing crucial roles in preventing City from failing to progress from their Champions League groups for the first time in eight years.

Content created and supplied by: Dwanemw (via Opera News )

Club Brugge Joao Cancelo Kyle Walker Manchester City Noah Lang

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