After Liverpool beat Leicester City to extend their lead at the top of the table the previous evening, Manchester City came into this game knowing their margin for error is rapidly dwindling.
Pep Guardiola set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 shape, whereas Nuno Espirito Santo opted for a 3-4-3 formation for his Wolverhampton Wanderers side.
The two teams spent the opening of the match feeling each other out. City’s band of three attacking midfielders tucked inside to form a narrow band behind Joao Moutinho, who was often dragged up the pitch to close down Rodri, and Ruben Neves, while Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker pushed forward to provide width. Wolves were more direct, hitting long raking balls out to the wingers.
The game was shook awake after ten minutes though. A clash of heads stopped the match for a minute or two and the resulting drop ball was passed to Conor Coady deep in Wolves’ half. With Sergio Aguero some distance away, Coady was able to stride forward on the ball under little pressure and pick out a long pass over the top for Wolves’ attackers to run in behind. Despite the lack of pressure on the ball, City’s backline stayed up near the half-way line, making it easy for Diogo Jota to get to the ball first. Ederson was forced into sprinting out to meet him, and, although he barely glanced the Portuguese, he came at such speed that missing the ball made a red card inevitable.
The Brazilian was sent off, leading Guardiola to remove Aguero for Claudio Bravo as City changed to a 4-2-3 shape. Raheem Sterling went through the middle, flanked by Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, while Kevin De Bruyne dropped in alongside Rodri.
The wingers took up positions when pressing that allowed them to press both the wide centre-backs and the wing-backs. If Wolves passed to the wing-backs, the City wingers would drop off and close them down and if they went short to the outside centre-backs, the wingers would press them while blocking the pass into the wing-back and Sterling would block the pass back across to Coady. Wolves could play around this pressure though by passing to one of the midfielders to bounce back to one of the defenders, cutting out Sterling.
Just as Wolves smelled blood, City hit a long ball forward and combined to win a penalty. Much like the sending off, it was a touch soft, yet there ultimately was contact. The penalty was repeated until Sterling finally put it in the net and City had the lead.
Wolves’ response was to attack down the wings. Adama Traore and Matt Doherty on the right and Jota and Jonny Castro on the left took it in turns staying wide or coming inside high up the pitch, while Raul Jiménez would sometimes drift out towards either flank to help out. If the attacks broke down, Wolves would use the passing range of Moutinho or Neves behind them, with the help of the centre-backs, to switch play out to the opposite flank. Although this meant Wolves dominated possession, they were struggling to convert it into chances, as City’s full-backs were always across quickly to block crosses.
While Mendy and Walker were dealing well with Wolves’ attacking, the constant switches of play would have likely fatigued them greatly as the game wore on, so Guardiola switched to a 5-3-1 at half-time, bringing on defender Eric Garcia for Mahrez. This meant that Mendy and Walker didn’t have to come inside quite so far when Wolves switched the play to the opposite flank, as there was an extra man to fill in the gaps between the backline.
City had still posed a threat on the counter throughout the first half too and doubled their lead early in the second half, cutting through Wolves with a few quick passes to play in Sterling in behind Wolves’ high line.
Wolves adapted quickly to City’s change of formation though. While the City backline could cover the width of the pitch better, the midfield ahead of it now had just three men to cover the width of the pitch when before they had four. The intelligent Neves and Moutinho began zipping their passes through the gaps between the midfielders into the attackers rather than hitting them out to the other flank.
Not long after Sterling got his second, Wolves pulled one back. Neves won the ball in City’s half and slid a pass through to Traore, who fired past Bravo from the edge of the area.
Determined to make their extra man pay off, Wolves pressed City intensely and moved the ball around quickly, not allowing City to get comfortable as they sat back to protect their lead.
City’s quality with the ball – in particular Silva’s ability to keep the ball under pressure – meant they were able to keep some possession to rest a little, but Wolves kept coming back. Mendy was weaker than Silva when Traore chased him down as he tried to watch the ball out of play, allowing the Spaniard to steal the ball from him and assist Jiménez for the equaliser.
Now dropping two points, City needed to mount attacks again but had already used up their substitutions as Wolves continued to pour forward. Several of their players were struggling to muster more than a jog having had to cover for the loss of their eleventh man for eighty minutes. This was particularly noticeable with Rodri, stood still for much of the last stretch of the match – Doherty took full advantage of this, driving through the gap that opened up between him and Silva to play a one-two with Jiménez and fire a left-footed shot past Bravo, with Rodri barely making a move to stop him.
Wolves put in a superb performance, never letting up even when City seemed to have them beaten, determined to make their man advantage count.