Manchester City already being 3-0 up as they closed out the game means that we shouldn’t really read much into Riyad Mahrez’s pretty simple goal, but it does display a neat example of how playing short can open up direct options and how you don’t actually have to be a very good target man to be useful when competing for long balls.
City start play with a free-kick taken short, baiting Burnley’s press. As City pass back to Ederson, Burnley’s forwards and wingers push up to cut off the short passes to the defenders and their midfielders follow on behind to cut off the passes into midfield.
With all the short passes cut off, Ederson hits the ball long towards Gabriel Jesus. Standing at 5ft 9 and surrounded by four Burnley defenders, the odds aren’t exactly stacked in the Brazilian’s favour, and he isn’t even standing for long, getting dumped to the ground as the ball drops from the sky. Despite this, it’s City who come away with the ball.
As the ball is punted forward and Jesus goes to challenge, Bernardo Silva and Mahrez drop off into the space behind him. Burnley’s midfield have all been drawn up the pitch to cut off the short passes while the back four are all dropping off as a unit to protect the goal, leaving no one in the gap between them to compete with Mahrez and Silva.
That means that all Jesus has to do is stop Burnley from clearing the ball cleanly. He doesn’t even have to really try to win the ball, although it would obviously be an easier way of playing in his teammates. So long as he’s enough of a nuisance that a Burnley defender can’t just volley the ball back in the direction of their forwards, he’s done his job.
James Tarkowski easily shrugs him off but his attempt at clearing the ball is a little backheel flick, which easily falls to Silva. Jack Cork is tracking back as fast as he can but Silva knocks the ball on to Mahrez before he can get close and the Algerian has plenty of time to make up his mind.
The priority for Burnley’s back four is to protect the goal, which means dropping off and getting into narrow positions that put players between the man on the ball and the goal, so that there’s a good chance any shot will get blocked. The problem with this is that it gives Mahrez so much time to control the ball and decide what to do that he can essentially create an angle for himself to shoot. Ben Mee steps out to close the angle, but he never actually gets into a position capable of winning the ball off of Mahrez, who shifts the ball around the centre-back and squeezes the ball between him and the out-stretched leg of Erik Pieters to finish.