Manchester City: an opponent's perspective

Ever wondered what it's like to face City?

Swansea defender Joel Latibeaudiere shares his experience.

2012, 2014, 2018, 2019… 2021?

It would be neither outlandish nor fanciful to predict that Pep Guardiola’s current crop could justifiably be spoken of in the same breath as our historic sides that have already entered Premier League folklore.

But while pundits, journalists and supporters alike can scrutinise, analyse or savour every kick, tackle, pass or goal of our potentially historic season, one question remains.

What is it actually like to face this Manchester City side?

How do you cut out the perfect Kevin De Bruyne pass? How do you keep pace with a rampaging Raheem Sterling, or beat the domineering Ruben Dias?

As a collective, Guardiola’s men have lifted trophies, pushed footballing boundaries and smashed numerous records in pursuit of a potential treble.

One such milestone came on a breezy February night in South Wales, when we overcame Swansea City in the FA Cup fifth round.

Our 3-1 triumph, secured courtesy of goals from Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, saw City earn a 15th successive domestic win and surpass the previous record set by Preston North End and Arsenal in 1891-92 and 1987-88 respectively.

And a familiar face lined up in the opponents’ ranks that day…

“I was marking Raheem Sterling… and then they're bringing Mahrez on the pitch, and you’re like ‘Jesus Christ!"
Joel Latibeaudiere
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Joel Latibeaudiere captained City at youth level, helping our youngsters to the FA Youth Cup final and a Premier League U-18 North title back in 2017.

In October of last year, after a successful loan spell at Dutch side FC Twente, the defender left the club he had joined as a 13-year old, with Swansea securing his services.

For Latibeaudiere, the chance to lock horns with his former teammates when the FA Cup draw was made, was an opportunity he was not about to pass up.

“Yeah I remember seeing that if we won, it was between City and Cheltenham,” he recalls when watching the Fourth Round draw.

“I was so excited.

“I was marking Raheem Sterling, one of the best wingers in the world… and then they make a sub and they’re bringing Mahrez on the pitch, and you’re like ‘Jesus Christ!’

“That’s what you dream of when you’re a boy growing up, playing with and against the best players.”

As Latibeaudiere enthusiastically alluded to, he was pitched up against City’s captain for the day, Raheem Sterling, when he lined up as a right centre-half in the Swans’ defensive five.

Breathtaking acceleration, close control and an effective low centre of gravity are the England winger’s stock in trade, and the 21-year-old knew he would have to be at his best to keep him quiet.

“I think with Sterling, because he’s so fast and agile on and off the ball, it’s best to almost let him receive the ball but don’t let him turn and face you up,” he reflects on his tussle.

“If he stands you up, he’s going to have the chance to move you either way.

“I didn’t want to try and tackle him and give away fouls, because if you get booked early against him you’ll most likely end up getting sent off because he’s so good at drawing fouls.

“So it’s more about pushing him wide and if anything I was going show him the line and let him cross it. I was over exaggerating keeping him wide, so I knew he definitely wasn’t coming inside.

“But, at the end of the day, when you’re playing against someone with that amount of talent, he’s going to get past you once or twice, so it’s just about minimising that.”

Irrespective of the England winger’s individual qualities, the focal reason for City’s attacking potency derives from a collective effort, with every single player capable of stepping up to the plate to gorge on a feast of chances at any given moment.

Indeed, as Latibeaudiere focused on his immediate adversary, the overlapping runs of Benjamin Mendy proved a constant thorn in Swansea’s side.

It was essential for the Swans’ defender and his teammate, Connor Roberts, to work in tandem to nullify that attacking threat down the left.

And the game plan succeeded for the majority of the first 45, Kyle Walker’s opener aside, until Sterling and Mendy demonstrated their impressive adaptability with ruthless zeal...

“It was more of Connor (Roberts) taking Mendy on the outside and me covering the inside with Sterling,” Latibeaudiere reflects on their tactics in thwarting our left sided duo.

“(But) I remember on the goal, we got caught out because Mendy actually came on the inside and Sterling stayed on the outside.

“We got confused and Sterling ended up scoring from it straight after half-time.

“I stayed on the inside but because Connor was so focused on Mendy, he kind of got caught on the inside as well.

“That was the only time I remember that we slipped up throughout the game, (but) I thought we did really well together.”

With Mendy hanging back to occupy Roberts as Rodrigo turned over the play with lightning efficiency, Sterling’s intelligent run into the space behind went untracked.

The gap had been spotted, the run timed to perfection, the trap sprung.

City had doubled our lead in the blink of an eye.

As Latibeaudiere openly admits, and as that second City goal ruthlessly demonstrated, even the smallest lapse in concentration can be punished by Pep Guardiola’s men.

But he insists that this clinical edge comes as no surprise, given the rigorous application and efforts that each and every player demands of themselves on the training ground.

“You can switch off for that split second and because of the quality that they have, they punish you.

“I’ve seen it, I’ve been there with them, they all train so hard so when they get into those positions and it comes to the game, it’s going to come off.

“Staying focused for those 95 minutes or whatever it is, it’s really tough.”

"If you start working as individuals, they’re going to move you around, pick you off and can score three goals in like five minutes"
Joel Latibeaudiere

Formulating a plan to stop City is one thing but any side, regardless of quality or reputation, will eventually come a cropper if they can’t impose themselves on a game.

A common expression reads that possession is nine tenths of the law and, in this instance, Guardiola’s men are the experts in this field.

In the Premier League alone, Manchester City’s average possession percentage across the season sits at an astonishing 64.4%; just shy of 8% more than any other side.

Even teams known for their passing prowess are often forced to acclimatise to the salient fact that their time on the ball could be fleeting when Pep Guardiola’s men are in town.

This was also the case for Swansea, a side who have forged a reputation for attractive, possession based football over the past decade.

“I think most teams go into the game knowing they’re not going to have the same amount of possession as they normally would because of Guardiola’s philosophy and the players in the team,” Latibeaudiere conceded.

“We spoke about this before the game and our manager (Steve Cooper) spoke to us about it as well.

“We all knew we weren’t going to have the possession we’d like to have and normally have so it was just about finding a way to keep the ball when we did get it.

“Obviously we can’t set out the patterns we want to because we don’t have all of the ball so it's about finding new patterns and maybe counter attacking.

“It’s just about trusting the plan and sticking with it, just working together as a team.

"Because if you start working as individuals, especially against Manchester City, they’re going to move you around, pick you off and they can score three goals in like five minutes, and that’s the game.”

Irrespective of retaining their focus and discipline, falling two goals behind inside 47 minutes against a City side smelling blood, Swansea looked to be trapped in an ominous position.

And the situation looked even more bleak when Gabriel Jesus plucked an inviting ball out of the air, turned on a sixpence and smashed home another soon after, seemingly putting the game out of sight.

Nonetheless, the hosts rallied, even getting themselves on the scoresheet with a late strike from Morgan Whittaker.

And while Latibeaudiere was ultimately disappointed not to cause a cup upset, he felt that he and his teammates gave a good account of themselves.

“Obviously it’s not nice losing, it was a tough game as well so it was deflating,” the defender reflected 

“But we were playing against the best team in the world and we felt like we held our own.

“We were proud about that, overall getting the goal and then actually seeing the chances that we created, and we really made City work before they actually scored.

“For City to get the goals, they weren’t easy, so we were happy and proud to do that.”

Despite defeat, Swansea used that encouraging performance as a springboard for their pursuit of a return to the top flight after a three-year absence, securing a spot in the Championship play-offs.

Our FA Cup dream concluded at the semi-final stage, but victory over the Swans represented a significant chapter in what is edging towards becoming a truly memorable season.

Against the backdrop of one of the most prestigious competitions in world football, City had made another mark in our illustrious history, and Latibeaudiere witnessed it first hand.