Another trophy is within Manchester City’s grasp as the club enters the final stages of the FA Cup. As ticket sales dominate the debate among fans, the Blues continue to get results in the Premier League, all while performing at the high level we’ve become accustomed too. Their focus now shifts to England’s biggest stage and semifinal opponents, Brighton Hove and Albion.
Manchester City are headed to Wembley Stadium for Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal against fellow Premier League side Brighton. This is a match between two teams that could not be more different, with City’s free flowing philosophy propelling them to the top of the table while Brighton exhibit an old school style in the fight against relegation. Everything about this matchup points to a City victory, though no team can be taken lightly at this stage in the competition.
Brighton have dispatched of Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Derby County, and Millwall on their way to the semi-final, but don’t enter this match in good form. Over their last ten league matches, Chris Hughton’s side has only managed 7 points with a goal differential of -9, erasing a strong start and putting them right back in contention for the drop.
The Seagulls are still a team with strong continuity though, as Hughton prefers to stick with a consistent starting eleven. Despite this, their attack is far from intimidating, their 32.27 expected goal tally only trailing Huddersfield Town for worst in the league. Their offensive priority is to create quick transitions from defensive sets to the wingers, the driving force of the attack alongside center forward Glenn Murray. Brighton’s attack is the most direct in the Premier League (64 long key passes), but is an unsustainable model for consistently creating quality chances.
Anthony Knockaert can be expected to control one of the wings, while Jürgen Locadia and Alireza Jahanbakhsh are in contention on the opposite side due to Soloman March picking up a knock against Chelsea on Wednesday. Knockaert may have the most dangerous skill set on Brighton’s roster, evidenced by his recent goal against Crystal Palace. City would be smart to mark him closely, especially on his stronger left foot.
The Frenchman leads the team in assists with 6, but only one has come from open play. In fact, a disproportionate amount of his creative influence (80.6% of expected assists) has come from set pieces, a heavy focus of Brighton’s approach. 40% of their 32 goals have been generated from corners/free kicks, making them the second-most dependent team on these scoring situations. Center backs Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk have great ability in the aerial duels, and give City an incentive to avoid reckless challenges near their final third. However, Brighton’s failure to consistently draw fouls (last in the league) prevents them from maximizing the one thing they are good at.
On the other side of the ball, Brighton brings the physicality they show on set pieces to their defense. They are comfortable playing in a tight, compact shape and are aggressive in stepping to dribblers (most fouls committed in Premier League). Regardless, the Seagulls relinquish a lot of space in between the lines in wide areas and are susceptible to combination passing sequences.
Brighton will enter Saturday’s match with a clean bill of health for their entire backline and defensively oriented midfielders, Dale Stephens and Davy Propper. But they will be without Pascal Groß, perhaps their most creative central midfielder, along with the previously mentioned Solly March.
Health concerns continue to badger City as well, with Oleksandr Zinchenko unavailable after going off injured against Cardiff City. Sergio Aguero is in contention to make the team sheet despite travelling with the squad to London, yet is unlikely to start with Champions League looming on the horizon. Benjamin Mendy may return, but probably won’t start under any circumstances having only played 27 minutes of competitive football since November.
Despite the injuries, City will enter this match as heavy favorites to advance to the final. The Blues have already beaten Brighton once this season, winning at home by a score of 2-0 in September. Moreover, City have historically performed well at Wembley while Brighton have struggled mightily away from Falmer Stadium.
Pep Guardiola’s team maintained their strong form since returning from the international break, putting together consecutive comfortable victories against Fulham and Cardiff. Kevin De Bruyne displayed the form he is capable of over these matches and a return to dominance for the Belgian can further elevate City’s level. Gabriel Jesus was wasteful against Cardiff but will be looking to improve on that performance. Guardiola was also able to rest important players Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, David Silva, and Ilkay Gundogan for the midweek to get them fully prepared for this massive FA Cup semi-final.
A 0-0 draw isn’t an option here so Brighton will have to come out of their shell eventually, and City will be ready to strike when they do. Actually, the Blues are likely to strike even while they’re in their shell and should relentlessly flex their attacking might throughout. City are so close to another trophy and this is the next step in that journey. Brighton Hove and Albion are in their way right now, but it’d be foolish to bet on them stopping Manchester City.
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