It’s Madrid again in the Champions League, with a single goal advantage going into the second leg. Against Atletico at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, there was the feeling we’d done the hard part by getting ahead at the Etihad. It turned out the hard part was yet to come.
They’ll be less naivety this time, with the recognition that Real can score against us coupled with their habit of bending a game to their advantage at the Bernabeu. From the moment the draw was made, it felt harder than our previous encounter in 2020 simply due to the second leg being away.
Looking simply at the score from the first leg, it appears perfectly balanced with City having a single goal advantage, while the absence of the away goals rule is good news for City after Real managed three. Then again, without away goals counting more, the chances of extra time and penalties are increased. We love Ederson, but his penalty record isn’t exceptional and numerous City players haven’t exactly been clinical from the spot in recent years. Better to win it in normal time, not least because Real were able to rest more players at the weekend.
After the first leg, it was hoped the return of João Cancelo and Kyle Walker would give City a significant improvement for the second leg. Sadly Walker is looking doubtful, so presumably Cancelo will be tasked with keeping up with Vinícius Júnior. Cancelo is better going forward than defending so this isn’t ideal. He also needs to regain some of his early season freshness after a heavy schedule has left him looking jaded recently. A jaded Cancelo is a careless Cancelo and City can’t afford him giving up possession cheaply.
The bonus for City has been the sudden upturn in form for Gabriel Jesus, to the extent that Pep Guardiola’s overthinking in the first leg saw him come up with the radical idea of playing the former striker… as a striker!
The great thing about this is no one else was asked to play false nine. The pros and cons of the false nine are well documented, but often overlooked is the issue that City don’t have a player particularly well suited to the role. When you think about it, all City’s midfielders are better elsewhere:
Foden – best performances have been on the flanks or as a number 8.
De Bruyne – better as a number 8, putting the ball in for a striker.
Silva – his energy is essential as a number 8 in big games this season.
Mahrez – better on the right flank with space to pick up the ball and cut in.
Gündoğan – last season’s scoring run is over and he’s back to being better in midfield.
Grealish – would be happy to start, but clearly better on the left wing or left sided number 8.
Ferran Torres was the only one who looked like he may be better up front than out wide, but he didn’t get sufficient game time to stick around.
So there’s a good chance it will be Jesus leading the line again and against a defence where there’s space for his movement to cause problems, not to mention his pressing.
After going two up in the first ten minutes, there was a sense that City might win this tie in the first leg but it wasn’t to be. Previous rounds have shown Real’s capacity to turn it round at their place and personally I felt we needed an advantage of three goals or more to be sure of getting through.
We know we have the quality and teamwork to score and win, but a nagging doubt is the mentality in this competition. Pep and the players are desperate to win it, despite what they might say. When we get ahead, nerves have got the better of us in the past.
The post match reporting of the Atletico game was all about the fouling and gamesmanship by Simeone’s side and how City had done well to come through. Completely overlooked was how badly City played in the second half. What was the plan? City stopped trying to play progressive football, and just wanted to control the game by passing the ball around the defence and wait for the final whistle. Against a well organised press, this was asking for trouble and there were more desperate clearances than I can recall from a Pep side.
It was reminiscent of when we went to Monaco with a two goal lead and hoped to knock the ball around for 90 minutes rather than play in the opposing half and probe for goals.
We know control is everything for Pep and as a result there is a natural tendency in these high stakes games when once ahead, to try and just keep the ball, not take risks, not push too far forward in case we get done on the counter.
It could be seen in the first leg, when we went two goals ahead, the emphasis subtly changed from being progressive to not taking risks. That’s when we get boxed in, and while our defending under Pep has improved, we’re still not sufficiently resilient to cope with sustained pressure from a side with the likes of Karim Benzema.
We’ll need to be at least a couple of goals ahead on the night and see Real lose belief before we can turn to the tactic of keep ball in our own half.
As for the team, if Walker is out, then the main debate is about who plays full-back. Madrid pressed us surprisingly well last week, so I’d go for the options best suited to breaking the press – Cancelo and Zinchenko.
If he’s fit, Ake may be better defensively than Zinchenko, but it’s the other flank with Vinícius where the main attacking threat lies. This also feels too big a game for Stones at full-back. He just isn’t as comfortable there, though I’d be ok with him at centre-back. Not at the expense of Dias though. We need the Portuguese to organise everyone else – we just look less like conceding with him on the pitch.
Further upfield, Silva’s energy is essential in the middle – sorry Gündoğan. In attack, the three from last week caused plenty of problems and warrant another chance despite the unconverted chances.
More important will be Pep’s use of subs. His reluctance to make changes is increasingly apparent and it was noticeable how Ancelotti was more proactive in the first leg and Real looked stronger at the end than in any other part of the game.
With five available, and City having had a tougher recent schedule, Pep needs to make best use of those on the bench.
A prediction? Well no one can see it being goalless, so if we get the first couple of goals, then hopefully we’ll have the confidence to keep playing our patient, progressive game and see the game out in comfort. Otherwise it gets harder to predict with the possibility of the lead changing hands as each side fails to remain in control for long.
Ederson (without the uncharacteristic passing errors of last week)
Cancelo, Dias, Laporte, Zinchenko
De Bruyne, Silva
Mahrez, Jesus, Foden
(If Walker is fit, then it’s him and Cancelo at full-back)
City lost an FA Cup semi-final for the third successive season on Saturday. In Pep we trust? Hmm, the cries for a rethink on team selection could be heard all the way home. The good news is a solution may be on hand, but more of that later.
We all know the situation with domestic cup competitions, where squad players and the best young players get valuable minutes of first team action. It keeps everyone happy, providing respite for those playing twice a week in the Premier League and Europe, while giving an opportunity to those who have fallen out of the first choice eleven.
Zack Steffen is the main beneficiary and seemingly has Pep’s word that he will play all domestic cup games. This was the key issue on Saturday. While it’s good to give Steffen these games most of the time, this game against this Liverpool felt different and so it turned out.
The consensus is that these games are decided by “small margins”, and leading up to the game, the margins appeared to be in Liverpool’s favour.
Liverpool had been able to rest players for their Champions League game the previous Wednesday, just as City’s finest had a draining night in Madrid with Walker, de Bruyne and Gundogen injured.
Whilst a refreshed Liverpool would fly at us, Pep appeared to rest Laporte and Rodri due to concerns over fatigue. Most fans could understand this and Ake played well, while Fernandinho did his best. The concern I had was the loss of height at set-pieces without Rodri and Laporte, and sure enough Konate out jumped Ake to score the opener from Liverpool’s first corner.
This was the price City had to pay, but the real concern was the selection of Steffen over Ederson. The American might have done better for the first and third goals, but the second was clearly all down to him. Plus, Liverpool are the best pressing team around and with changes to the outfield players, it was more important than ever to have Ederson’s calmness and quality in possession.
As Alan Shearer pointed out afterwards, Pep’s selection of Steffen cost City goals, whereas Klopp’s selection of Alisson saw their first choice keeper make the one-on-one saves in which he specialises. City may have got away with the changes elsewhere had Ederson played.
And let’s not forget, Steffen was caught in no-man’s land for Chelsea’s goal in last season’s FA Cup semi-final.
This doesn’t mean Steffen should never play. He’s a good keeper, who has improved in his time with us and he needs minutes. This game did him no favours though. He came to it cold, having not played since the last round and went home devastated by the second goal.
It’s quite possible we could be in the same position next season, where we get drawn against the very best in the domestic cups. If we want to win them and not throw away the good work in the earlier rounds then shouldn’t we go with our first choice keeper?
As I stated earlier, a solution may be available for giving games to Steffen. Next season sees the restoration of the 5 subs rule. Given Pep’s lack of subs on Saturday and in the Palace game, this may seem less than relevant at the moment but bear with me.
Pep and others don’t just want the subs for making tactical changes to win a match. They want the option to bring players off when a game is won and save them for the next game. In games where City are 3 or 4 goals ahead, expect to see a raft of subs. With 5 subs available, bringing on Steffen to give him some first team minutes makes sense. He could get some action and not be under the extreme pressure of Saturday. And a mistake would be a lot less likely to cost us the chance of a trophy!
After looking dangerous early on, an incisive attacking move saw Chelsea take the lead. City laboured without ever looking like getting through Thomas Tuchel’s well drilled rearguard. Their wingbacks allied with Kante and Jorginho remained compact in front of a back three, ensuring Pep Guardiola’s band of creatives barely got a sight of goal. City never looked like scoring and duly lost 1-0. That was on the 17th April in the FA Cup semi-final. Both Fernandinho and Rodri played.
The story of City’s defeat in this Champions League final was apparently decided in the starting lineup when tinkering Pep selected Gundogen as the defensive midfielder ahead of Fernandinho or Rodri. Pep had overthought it again in the Champions League and come a cropper. If only it was that simple.
True, it can be classed as a mistake as City’s defence had less protection, but Chelsea only scored one goal. Frank Lampard’s Chelsea scored one goal in January. The difference was City scored three.
Chelsea are a good side. They have good players and, crucially, Tuchel has set his side up in a way that makes them very hard to score against. The defensive resilience differentiated them from PSG and Dortmund.
This was the ultimate test for City’s false nine system, and it failed. De Bruyne is the main man for this City side, yet for a while now there’s a sense that playing as the false nine doesn’t get the best out of him. This game called for his trademark whipped crosses to a forward whose movement was good enough to escape Chelsea’s central defenders. Instead he was up against these defenders and defensive midfielders, unable to affect the game.
Likewise, Foden was central, high up the pitch, and barely got a touch. Only when Jesus came on did Foden get to roam and become involved in the build-up play. Foden had played false 9 at Anfield to some acclaim, yet during the first half there he struggled to get involved. Only later in the match, when drifting wide, did he really hurt Liverpool.
Having Fernandinho start would have pushed Gundogen higher, Foden could then have played on the left instead of Sterling. It would probably have been better, but it’s far from certain it would have been enough. City needed someone in the penalty area able to escape the centre-backs and they needed the likes of Foden and de Bruyne to be more involved, getting the ball into the penalty area.
With so many midfielders playing high, Stones and Dias frequently lacked passing options. Chilwell and James kept very tight to Sterling and Mahrez. It was reminiscent of Sterling’s struggles against Wan Bassaka. Foden against Wan Bassaka had been a different story and it was surprising not to see Foden moved out to the left at some point.
Apparently Guardiola’s thinking was to utilise Gundogens speed of passing to get City moving forward quicker. Presumably this was the tactical response to the lack of openings created in the FA Cup defeat. It didn’t materialise. The one time Sterling was able to use his directness to get in behind came from an Ederson pass. A poor first touch enabled James to intercept. Could Foden have made the same run? If so, his touch would likely have been better.
Defensively it was noticeable how much tighter Chelsea defenders were to their opponents. For all the improvements since Dias arrived, this still isn’t our strongest area. Fernandinho would have brought more snap to our midfield but it wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the goal. This was a slick move, first Chilwell then Mount getting the ball forward quickly from deep before Zinchenko had got goal side of Havertz. Zinchenko has many qualities but lacks pace and was never going to make the recovery run that Walker might. This was the moment the false 9 worked – for Chelsea – as the space in the middle was free for Mount to play the ball into.
Both Guardiola and Tuchel have received great praise for their use of the false 9 this season, yet it’s telling that both City and Chelsea are looking to spend big on a number 9 this summer. Both sides have had an issue with dominating play, creating openings and failing to take them. The evident frustration of their managers implies they might not be quite so wedded to this system as some may think.
The defining memory of City’s night was a tearful, dazed de Bruyne being led away from the pitch after his attempts at a false 9 collided head on with Rudiger. Such had the role constrained him that he wasn’t missed.
By the end City had forsaken passing angles and coordinated runs for English tactics of yesteryear as the spirit of Rory Delap and John Fashanu saw Walker hurling long throws for John Stones to flick on. A headed clearance enabling Mahrez to volly just over. From Pep to Pulis, this was the closest City got to a goal.
It was a victory for a defensive system that once again kept Guardiola’s attacking combinations at bay. Rather than contemporary German gegenpressing and high defensive lines, there were elements of catenaccio as Tuchel delved deeper into the tactical history books with a back 5 protected by two defensive midfielders.
The challenge for Pep next season is how to overcome it. The solution will involve more than who plays as defensive midfielder.
Postscript: Can we win it next year?
Well, we could. Kane or Haaland are hugely difficult deals but the case for Kane in particular has just been strengthened. De Bruyne, Mahrez and Foden would all benefit from a top level striker to supply. In the Champions League itself, Barca, Real and Juve have financial struggles preventing necessary rebuilds – and that’s if they don’t get a ban. Bayern have just changed their manager. PSG remain a threat but all can’t be well if Pochettino is considering a return to Spurs. Chelsea, Liverpool and United have all beaten us but let’s not forget we’re also capable of beating them. It was heartbreaking to see Aguero in tears as this was his last chance to win it with City. He will be missed, just as he was in this match. Although De Bruyne turns 30 shortly and the desperation in his tears was clear, he still has a decent chance with City. Pep’s here for two more years, so don’t expect City to go away.
After last week’s debacle, the last opponent City need is another hard working, well organised, title challenging side in excellent form. With injuries to Sagna and Delph reducing Manuel Pellegrini’s options still further, there’s little optimism around. True, Kompany and Silva are available but one has to wonder how fit they are for such a demanding fixture.
Still, City have had a rare full week to recharge and prepare for the game. So have Spurs, but with the older squad City probably needed it more. There’s been plenty of time for Pellegrini to come up with a plan, and central to his thinking should be the setup of the midfield and how to combat a flying Spurs side.
Continue Reading →