Champions League: Manchester City – Real Madrid

Manchester City advanced to the quarterfinals of this year’s compressed Champions League with a 2-1 win, completing a 4-2 aggregate victory over Real Madrid. Though individual errors loomed large in the outcome, the game also demonstrated the tactical thinking of both managers.

As is often the case late in the season, both sides were missing key players. City were without top striker Sergio Agüero, while suspended Madrid captain Sergio Ramos was unavailable to dislocate Kevin De Bruyne’s shoulder or concuss Ederson. He was forced to watch from the sideline, a position that want-away star Gareth Bale avoided by refusing to travel with the team.

Though in a traditional 4-3-3, Real Madrid adopted an aggressive high press, with Toni Kroos joining Karim Benzema to disrupt City playing out from the back. After conceding the opening goal, Luka Modric also joined the press. Though it did not produce a goal, Ederson was compelled into long clearances more frequently than in the first leg of the tie (Friday’s game is on the left).

Whether this strategy worked overall is less clear. Madrid held City to just 55% possession, which is significantly less than they have had against top Premier League competition since the restart (with the exception of their 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool, where their significant lead allowed them to sit back and end with just 47%). On the other hand, City only had 52% in the first leg against Madrid, so this possession may simply reflect the difference in quality between Real and clubs like Arsenal (71% FA Cup semi, 67% league), Chelsea (65%), and Manchester United (72%).

Despite a fairly straight-forward team sheet, Pep Guardiola opted for Phil Foden at the top of his 4-3-3, moving anticipated central striker Gabriel Jesus to to the left and switching Raheem Sterling over to the right. In attack, Jesus and Sterling played high and narrow alongside Foden, while De Bruyne pushed up behind them to create a 4-2-1-3. In defense, Foden would drop back to cover the central passing lanes while Jesus and Sterling pressed the center backs.

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This is the sort of tactical change that leads his critics to accuse Guardiola of overthinking games, but here the move seemed successful. City’s high press was designed less to disrupt a possession game than to tempt Madrid into playing out from the back and then trapping them to produce costly turnovers. That is exactly what happened for the first goal, and–without minimizing Raphaël Varane’s individual error–it was Guardiola’s set-up that placed the defender in a corner with Jesus bearing down on him from the outside rather than the inside, encouraging him to turn in toward goal rather than clearing the ball out.

Varane and Jesus were again at the center of City’s second half goal as well. City had reverted to a more conventional line-up by that point, Jesus in the middle with Sterling left and Foden right; and while City’s pressure was still a factor, this second error underlined Varane’s complicity in the loss. He first attempts to make the correct play and head the ball out before changing course with his second attempt at the ball and putting it inside for the lurking Jesus to pounce on. The unsettling effect of Ramos’s absence at the back should also not be underrated.

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Madrid’s goal also demonstrated a combination of their tactical approach with a significant individual defensive error. João Cancelo’s lapse of concentration–his moment of hesitation before tracking Rodrygo’s run behind him–creates the space that allows Rodrygo to find Benzema. But, as explained by Football Made Simple (full link below), the goal was also a product of Madrid’s pattern of attacking down the left, with Eden Hazard and Ferland Mendy, before switching to Benzema and Rodrygo on the weak side.

Guardiola and Zidane shared a lovely moment after the game was finished, the fanless stadium allowing us to glimpse an exchange that in more normal times would have happened away from the cameras. If you squint, you can almost imagine two ordinary soccer dads replaying their boys’ game after the fact.

City will play Rudi Garcia’s Olympique Lyonnais in the quarterfinals, who overcame Juventus in a game ruined by genuinely shocking refereeing decisions (notwithstanding a glorious Cristiano Ronaldo goal from distance), the only other competitive tie in these concluding Round of 16 second legs.

Additional Resources
Total Football Analysis – as always, excellent and thorough
Football Made Simple (YouTube) – very good on pressing schemes, responses
Manchester City and Sheffield United midfielder Michael Brown’s analysis (BBC Radio 5 web content)

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