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Pep Guardiola has been accused in the past of over-thinking his tactics in big Champions League games, and sprung a few surprises with his starting lineup for Manchester City’s difficult trip to the Bernabeu on Wednesday night.
Uefa’s predicted starting lineup graphics had Manchester City in their usual 4-3-3 formation, a shape which fit the players named in the XI but which had almost no relation to what actually played out on the pitch. Had Guardiola gone too far again?
How Manchester City set up
The initial defensive shape was a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, with Kevin De Bruyne starting just behind Gabriel Jesus and joining him in a central pair as City pressed the centre-backs. The two were tasked with showing Real’s buildup play into wide areas where they would meet Riyad Mahrez on the right wing and Bernardo Silva on the left.
Real passed from centre-back to centre-back to full-back in order to give everyone a touch of the ball and shift City’s block from side to side, finding their passing options limited, but as soon as Bernardo found his way into the box to take an early shot and Real had their first goal kick, the system changed.
“We prepared to play [against] 4-3-3 because lately they are playing that system but maybe [they] play with a diamond," revealed Guardiola in his post-match press conference. "We said take a look at where Vinicius plays. If he plays wide they play 4-3-3, if more central they are going to play a diamond. Take a look a little bit on those positions, and depending on that make some adjustments. Always the intention is to have the ball as much as possible.”
Vinicius started on the left wing of a 4-3-3 and so City switched from their 4-2-3-1 shape with De Bruyne behind Jesus, to a 4-4-2 defensive shape with Jesus on the left and Bernardo next to De Bruyne upfront in a pair of false-nines.
The switch made sense. Bernardo and De Bruyne have the energy and positional nous to lead the press, Bernardo is left-footed and better suited to central areas, and both could provide an extra body in midfield if needed.
They stayed close to Casemiro (Real's defensive midfielder, pictured above next to City's front two) to block Real’s centre-backs playing the ball to him, inviting Zinedine Zidane's side higher up the pitch in search of a passing option.
Much was made of the decision to play Jesus instead of Sergio Aguero, City’s all-time top goalscorer, but Guardiola’s tactics required a more defensively disciplined and harder working player out of possession. Jesus fits this role - he simply does more for the team without the ball and statistics show it, the Brazilian having made more interceptions, tackles, and recoveries per game in the Premier League:
Why Jesus' position on the left wing was so important
The next part of the masterplan was dealing with Real’s specific attacking threats, one of which was Dani Carvajal’s overlapping running on the right wing.
City’s midfield four provided a block across the halfway line, trying to prevent passes being played through the gaps to Real’s midfielders positioned between the lines.
Isco (the player closest to Jesus in the image below) started as a right winger but dropped into these holes in order to get the ball on the half-turn rather than find himself one v one with the pacy Benjamin Mendy.
Jesus’ job was to keep an eye on Carvajal while maintaining the shape. Real tried to take advantage of this theoretical mismatch (a striker defending against Carvajal) by shifting play to the left side, knowing City’s 4-4-2 would need to shuttle across to keep the spacing between players tight enough to stop line-breaking passes. This is what it looked like roughly when Real had the ball on the left, with arrows indicating where City's players were able to move to keep the shape:
Carvajal lurked in Jesus' blindspot like a cat creeping up on a mouse. Jesus scanned over his shoulder.
Suddenly Carvajal sprang to action.
Jesus had scanned constantly, about three or four times a second before the long diagonal pass from left to right was sprung, and beat Carvajal to the ball, winning a header and preventing the full-back running through on goal.
Guardiola's defensive plan was working. “There is not in the world one striker to make this intensity without the ball like Gabriel (Jesus),” he said. “He has incredible runs in behind, and when he starts from the sides to make diagonals he’s so fast, so good.
“We decide to play without a proper striker for the way they defend. They defend a special way, so aggressive, man to man in the goal kicks, so high, and when this happens you have to make the pitch wide. It’s so difficult when you put balls into Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Modric. We want to put the ball in diagonals and to the wings as fast as possible."
How City turned the game around
Despite having a possession share of 29 per cent as late as the 20th minute of the match, City suffocated Real Madrid's build-up and denied them opportunities to score. Zidane's side pressed high but gave Ederson as long as he wanted on the ball, looking tentative as though wary of falling into a trap.
City were able to keep more of the ball after the first quarter of the match and attacked in a shape more like a 3-1-4-2 as Mendy pushed up the wing (coached on his positioning throughout the first half by Guardiola on the touchline) to provide width and allow Jesus to attack central areas.
“In the first minutes we suffer because we cannot make a sequence of passes but after 10-15 minutes we make Rodrigo, Kevin, Gundogan [more involved], more fluidity with that," Guardiola explained.
Nothing changed after half-time other than Real pushing a few more players forward to join the attack and acting a little braver, but this approach was abandoned after it yielded a couple of opportunities for City to counter-attack that Mahrez was guilty of squandering.
With the game under control, a moment of miscommunication and mistakes shared by Nicolas Otamendi and Rodrigo presented Real Madrid the chance to score against the run of play.
Madrid out of nothing! 👊— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 26, 2020
Isco pounces on the Man City mistake, listen to that roar from the home crowd! pic.twitter.com/mfD2tkbKA4
Real rode the wave of confidence from their opener but the introduction of Raheem Sterling, on as a substitute for Bernardo, swung the game back City's way.
Sterling is more direct and more of a winger than Bernardo. He hugs the line and runs wide left rather than through the middle, which meant that Mendy didn't have to get forward to provide width. Sterling ran onto a ball fired into space on the left wing, drew out defenders to close him down and this allowed De Bruyne to position himself on the edge of the box to receive a pass. After driving into the area, he hooked a cross towards Jesus inside the area and City scored:
Jesus the saviour!— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 26, 2020
The vital away goal from Gabriel Jesus, the first from an English side in the knockout stages.
Brilliant work from Kevin de Bruyne for his 1️⃣7️⃣th assist of the season for Man City 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ExQC71JUcO
The second goal was another that benefited from Sterling's pace as he beat Carvajal in a race to the penalty area and was cut down with a slide tackle. De Bruyne slotted the penalty into the bottom corner.
Joe Hart and Steve McManaman were adamant in their analysis that a "conventional" City team would have beaten Real Madrid by more goals, dismissive of the tactical foreplay that allowed Sterling to make such a devastating impact.
Carvajal would quite likely have timed his tackle better earlier in the match, and may have even been able to keep up with Sterling had he not already run up and down the right wing to little effect for the previous 82 minutes. Perhaps a simple 4-3-3 with Aguero alongside Sterling and Mahrez would have helped dominate Real Madrid in the way City have destroyed Watford and West Ham in the past. Perhaps the tactical tinkering was entirely unnecessary.
More likely is that by adapting to Zidane's team, nullifying their attacking strengths (Karim Benzema had 31 touches of the ball compared to Thibaut Courtois' 60) and then sending on Sterling to take on the overworked Carvajal in the final 15 minutes, Guardiola handed his players the keys to victory against one of the most successful clubs in European Cup history.
The problem with analysing opponents and finding solutions to problems in the way Guardiola does is that if it works he is considered a genius and if it fails he has overthought and hindered his own chances of success. Guardiola has won more Champions League knockout games than any manager in the competition's history, including Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson.
"When we were playing better we concede a goal we should not at this level," Guardiola reasoned after the match. "When Real Madrid play better we score a goal, after that [we found] our rhythm and we score our second.
"This is football."