A myriad of changes both intentional and forced by in-game situations led to a disjointed and stale game from City as they left Germany with an underwhelming result that guaranteed them a place in the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen.
Guardiola welcomed back Stones, Gündogan and Silva to the starting line up after they were (mostly) uninvolved during the Crystal Palace game. Jesús Navas also came into the starting eleven, displacing Nolito.
Gladbach had one notable absentee in Thorgan Hazard, who was omitted from the squad due to unspecified personal reasons. Aside from this, the German team lined up as expected with Raffael and Stindl leading the line with the highly sought after Mahmoud Dahoud running the midfield.
Many have become accustomed to Andre Schubert employing a back three during his tenure with Gladbach, but last night he fielded his team in a 4-4-2 formation much like he did against Celtic in their previous Champions League fixture.
As pictured above, the German side defended in a passive mid block that rarely looked to engage the City defenders and midfield early in the build up. Instead they looked to protect the space within their own half and deny space between the lines with strong horizontal and vertical compactness. Given the formation and tactical approach it is very easy to see similarities between the team last night and how they played under their former manager Lucien Favre who had great success with a similar system. Whilst Gladbach didn’t employ zonal marking as strictly as they did under Favre, the influence he has had on Schubert and the team’s playing identity is strikingly obvious.
In a rather amusing mirroring of the Gladbach switch in overall shape, City moved from the back four they utilised against Crystal Palace to a back three. It is not an unfamiliar sight for fans now as Guardiola has sent his team out in this shape rather frequently over the last two months. Without the ball City defended in a 3-4-2-1 structure with David Silva frequently moving ahead to join Agüero in the first line of pressing resulting in a 1-2 shape with De Bruyne covering the space behind them.
The structure City adopted whilst in possession is something that I do want to highlight and discuss further as a particular pattern is beginning to emerge:
When De Bruyne, Silva, Gündogan and Fernandinho all play this seems to be structure that Guardiola believes will best be able to maximise and make use of their combined talents. All four players are utilised as interiores and are tasked with maintaining qualitative and quantitative superiority in the centre of the field. This is a structure that I have referenced several times during my match analyses and it is quickly becoming apparent that this is Guardiola’s preferred structure. It is a structure that doesn’t contain full-backs or wing-backs operating in conventional positions as Sterling and Navas are pushing as high and wide as possible to stretch the opposition defense. The importance of this is that it forces the defenders to access the midfield immediately as there is no easy option to pass to a full-back. For Guardiola building up and arriving in the final third from a central position is vital as it allows players to advance with the widest possible view of the pitch and options in front of them. If on the other hand the ball reaches the final third via the wings, a players view of the field and ability to link and combine with others is limited by the touchline. Most importantly though, the structure is easy to assume from either a back three or back four defensive system. This was shown constantly (until Fernandinho was sent off) as the team varied their defensive shape from 3-4-2-1 to 4-1-4-1 yet still assumed the same positional structure when they had the ball. An example of this can be seen below, as shortly after half time Kolarov and Navas assumed the roles of the pivots and Fernandinho became a third player at the base of the structure:
A Constant Problem
If there is one constant theme that runs through some of the less than stellar performances that City have delivered this season it is a poor occupation of the spaces behind the midfield lines. Below is a rather extreme example (and occurred after both sending offs) but it highlights the issue nicely.
One of the most important spaces a team can position its players is behind the opposition midfield and in front of the opposition defence. This area of uncertainty leads to hesitation between markers as the defense has to make decisions on where to concede space and where to have coverage. When City play well, players such as De Bruyne and Silva are constantly operating in this space and tearing opposition defences apart almost at will as they are essentially unable to be marked.
On the occasions that City look lacklustre or unable to break down a defence, poor occupation or an inability to access this space is a key reason they underperform. I alluded to this in my analysis of the Middlesbrough game as City could not access this area consistently and the same issues plagued the performance again last night. On the rare occasions they did manage to find a player between the lines, a scoring opportunity was almost always created. For example, in the build up to the first goal Gündogan receives the ball behind the midfield and is then able to find Sterling in a wonderful position on the edge of the box. From there, De Bruyne is able to receive the ball behind the defense and cross for Silva to score. This is a problem that I am sure Pep is aware of and it will be something he seeks to correct as soon as possible.
I’m sure we will all read pieces and opinions crying out that a back three doesn’t work or that the players cannot play this formation. But the fact is that the team performs just as well with a back three or a back four as the positional structure remains largely the same when they have the ball. City defended reasonably well last night, with isolated incidents and some less than convincing individual defending being the reason for Gladbach creating chances.
Last but not least, it has only been four months. It will take at least a season before City are fluent in the language of Pep’s football and his ideas. No great team has ever been built in half a season. Patience, patience and more patience is what will remedy some of the problems we have seen thus far.