Bold, brave, beaten.
The first two words will be the most encouraging to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City fans as they reflect on the events in Barcelona last night. At one of the toughest venues in world football City held their own and refused to abandon their principles of play against a team who have registered only five home defeats in the Champions League era. The last word, however, is the most important. 4-0 is incredibly flattering and once again individual errors have cost Manchester City points, for the fourth consecutive game.
The build up to the game saw only two notable changes to the teams. For City, Aguero was dropped to the bench (perhaps in light of some of the comments he made to the media this week?) and Mascherano was shifted to right-back as neither Sergi Roberto or Aleix Vidal were included in the match day squad.
The first half was incredibly encouraging; the defending was excellent as City squeezed the pitch in their usual 4-1-4-1 shape with David Silva frequently joining De Bruyne in the first line to create a staggered 4-4-2. City remained compact and Barcelona only managed to fashion two chances from their own play (both falling to Suarez) which is quite an accomplishment for any side, let alone a City side still going through growing pains. If Fernandinho doesn’t slip in the lead up to the first goal and Stones scores his free header just before the break, we could be discussing a very different result.
An interesting aspect of City’s defensive play was how they pressed Ter Stegen. It was very similar to how Swansea pressed Bravo a few weeks ago; at every opportunity either De Bruyne or Silva would look to force Ter Stegen to play out with his left foot whilst the rest of the team adopted a situational man marking scheme behind them. This led to a lot of ball recoveries and with some more clinical play could have been a fruitful avenue for City.
The possession game in the first half is what will have frustrated Pep. Connections between the players were often weak resulting in players becoming isolated far too easily and giving the ball away cheaply; the same can be said of Barcelona as well.
City looked to adopt a 3-3-3-1 structure when building their play, with a few interesting wrinkles. Very early on it was clear that Nolito and De Bruyne would be sharing the occupation of the centre backs (if there was an occupation at all) as the two frequently interchanged their positions with De Bruyne also moving to the other flank effectively on a number of occasions.
Zabaleta acted as “false full-back” moving inside to act on the second line of play with Fernandinho and Gundogan. The aim of this is to allow fast access to Sterling so he can attack his full-back one on one, a ploy that City tried to execute on numerous occasions. Kolarov was more flexible than Zabaleta, staying on the first line with Stones and Otamendi during deep ball circulation. He could be seen acting in a similar manner to Zabaleta on occasion to try and allow City to move the ball forward through the wide areas where the pressure of Barça was less intense.
The issues for City were that players often moved too slowly to offer passing options or simply showed a lack of composure when under pressure from Barcelona and played backwards or played long wasteful passes. Zabaleta is particularly poor in congested central areas and is simply not a player in the mould of Alaba and Lahm, both of whom operated in similar roles for Pep at Bayern.
The second half began without many noticeable changes from either side (barring the two injuries Barcelona had in the first half) with Gundogan beginning to position himself in more advanced areas rather than alongside Fernandinho. This change didn’t really get a fair chance to show its value as Bravo’s horrendous error changed the balance of the game.
Apart from the goals and sending off of Jeremy Mathieu the second half offered little in quality or interest. City remained brave on the ball and still looked to press Barcelona in an adjusted 4-1-4 shape with variations depending on the position of the ball. All the effort and bravery was wasted, as error after error allowed Barcelona to romp to a flattering, if relatively undeserved victory.