Pep has said that he wants to write and be a part of history with City; last night he put pen to paper with a historic 3-1 win against his boyhood team.
Barcelona were without Pique, Alba and Iniesta and all three were big losses for the Catalan giants in their respective areas of the pitch. Sergi Roberto returned from injury to play at right-back whilst Andre Gomes was given the nod ahead of Arda Turan in central midfield. Otherwise, the line-up was as expected with Busquets anchoring the midfield and MSN leading the line.
The away side came to the Etihad and laid out their stall in a very familiar fashion. 4-3-3 with the ball and a wing-focus when attacking looking to generate as many opportunities as possible for Messi and Neymar to run infield at the heart of the defence. Against the ball they played their usual 4-4-2 with Neymar dropping deeper whilst Messi is allowed to conserve more of his energy by remaining in the first line with Suarez.
City were without Claudio Bravo due to suspension so Caballero took his place between the sticks whilst Pablo Zabaleta made his first appearance since limping off in the reverse fixture two weeks ago. Agüero started after only making the bench in the previous fixture, whilst Kevin De Bruyne returned after being given a rest at the weekend.
Focus on Transitions
It feels rather strange to be discussing a game that a Guardiola side was involved in with the positional structure of his side when they have the ball being a secondary topic, but here we are. When attempting to build from the back City adopted an interesting 3-1-3-3 shape. Kolarov remained deep as a third centre-back, Fernandinho acted as a lone pivot whilst Zabaleta moved very high and played on the same line as Silva and Gündogan (although the two central midfielders made frequent dropping movements when the situation required it). The intention of this was twofold; City wanted to reduce the amount of bodies that Barcelona could commit to a high press – this forced City to transition much faster and is part of the reason that once the ball moved past Barcelona’s first line of pressing City were often man for man or had a man over against the Barcelona defence. The second intention is also related to the first; City wanted to play over and around Barcelona’s press rather than through it. It was very clear that Pep instructed his players to be more direct (as evidenced by the much lower 35% share of possession they managed during the game) and looked to focus more on transitions than sustained possession. By having more players stationed on advanced lines of play City were able to play in a more direct fashion and were able to control second balls and counter-pressing situations due to having more players situated around the ball earlier in advanced areas.
That’s not to say that City were without a plan for the (albeit rare) scenarios when they did get a spell of extended possession in Barcelona’s half. A rather loose 3-2-2-3 was formed with Fernandinho and Zabaleta usually being the deepest two players whilst the five of Silva, De Bruyne, Agüero, Gündogan and Sterling exchanged positions fluidly and caused a wealth of problems for the Barcelona back-line.
The Success of the Pressing Game
Plenty of plaudits will be given to the defensive side of Man City’s game last night, and rightly so. Aside from isolated incidents where some errors occurred City managed to stifle Barcelona as well any side will do this season. It wasn’t done by sitting back and hoping for the best, or by Pep abandoning his principles (as I’m sure certain tabloid journalists had hoped he would) but by sticking to his belief that a proactive defense is the best kind of defense.
In terms of the basic defensive structure, nothing was too different to what we usually see from Pep’s team. I’ve already discussed this structure several times in some of my earlier pieces, but as the defensive side of the game was so pivotal to the result last night I’ll spotlight it again. The team formed up in a 4-1-4-1 when the ball was in their middle and final third and David Silva (later De Bruyne) joined Agüero in the first line to make a staggered 4-4-2 when the ball was with the Barcelona back-line and goalkeeper.
For Pep, the ultimate objective when defending is to make the pitch as small as possible for the opposition and take away their passing options. This was done expertly throughout the game by City, the defense remained compact and they shuttled from side to side with great speed from the first minute to the last. Time and time again Barcelona were forced into long switches of play that had to be played in the air. This represents a successful defensive action for Guardiola. When the ball is played along the floor to switch the play (often through multiple players) it is much harder for the defense to move across the pitch and close passing angles as the ball moves faster than they can move. However, when the ball is played in the air, they can move faster than the ball and be in position nullify the threat of the quick switch before the ball reaches the foot of the player.
City also displayed many subtle positional variations when they pressed higher up the pitch: 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2 etc. But there was one structure that was used more frequently and yielded the most errors from the Barcelona back-line: a 4-1-3-2.
As pictured above, this shape allowed City great access to the ball carrier and his nearest options whilst also compressing the field of play into a very narrow section of the pitch. With intelligent covering of passing lanes that would advance the play or move it centrally City provoked constant errors from the defense, with Sergi Roberto being the biggest culprit. Most importantly though, it cut off access to Sergio Busquets and the rest of his midfield comrades. If the ball is played into Busquets then he will be pressed immediately from behind by either Silva or Gündogan – possibly both. A key feature is that the positions in this structure were taken up fluidly by whoever was closest. This meant that the shape could be sprung immediately with little confusion and allowed City to press Barcelona into submission.
This was not an entirely risk-free approach, though. Whilst the shape restricted Barcelona very well it is impossible to stop them playing out from the back every single time. When it did happen, Fernandinho had a huge a amount of space to cover by himself but thankfully he put in a typically industrious and tenacious performance snuffing out and slowing down attacks almost single handedly before he succumbed to injury. Hopefully it isn’t anything serious, he really is a key component to the efficiency of the midfield.
A fantastic display from the team, but in all the areas not normally associated with a Guardiola team. It was a well deserved result and ultimately serves to heal the wounds of the misfortune suffered at the Camp Nou, whilst offering firm evidence that Guardiola is not a coach “without a plan B”. Those in the know have long praised him for his adaptability and ingenuity when it comes to creating game plans against the strongest of opponents and last night is further evidence for that argument.
Huge credit must go to the players as well, they were excellent and didn’t tire or ease up for the entire game. I’m sure they will all be feeling exhausted today, both mentally and physically, but the knowledge they’ve toppled a European giant in emphatic fashion will help them recover that much faster.