Rumour has it BT Sport pundit Owen Hargreaves spent the last 15 minutes of this game creating an Elite Singles profile for Sergio Agüero, unable to take any more of the Argentine wallowing in isolation at the head of Manchester City’s 9-1 formation. But at least someone was happy. Clearly enthused by his side’s pendulum-like passing, Fernando jumped off the bench in the 85th minute and joined his manager Pep Guardiola on the sidelines to spur his teammates on. There was no time for a late cameo, but there’s no doubt that Fernando’s presence in the dugout helped the lads over the line and into the knockout stages of the Champions League.
In truth, the 1-1 draw in Mönchengladbach on Wednesday night is a result that very few will complain about. Hargreaves wanted more ‘penetration’ from City, his colleague Steve McManaman insisted that Guardiola’s side must ‘improve’ in the latter rounds; but to judge City on the aesthetics of their football in a game they only needed to draw to secure qualification from Group C is like criticising a builder for wearing a tiara while building a house. If the job gets done, then who cares?
Not me. We’ve made it out of what was a pretty tricky group and now have the last 16 to look forward to. Happy days.
Less simplistic, however, were Guardiola’s tactics which seemed to contort every 20 minutes on his first return to Germany since leaving Bayern Munich in the summer. Initially, the returning John Stones made up one fifth of a ‘fluid’ defensive system which saw Raheem Sterling and Jesús Navas deployed as wing-backs. It was a set-up that no one looked comfortable with.
And once Raffael had given the hosts the lead in the 23rd minute, the Brazilian accepting a smart cut-back from Lars Stindl on the edge of the box and thumping past Claudio Bravo, a back three became a back four with Navas dropping into the right-back position and Sterling moving forward onto the right flank. The move inspired a little more spark in the final third, but on every Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva touch was the toe of either Nico Elvedi or the immensely talented Mahmoud Dahoud. After watching his side bow to the excellence of Agüero in a 4-0 loss at the Etihad Stadium in September, André Schubert’s plan was to cut off the supply to the striker and the plan was working.
Despite İlkay Gündoğan testing Yann Sommer with a fierce shot from 20 yards after a well-worked corner, the improvement was short-lived and City began to struggle once again with the Gladbach counter-attack. Nicolás Otamendi on a mission to see how green he could get his shorts and Aleksandar Kolarov proving that it is, in fact, extremely difficult to polish a turd, City’s back whatever it was looked calamitous at times and a second was almost conceded when Oscar Wendt dribbled his way through to sting the palms of Bravo.
But then, with just seconds of the first half left to play, when Silva and De Bruyne were finally afforded some space, the pair combined magnificently to put City level. Dangerous in a more comfortable role further up the pitch, Sterling found De Bruyne on the by-line and the Belgian’s cross was tapped in by Silva. An undeserved goal, perhaps, but a timely one.
Aware of the space his side were affording the Germans in behind Fernandinho, Guardiola made more tactical changes after the break. Without the ball, Stones, Otamendi and Fernandinho made up a back three with Kolarov and Navas tucking in as inverted wing-backs. In possession, the wing-backs hugged their respective touch lines and Fernandinho moved forward into defensive midfield. The requirements to play in this team not only include being good at football, but also being able to remember 1,000,000 things at once.
A second-booking for Gladbach captain Stindl, after he was adjudged to have shoved Otamendi, may have forced Guardiola into yet another change, but the numbers were equal again when Fernandinho was shown red for brushing past Raffael. It was a strange decision from referee Cüneyt Çakır who famously reduced Manchester United’s Nani to tears against Real Madrid in 2013, but in fairness, Fernandinho does deserve a rest. City are bound to once again rely on his versatility against whoever they may face in the next round.