This article originally featured on totalfootballanalysis.com, our flagship analysis site covering players, managers and matches from around the world.
Manchester City finished their group phase participation in the UEFA Champions League with a deserved victory against German rival Hoffenheim. In this tactical analysis, we go over Pep Guardiola’s team’s performance in a relatively weak first half and an improved presentation during the second half. Even though Manchester City had already qualified for the next round and Hoffenheim were out of the tournament, the team coached by the promising, young German Julian Nagelsmann had moments of offensive and attractive football. That was also the perfect recipe for Manchester City fast offensive transitions to inflict damage to the defensive line of the German side. The lack of finishing and inadequate decision making resulted in a tighter result in favour of the home team.
If you can’t play how you want, let the set plays be your friend
Again, Manchester City started with a 4-3-3 tactical setup, with the main surprise coming in the middle of the field. The line of three midfielders was formed by Gündogan in the centre, Bernardo Silva on the right and young-star Phil Foden on the left. This setup presumed a very offensive game by Manchester City, as Gündogan has a more attacking bias compared to what you usually see there, including Fernandinho, who is currently injured. Against Guardiola’s expectations, Manchester City struggled to create many chances in the Hoffenheim half collectively during the first period, lacking fluency and creativity to get the ball closer to their rival’s goal area.
Meanwhile, Hoffenheim started defending with a 4-1-3-2 that sometimes turned into a 4-1-4-1, starting their pressure closer to the middle of the field.
This setup in the midfield is similar to what Jürgen Klopp sometimes does when Liverpool plays against Manchester City, having had good results so far. They had tight marking in both Foden and Silva, that reduced the connection between Gündogan and the offensive players.
The German, while defensively didn’t have a great game, as could be expected because of his more offensive nature, when he was able to receive the ball with spaces, he was quite judicious in his decisions. He played some very good vertical passes to the three forwards, being able to break the defensive setup of Hoffenheim and changing the speed of the attack, allowing the forward line to find the visitor’s defence at a slower pace and in bad positions. With Silva and Foden tightly marked, the offensive tactics had to change, relying on these passes from Gündogan and also with some interesting movements mainly on the right wing. Sterling having difficulties to receive the ball, swapped positions several time with Bernardo Silva, allowing him to receive the ball some meters farther from the rival’s goal than usual, but allowing him to exploit his 1v1 speed and strength.
On the other half of the field, with John Stones located as a right back, which isn’t his best position, Hoffenheim exploited that side with fast passes and quick movements that made the former Everton player struggle on the defensive side. At the same time, he was never comfortable with possession and ended up being replaced by Walker at halftime. Also, key in the middle of the field for the visitors was Austrian player Florian Grillitsch, with no specific man-marking, he was the perfect support for his teammates on wherever Manchester City was attacking, covering spaces and his teammates when they were surpassed. He also was a reliable option on the build-up phase, always showing himself unmarked as a passing alternative and supporting the progression of the team.
In these circumstances Hoffenheim took advantage of an uncoordinated defensive movement of Manchester City to win a ball in the area, that ended with a clear penalty by Laporte, that was correctly taken by Kramaric.
As Manchester City were not able to progress offensively with the ball, set plays became their main weapon, a valid alternative when your build-up phase is not developing as expected, including corner kicks and free kicks. Hoffenheim defence struggled with aerial duels and Manchester City had at least four headers that almost finished in the back of the net, including two of them hitting the post, by Gabriel Jesus and Otamendi. Moreover, according to Wyscout in the last calendar year, Manchester City has won on average 47.3% of the aerial duels per game, and against Hoffenheim they won 72.7% of them. And it was exactly a free kick, brilliantly executed by Sane on added time, that gave the home team their equalizer.
If both teams have spaces, there are high chances you will lose against Manchester City
In the second half, Hoffenheim did move their lines higher, increasing the volume of their attacks. When Nagelsmann’s team intends to attack, they put a lot of players high up the pitch, using the three attacking channels, the middle and both wings. This forced Gündogan, Bernardo Silva and Foden to move unusually close to the defensive line, but this also left plenty of spaces on Hoffenheim’s half that was exploited several times, mainly by Sane and Sterling speed. Bernardo Silva didn’t have the best game, imprecise with the ball and with less participation in the offensive phase of the team, leaving Sterling as the only attacking agent of that wing.
But having Sterling and Sane with plenty of space against your defence is not something you would like to live with. The exceptionally fast offensive transitions after recovering possession resulted in extremely dangerous counter-attacks by Manchester City that could have ended in at least two or three more goals. This includes what it will be probably one of the top misses-of-the-season, a counterattack that had Sterling, Sane and Silva against the keeper and they weren’t able to score after passing the ball between them, probably more than needed. But as that one didn’t end up as a goal, in another counter-attack, a good combination between Sterling and Sane allowed the latter to score the winner.
Manchester City had a couple more situations to increase the difference, and Hoffenheim also started to play closer to Ederson’s goal, creating some more occasions and forcing the home team to finish defending with a 4-4-2 tactical setup and Gabriel Jesus defending as a fourth midfielder. Still, the result was sealed with a deserved victory for the home team and a very worked first half, and a dynamic and intense second half.
Good victory, but no more space for mistakes
The group phase of the Champions League is over, and Manchester City qualified as first group leaders. But it was a less easy than expected group phase, without being able to beat Olympique Lyon, and with some games that had to be recovered from behind, including both games against Hoffenheim. In the next phase, there is no space for mistakes, and one bad game can kick you out of the tournament. Pep Guardiola has a big challenge ahead, to make his team less vulnerable, so they are not forced to come from behind, and to have enough offensive creativeness and flexibility to overcome the defensive setups they will face in coming rounds. Their main objective of the season is still intact.
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