The Champions League has been the Achilles Heel of the successful span Manchester City has lived since 2011. Even though the club has had a dominant role in the Premier League and local cups, it has failed to achieve remarkable performances in the major clubs’ tournament in Europe. In this new version of the Champions League, we analyse tactically the surprising first game of one of the favourites teams, according to betting houses, to win the tournament.
FIRST HALF TACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Manchester City started the game with a not-so-surprising 4-3-3 formation, with David Silva and Ilkay Gündogan as inside midfielders flanking Fernandinho. The offensive line was formed by Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva, the latter with more responsibilities in the build-up compared to the other two. Although the initial tactical intention was in line with Pep Guardiola’s philosophy; high pressure, wide team and build-up through the inside midfielders, the big surprise came from the opposition.
Olympique Lyonnais started with a 4-4-1-1 formation, as has done in previous occasions against teams that use three forwards. But what stood out in the French team was the tactical intelligence to press the build-up phase of Manchester City. The team was positioned very high in the field but only used intense pressure when the ball reached Fernandinho, who is the man in charge to initiate the build-up phase of the team. Between Fekir and Depay they alternated Fernandinho’s pressure while the other stayed with the central defender that had the ball.
But the focus was not only to put pressure on the Brazilian when he received but also to block his main line of passes, David Silva and Ilkay Gündogan. Olympique Lyonnais even opted to leave the wingers, Sterling and Silva, with more space to receive, understanding that the natural flow for Manchester City was for the ball to go from Fernandinho to Silva or Gündogan. If the ball went wider before, they had enough time to reorganize the defence and block attacks on the side. The few times during the first half that David Silva has able to find a space to receive the ball he was able to generate danger. The case of Gündogan was more dramatic: while he averaged 72 passes per game the last year for Manchester City, he only gave 35 in this game, and he never attempted a shot (Source: Wyscout). Gündogan weak performance plus Bernardo Silva lack of verticality resulted in most positional attacks being executed on the left flank of the attack.
This setup was very successful for the French team as Manchester City felt very uncomfortable in the build-up phase, losing possession several times in the middle of the field. Moreover, the two goals scored against them came from the pressure put in Fernandinho that forced the Brazilian to lose the ball and ended up in the back of the net. And Manchester City had very few clear chances of scoring, most shots coming from crosses into the box or shots from outside it.
When Manchester City was able to execute a quick offensive transition and a counter-attack, the French defensive line was still well organized, with a 4-man line that gave them enough time to hold the attacking players and allow the rest of the team to move into defensive positions.
SECOND HALF TACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
The second half saw a more defensive French team, using counter-attacks as their offensive weapon, and that allowed Manchester City to step forward and tactically position in a way they feel more comfortable in the field. The pressure received by Fernandinho faded and he was able to receive freely, turn around and provide more precise passes. This allowed the full-backs to play a couple of meters forward, moving offensively to a 2-3-2-3, with both wingers quickly swapping positions with the midfielders confusing the French defenders and creating good spaces both in the middle of the attack and both sides.
Sane inclusion in the game gave Manchester City broader alternatives on both sides of the attack and allowed Bernardo Silva to play a few meters behind, where he feels more comfortable facing the opponents with the ball, and not playing back to them.
The 4-man midfield line of Olympique Lyonnais stayed a couple of meters behind the midfield line compared to the first half that were playing a few meters inside Manchester City half. Delph and Walker had more space to move forward and were an important offensive tool to drag French defenders into the sidelines, along with Agüero and both wingers, opening spaces through the middle that were correctly exploited by David Silva, Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva.
This resulted in a second half played mostly on Olympique’s half, with high possession by Manchester City and more scoring opportunities, although most of them were shots from outside the box that didn’t create much danger. The few dangerous occasions came from personal attempts more than a collective game, and that was the main weakness of Pep’s team in their Champions League debut.
Although possession belonged to Manchester City, the game was played the way Olympique Lyonnais wanted, especially during the first half, and Manchester City is not used to be told how a game has to be played. Physically the game was very demanding for the away team and in the second half Manchester City felt more comfortable playing closer Lopes goal, but without actually displaying the dose of collective football we are used to. The result is disappointing for Pep’s team but they still have a long way ahead to improve.