Manchester City emerged victorious in a turbulent game against Ligue 1 outfit AS Monaco after scoring three goals in the final 19 minutes of the match. Pep Guardiola, hoping to maintain his record of reaching the semi-final of the Champions League in each of his seasons as a manager, made several in-game changes in an attempt to wrestle back control for his side in a chaotic, fast-paced game which saw eight goals, a missed penalty and ten yellow cards.
Manchester City’s Build Up
As is often the case against a Guardiola team, Monaco put huge emphasis on preventing Manchester City’s clean build up from the back. Monaco pressed in a 4-4-2 shape, with the two strikers narrow in an attempt to block off passes to Yaya Toure. Behind them, the four midfielders would maintain access to their direct opponent, moving in to press as and when the ball travelled towards them.
As the ball was played to either centre half, the ball-near centre forward would press the centre back in possession whilst the ball-far centre forward would step across to man-mark Yaya Toure. The ball-far winger would move forward so that he was in a position to press either the other centre back, if the ball was played back across, or the far full back, in case a long diagonal was played.
This is a fairly common pressing scheme, but Manchester City initially struggled to deal with it, failing to move the ball forward and often losing possession in the opening minutes. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva could potentially have dropped in to receive the ball before playing it around the corner to the full back, but both preferred to move away from the ball higher up the pitch, creating a disconnect from the centre backs to midfield.
As the first half progressed, City came up with different ideas to combat this press. This was done with varying degrees of success, with the successful plays often allowing City to attack Monaco’s back four directly and create goalscoring opportunities. But the occasions where the ball was lost gifted Monaco possession in an attacking area of the pitch where they could hurt City in transition. This was most notably demonstrated by the first Monaco goal, where the visitors scored after intercepting a poor pass into midfield from Willy Caballero.
One of the more common successful patterns that City executed was disrupting the horizontal compactness of Monaco’s midfield line so that a direct passing lane opened up to Sergio Aguero. This was done with the clever movements of De Bruyne and Silva into the half spaces, simultaneously pulling their markers away from each other. One such example is shown below.
In an attempt to keep track of De Bruyne and Silva, Monaco’s central midfielders pull too far away from each other. This creates a clear passing lane for Stones to find Aguero, who can then bring his supporting teammates into play in the huge space that has now arisen in between the Monaco lines. By bypassing Monaco’s strikers, City have also brought Yaya Toure into play as he is no longer being marked by their cover shadows, creating numerical superiority (3v2) in the centre of the pitch. The wide positioning of City’s wingers further amplifies the space available by forcing Monaco’s full backs to go wider with them. City were then able to use the space to find the spare man to progress the ball.
Unfortunately for City, Monaco’s centre backs were able to adjust to this by being more aggressive in preventing Aguero from receiving the ball. They would stay tight and step in front of him before he received the ball, winning possession back in the process.
A more promising strategy for City was to create a situational back 3 in possession, with Yaya Toure dropping into the back line and creating a 3v2 on the first line against Monaco’s two strikers. The extra man allowed City to horizontally circulate the ball until an opening arose further up the pitch, creating a much more stable structure to keep possession against Monaco’s press. Strong horizontal circulation was also key to City’s better spells higher up the pitch in later phases of possession, where it was easier for City to recycle possession due to the extra man they had in midfield.
Differences in Tactical Flexibility
The situational back 3 had clearly showed signs of promise for Guardiola, and the Spaniard used the half-time interval to make structural changes to his team accordingly. Instead of having Toure drop in to form the back 3, Guardiola presumably wanted Toure’s passing ability to be utilised a bit higher up the pitch, and so instead re-organised his defence to be asymmetrical whilst City had possession. Sagna, Stones and Otamendi would form the back line in possession, with Toure and Fernandinho, acting as an inverted full back, ahead of them in midfield. This once again was a useful tool in attempting to create central overloads against Monaco’s 4-4-2 block, and was quite similar to the 3-2-5 structure that Guardiola frequently used in possession whilst manager of Bayern Munich.
This tactical switch created an interesting change in reference points for the Monaco wingers. Having clearly been instructed on pressing their respective full back, the change in the roles of those full backs created uncertainty in Monaco’s pressing, especially on the left side where Fernandinho had moved in centrally. Bernardo Silva, Monaco’s right winger, did not know whether to hold his position on the right of the midfield line or move inside to press his man. If he moved inside, there would be a huge space on the left wing where Sane would drop into to collect the ball. If he did not move inside, Fernandinho would be able to receive the ball with time and space, since Monaco’s central midfielders were already preoccupied with De Bruyne and Silva.
As the second half progressed, City continued to show tactical adaptability—a well-known trait of Guardiola’s teams—as they tried to break through Monaco’s block. Fernandinho was soon hooked for Pablo Zabaleta, who came on to play as a more orthodox right back, stretching the pitch and looking to draw his marker, Thomas Lemar, away to create more space centrally where City could hold a numerical advantage. It is possible that Guardiola felt that as the game went on, Monaco’s strikers were tiring and had stopped pressing City’s centre backs with as much intensity anyway, and so the situational back 3 was not needed for stability in possession anymore. When they did come under pressure, Toure was able to drop back and help out on these occasions anyway. As a result, City were able to have a lot more possession higher up the pitch in the second half, an invaluable situation to be in considering the effects of fatigue as the game wore on.
Fabinho himself commented on City’s changes to attempt to overload the middle after the game: “They put in place a scheme to destroy our 4-4-2. We had to be moving all the time to block the spaces. It was difficult. It was physically hard.”
It did become clear as the match approached its end game that Monaco were beginning to tire, but the visitors were not able to adjust and manage the game accordingly. It would have been sensible for Monaco to sit a little deeper and compact their block a bit more, reducing the space closer to their goal for City to play in, but they remained open and expansive despite lacking the legs to press as intensely. Eventually, they paid the price as City’s control over possession allowed them to use clever combinations and quick play to cut through the spaces that were opening up. The constant pressure on their goal took its toll on the visitors, who seemingly threw away a commanding 3-2 lead away from home due to poor game management.
Monaco’s Attacking Transitions
Throughout the match, Monaco were a dangerous threat on the counter, and City’s inability to cut their transitions at the source will be a cause of worry for Guardiola ahead of future matches. Because City’s #8s, De Bruyne and Silva, were always high up the pitch in areas where they were looking to thread killer through balls, there were vast amounts of space behind them through which Monaco could counter upon winning the ball back. De Bruyne and Silva are of course naturally #10s, and whilst their creativity is an invaluable asset in possession, their forward-thinking mindset creates huge problems for City defensively, especially in transition. Because of how high they are on the pitch, they are not in a position to counterpress after losing the ball as they do not have access to Monaco’s midfielders.
It is clear that City cannot leave themselves so exposed in the future, as the build-up to the move which led to Monaco’s third goal (pictured below) shows. City’s players are not in a position in which they can apply pressure to the ball without getting bypassed easily due to the huge uncovered space in the middle of the park. Playing such a high line without being able to apply pressure to the ball in midfield spells trouble, as shown by the third goal when Monaco were able to get in behind with a simple long ball over the top.
In a frantic, open game, Guardiola’s City came out on top after a multitude of tactical changes. However, it is unlikely that the manager will be very pleased with his team’s overall performance. Their poor defending could have seen his side out of the tie before the second leg, especially considering that Monaco missed a penalty whilst 2-1 up. His counterpart, Leonardo Jardim, will probably be equally frustrated with his side for displaying such inexperience and naivety in not closing out a game in which they were 3-2 up away from home. These tactical deficiencies did, however, lead to an end-to-end game which will probably go down as the match of the round. First leg matches are often a cagey affair with neither side looking to give much away, but attack was definitely at the forefront of both teams’ strategies in this particular case.