Real Madrid had a mountain to climb after their defeat in the first leg of the Champions League by Manchester City at the Bernabeu, with them needing two clear goals without reply to go through.
What followed, was a pulsating second leg filled with fantastic football, tactical battles, and the platform for Manchester City’s talisman Kevin de Bruyne to shine once again.
We break down a fascinating encounter of two European heavyweights and pinpoint the little details which led to Manchester City progressing to the Quarterfinals over their more illustrious opponents.
Pep Guardiola, for all his brilliance, has often over analyzed oppositions in the Champions League instead of imposing their style and quality on them. His staunch approach to playing football ‘his way’ has gotten him countless domestic success, less so in Europe.
Manchester City played a 4-3-3 formation, with one interesting aspect: Phil Foden as a false 9. He was flanked by Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus who had a terrific afternoon while a midfield pivot of Rodri and Gundogan patrolled the middle. Fernandinho was chosen ahead of the young Spaniard Eric Garcia while Zinchenko was at LB.
Real Madrid were without their captain Sergio Ramos, so Eder Militao got his chance alongside Varane in defence. Eden Hazard returned to the starting XI with a triple Champions League winning midfield in Kroos, Modric and Casemiro with Benzema leading the line.
City’s Stifling Press
Manchester City under Pep Guardiola have always been very aggressive pressers, but It was HOW they pressed that caught our eye in this game. Phil Foden was told to stay deeper in the middle of the pitch, looking after Casemiro while both Jesus and Sterling were told to press Real Madrid’s CBs aggressively.
City knew that Courtois was not that good on the ball and they forced both Militao and Varane back to him to go long to attain possession. Here, they took a leaf out of Liverpool’s book opting to go a lot more direct and a lot more aggressive.
Their press was their creator, and it forced Real Madrid into mistakes and the opening goal (despite Varane playing a huge part in that). Here Raheem Sterling, as instructed, presses Militao aggressively forcing him back to the keeper.
As soon as Varane gets the ball, Gabriel Jesus presses from his end which ends up in Sterling tapping the ball in from an empty net. Like we said, their press was their creator and there were countless occasions where It caused Real Madrid problems.
Another situation where relentless pressing from both Jesus and Sterling, makes Courtois kick the ball straight to KdB. Foden should have scored from the resulting chance.
Safe to say, Real Madrid were struggling to control the game, and City should probably have scored a couple and finished the tie. The fact that they didn’t, meant Madrid always remained in the tie.
Seeing the rather unorthodox approach from Manchester City, Zidane knew he had to improvise. After conceding the first goal, two seperate changes were introduced.
- Courtois instructed to go longer outwide.
- Overloading the left hand side.
Knowing that City’s wide players were pressing the CBs and coming in very narrow, Zidane saw an opportunity. He instructed both his fullbacks to go wider, taking up positions ahead of the narrow wingers. Courtois would play the ball longer outwide and there would be a 2v1 favorable situation with Cancelo/Walker.
Benzema fashioned himself a great opportunity this way. Courtois sends the ball into Ferland Mendy who wins his header brilliantly. With Sterling bypassed, It’s basically 2v1 against Walker, so Hazard takes the opportunity to move into the half space to create.
He feeds the ball into Benzema who gets his shot away and produces a good save from Ederson. This was a warning sign for Manchester City; If your press breaks off, we can hurt you.
Their second way through was how Real Madrid scored their goal: overloading the left hand side (specifically using Kroos) allowed them to get in behind City’s defence on one occasion of sloppiness from the hosts in the first half.
Madrid drew Manchester City to their right hand side, and instantly made the switch to their left with Kroos pinging the ball into Carvajal, who lays the ball towards Benzema. The striker’s movement drags the central midfielders outwide creating space for himself and Rodrigo.
Rodrigo easily bypasses Cancelo and chips in a wonderful cross for Benzema to head home. 1-1 Game On. Perhaps Real Madrid had finally found Manchester City’s achilles heel?
Guardiola Reverted to Type
In the second half, Guardiola dropped the Liverpool imitation and went back to his own football, suffocating opposition with possession and coordinated pressing. Due to City being 3-1 up on aggregate, Guardiola learned from his past mistakes to manage two-legged ties well and guide his team to a strong position.
City kept a solid shape, retained possession, and only pressed in specific areas of the pitch to stop any Real Madrid resurgence. Not to mention Real Madrid’s own affinity for self-destruction helped their cause. Here Courtois plays the ball to Casemiro, who without looking up plays it straight to a City player forcing ANOTHER turnover in their own half.
The turnover results in a wonderful chance for Sterling had the pass been better. That would have been 4-2 and the tie itself. But they do say fortune favors the brave, and that moment came. A simple clearance from Manchester City’s half was made with Varane expected to deal with it despite being closed down by Gabriel Jesus.
Instead, the young Frenchman heads the ball into the Brazilian’s path and he makes no mistake finishing the game, the tie, and any momentum Real Madrid were looking to establish.
This game felt like a coming of age moment for Pep Guardiola in European competition. He had managed, threatened and decimated Real Madrid over the course of the two legs they played eachother, full deserving to go through to the quarter finals.
Zinedine Zidane is going to have to make some difficult decisions in a pivotal summer for Real Madrid. Yes, they won the league but that doesn’t give them the leeway to remain still and let competition pass them by. Next season’s Champions League has to be the aim for the frenchman and his team.
The club itself, demands it.