Manchester City – Barcelona 1:2
Barcelona ended any speculation that their form would drop off following their loss to Malaga at the weekend with an impressive performance, particularly in the first half. Despite being outclassed in the first half, City could take some positives due to their second half display, coming close to scorer an equaliser.
Yaya Toure was suspended for the first leg while Lucho had almost his full squad to choose from with only Vermaelen and Douglas recovering from injury.
Manchester City’s two banks of four played with a mid block in the defensive phase. They played with a narrow, position-oriented zonal marking system with Milner (in the first-half) situationally dropping back to follow either Rakitic or Messi into an open halfspace or covering in the defensive line when Barca won the ball with Clichy caught high up the pitch. Milner also dropped in well when Kompany left the defensive line.
This narrowness allowed Barcelona to score their second goal as Alba was wide open on the left hand side when he received a pass from Messi. He had time to pick out Suarez with a low cross which the Uruguayan converted for his brace.
Dzeko and Aguero pressed Barca’s CBs with moderate intensity, with Dzeko sometimes dropping back to restrict Busquet’s space. He didn’t do this often enough as Busquets was allowed to frequently contribute in early Barca build-up.
With the ball, Man City were still narrow, with either Aguero or Dzeko moving wide to create a forward option in transition. City’s only real width came through their fullbacks as Silva and Nasri were more half-space oriented.
Similarly to Özil for Arsenal, I feel Silva is a wasted talent on the left of a midfield four and should be played in a central position. His best moments of the match were when he drifted into the centre of the pitch. His central movement pulled Busquets out of position to leave Nasri wide open for a shot from just outside the area in the first half. He also dragged Mascherano with him, leaving a gap for Aguero to run into and connect with Silva’s backheel to score City’s only goal of the game.
Man City’s centre-back issues
Kompany and Demichlis were two of the three worst players on the pitch.
Demichelis is notoriously uncomfortable on the ball and Barcelona’s pressing exploited this as shown below.
Kompany was particularly poor. He (as well as the system) was at fault for the first goal as firstly, he isn’t tight enough to Suarez, then fluffs a simple header behind.
The second goal showed his two biggest weaknesses, in my opinion. First, his tendency to randomly surge up the pitch to press an opposition player, and secondly, his complete lack of awareness as to what is going on behind him. He moves about 10 yards out of the defensive line to miss a tackle on Rakitic, and then pulling out of a tackle on Messi. The ball goes wide, he gets back into his area, but is totally unaware of Suarez’s run behind him. Even so, he should still clear the ball at the near post.
The ‘system’ I briefly mentioned is Manchester City’s obsession with holding their defensive line on the 18-yard area line, no matter where the ball is. This shows complete inflexibility as obviously the position of the ball/men should require different depths of defensive line. It’s so obvious now that it can be exploited by cleverly timed runs, as it was for Suarez’s first goal.
Second Half Man City Rejuvenation
Pellegrini didn’t make any changes in personnel or formation at half time but they were a completely different team in the second half. They played with a bit more width and encouraged the fullbacks to overlap more, especially Clichy who made 6 crosses.
This benefited to their increased chance production as they created most chances with crosses into Dzeko, exploiting Mascherano’s poor aerial ability. All four of City’s headers inside Barca’s 18-yard area were from Dzeko.
The above image shows Dzeko’s aerial effectiveness. A target man is an effective option vs a team that presses like Barcelona.
City also pressed higher in the second half. Fernandinho replaced Nasri in the 62nd minute and Milner moved to RM. Milner’s pressing work rate was more useful out wide as a CM in a midfield 2 is more restricted in pressing. This is because 1) the space a CM leaves behind them is more central, therefore regarded as more important 2) opposition players in the centre of the pitch have a greater range of passing options due to a 180 degree view.
Barcelona’s attacking play
Neymar and Messi drop deep during Barca’s ball circulation around the defence. This pulls the City fullbacks forward, leaving space in the flank behind. Rakitic and Iniesta complete the triangle with the fullback and the winger, thus providing a quick option to offload the ball to, away from the pressure of the opposition fullback. This was a space creation technique that Barca failed to effectively utilise in the match.
The first thing anyone will say about 4-4-2 vs 4-3-3 is the 3vs2 outnumbering in midfield. Barcelona used this to its maximum by frequently swapping Messi and Rakitic in the attacking phase to make use of this central overload. This central domination caused even more havoc when Mascherano carried the ball forward from defence.
Barca used midfield fluidity in the defensive phase too, helping them to maintain a press. Busquets would press if he were in a more favourable position to do so while Rakitic drops behind.
When Clichy was sent off in the 74th minute, Barcelona knew Man City’s pressing would drop off. City’s 4-3-2 allowed Barca to build in wide positions and create 2v1 wide overloads with the fullback and winger on the opposition fullback. They also increased their own pressing intensity.
Messi’s failure to convert his late penalty kept the tie alive however it’s very unlikely City will score two goals at the Camp Nou. I expect City to use a five-man midfield and try to win the game on counter attacks through the wingers and Aguero. Barcelona will keep the ball, frustrate City, and find spaces behind.
In the second half, Manchester City showed that it was their playing style, that was the main reason for their poor first half. Overall, it was a fair result however without some poor individual and collective defending from City, it could have been a different result altogether.