a quick, pre-game post
Since Manchester City’s myth-making, narrative-forming 3-2 win against 10-man Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage, I have been thinking – as a neutral and a writer fascinated with the chess of top-level tactics – about how City should learn from that match. If we cast our minds back, it was a remarkable game in that it turned many assumptions that we (are told to) hold about City on their head:
- That their money and squad means that they ought to be capable of breaking down any team. Bayern’s reorganisation was remarkable in how it frustrated the Citizens after they lost Mehdi Benatia to a red-card in the 20th minute. The tactical narrative is told in the timings of the goals: Aguero scored from the penalty spot in the 21st minute; Alonso equalised in the 40th; Lewandowski poached on the 45th; and then it was a 40 minute wait until Aguero scored 2 goals in the final 5 of the 90. I will return to this point below.
- The role of Yaya Toure.
- Before the game, I posted on social media that I believed that the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 of Fernando and Lampard was superior to that of Toure and Fernandinho. I stand by this. I have never been convinced by the solidity of the latter partnership, while the former combines the deep-lying playmaking of Lampard and the ball-winning of Fernando. One wins, the other retains. Fernandinho and Toure are both ‘driving’ midfielders. If you want those two in your team, you really have to counter-balance them with an anchoring player in-between (like Fernando).
- With Toure suspended, the ‘driving’ runs through the centre weren’t an option. Who, instead, provided those crucial central dribbles? Aguero on the counter, not Toure when pressing forward. Toure’s role in the team, at that time, was in question after a terrible defeat to CSKA Moscow that nearly dumped City out the competition.
To return to my central argument around the timings of the goals, those timings tell the tactical story. At the beginning of the game, Aguero was such a threat on the counter that he caused the excellent Benatia to panic and be red-carded. Bayern’s reorganisation, which brought 2 sucker-punch goals, had the air of alchemy to it. Bayern were then able to retreat into a more rigid, counter-attacking shape for the next 40 minutes of the game. It was this period that was crucial: City could not break through, and it would seem unlikely that they would have with Toure in the side (barring a thundering pile driver, which he is certainly capable of. It is naïve to build your team around the creation of world-class long strikes). City only triumphed when Bayern regained their possessive domination, returned to their short passing game and tried to run the clock down at the end with their tried-and-true style – they were deconstructed by the lethality of Aguero’s stabs to the heart.
This conclusion follows that of point number 1, above. After Mourinho left Chelsea, Roman Abramovich was obsessed with the idea that his Chelsea team should play a high-pressing, short-passing style. He essentially wanted Chelsea to play like Guardiola’s Barcelona team. Hundreds of millions in transfer fees, and several managers, were thrown at this project. In the meantime, Mourinho overcame his bitter rivals at Barcelona with his Inter team through parking the bus, and playing the percentages to the Nth degree. When AVB (the most ideological of all of Abramovic’s post-Mourinho appointments) lost his job, Roberto Di Matteo helmed a Champions League win using Mourinho’s winning strategy at Inter from 2 seasons before. RDM started the new season with a free-flowing attacking team, complete with new signings like Oscar, and the media cooed that Chelsea were finally winning how they ‘should’ be. Of course, RDM lost his job, and was replaced by the squad-rotation master Rafa Benitez, a pragmatist who won them the Europa League as interim manager.
It’s a confusing context that speaks to City’s own bind. Fans and owners assume that, with hundreds of millions being spent, that a certain style must emerge and be deployed, rather than the more pragmatic reality of playing to your strengths and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses. But like Yin and Yang, good and evil, the tiki-taka philosophy of how football should look like is best enjoyed when it comes against its opposite. The paradox of the unstoppable force against the immovable object has produced some of the most intriguing and memorable games in my memory.
When two counter-attacking teams face one another, or two possessive teams face each other, there is quite often a frustration. Both strategies depend on an extreme interpretation of the game. The truth is, the tiki-taka style isn’t ‘attacking’, and the reactive style isn’t ‘defensive’. By keeping the ball, you prevent your opponent from attacking, for instance. This is why Liverpool before their post-Christmas resurgence were so mindnumbing. I don’t automatically find a team sitting in another’s half, sideways passing and committing tactical fouls thrilling, but the assumption seems to be that we should. The philosophy of always keeping the ball, denying the opponent, has lead to terrible fixtures where one team can’t fight and the dominating team don’t use their possession. Keeping the ball, therefore, is a defensive strategy as much as it is an attacking one, and the same is true of its opposite. By choosing to react, savvy football teams have focussed on what few attacks they choose to build, and rely on their opponents making mistakes when in possession.
To get to Manchester City, it becomes clearer to me that they should focus on the strategy that overcame Bayern, the closest team to their opponents: one of radical counter-attacking that punishes their opponent’s mistakes and extreme defensive line. It’s what Real Madrid did to Bayern last year, in one of the most impressive displays of (rather aggressive) counter-attacking zeal that we will see in club football. After the Bayern game, City were forced to do without Aguero, and played an experimental false-9 formation, with James Milner as the industrious central attacker. It was interesting that in those games, City were able to overcome teams that sat deep against them on a number of occasions, doing just enough to secure a win. I’m not of the belief that with Toure and Aguero in the City team that they are capable of winning with such a strategy against Bayern. It made sense with Milner in the centre because it was unpredictable, so unlike Pellegrini’s City (who last season played more-often with a relentless 4-4-2 formation).
Because Aguero and Edin Dzeko aren’t hard-working or versatile enough to adopt Atletico Madrid’s aggressive 4-4-2 strategy, Pellegrini must be courageous and pragmatic enough to not base his team’s approach on aesthetics. Whether Pellegrini will have the courage to radically exclude Toure or David Silva, who missed City’s win vs. Bayern, is unlikely. And to exclude two of their most talented midfielders also doesn’t seem to be a solution, either. City should look to recent history, and take heart from the fact that an inability to execute a high-press, short-pass style (which they unsuccessfully tried to use to break down Bayern in that crucial 40 minute spell) is not something to be ashamed of.