Real Madrid 3-2 Manchester City: second half switches leave City exposed down their right
An excellent match, defined by a chaotic final 15 minutes.
Jose Mourinho surprisingly named Michael Essien, rather than Mesut Ozil or Luka Modric, in the centre of his midfield. Sergio Ramos was dropped, with Raphael Varane starting at centre-back instead.
Roberto Mancini also made a surprise selection decision, with Matija Nastasic starting over Joleon Lescott at the back. Yaya Toure played at the head of City’s midfield triangle.
Real dominated the majority of the game but twice fell behind, while City scored two goals against the run of play, before losing the game after some shambolic defending late on.
Real dominate early stages
Real pressed excellently in the opening stages, forcing Joe Hart into a couple of hasty long clearances downfield towards Carlos Tevez, who was never going to triumph against two centre-backs considerably larger than him. City found it difficult to pass the ball forward from defence, and took about half an hour to have a decent spell of possession.
That was surprising, considering they packed the central midfield zone; both Samir Nasri and David Silva played centrally, while Carlos Tevez wanted the ball played into feet, although he generally stayed high up the pitch rather than acting as a false nine.
There was little creativity from the centre of midfield – simply too many players in that zone, and none playing clever forward passes. Sami Khedira was probably the standout central midfielder because he led Real’s pressing – which was valuable to the way they were playing, but sums up how unimaginative the football was in the middle.
The action happened in wide positions. City’s narrowness (and the tendency of the Real wingers to cut inside on the ball) meant Real’s full-backs were the obvious out-ball, with Marcelo getting forward well in the early stages. The key battle, however, was Cristiano Ronaldo against Maicon. The Brazilian pushed forward into an advanced position but was caught out of position when City lost the ball, with Ronaldo taking on Vincent Kompany and forcing Joe Hart into a couple of good saves.
Maybe Mancini was inspired by how effectively Sevilla right-back Cicinho attacked past Ronaldo on Saturday evening, but City could have done with Maicon holding his position more frequently. Javi Garcia eventually started to cover that side of the pitch, which made the situation less perilous.
The shape of the game changed when Nasri departed through injury – Aleksandar Kolarov took his place, with Silva moving to the left. This was something new – a wide midfielder who actually wanted to stay wide – he stretched the play and occupied Alvaro Arbeloa.
City’s only threat came from Yaya Toure on the break. He saw little of the ball due to his advanced positioning and City’s poor passing, but when he did get opportunities to dribble at Real, he was typically direct.
For the second half, Mancini seemed to opt for something of a hybrid system – a cross between the first half shape, and more of a 3-5-1-1. Maicon and Kolarov were the men providing width on either flank, Gael Clichy more of a left-sided centre-back than a left-back, and Silva pushed into the centre to become a playmaker.
There were a couple of knock-on effects here – first Toure was deeper, and therefore more involved in the play, which was clearly a good thing from City’s point of view.
Marcelo & Ronaldo
The major impact was that Marcelo now had the freedom of his flank, and constantly got the ball in space, providing dangerous crosses and having a couple of shots at goal.
This wasn’t such a problem on the opposite flank, partly because Arbeloa isn’t such a good attacking full-back, but also because City had both Kolarov and Clichy down that side, and although Clichy was tucked in a little, he was still happy to move to the flank when needed – the two players worked as a unit. On the right, Maicon wasn’t getting any help from further forward, and covering from Kompany was sporadic.
Mourinho introduced Ozil for Essien, which was both a positive move and a logical one, because it wasn’t clear what Essien’s role was.
Mancini’s change was also positive, removing Silva and introducing Edin Dzeko upfront, with Tevez becoming a second striker. This gave Real a new problem – previously they’d had a spare man at the back, and defended in a proactive manner when the ball was played into Tevez, knowing they always had a man sweeping behind.
Against two strikers, Pepe and Varane needed to be more cautious, but their mindset didn’t change. Dzeko’s goal happened because Pepe was dragged wildly out of position by Tevez’s movement towards the ball, and when Toure stormed past, Varane was left covering too much space.
Mourinho then made the obvious changes – Modric on for Khedira, Karim Benzema on for Higuain. Modric offered more guile on the ball, Benzema is probably better against a deep defence, and scored a fine goal.
But the key change came from Mancini. Maicon picked up an injury and had to be replaced, and Zabaleta was the natural replacement. When he entered the pitch, Zabaleta clearly signalled ‘3′ to his teammates – which hints that the previous formation had been slightly more flexible. (Mancini had definitely changed system at the break, but if he’d changed to a permanent three-man defence why would Zabaleta need to tell his teammates they were playing three at the back? He would have just replaced Maicon with no further tactical instructions required).
Zabaleta could have been the man to secure the win – Maicon was tired, and Zabaleta could have sat deep alongside the centre-backs and kept that side of the pitch quiet. However, he interpreted the wing-back role in a strange way – charging forward up the pitch unnecessarily (when City were ahead) and also getting drawn into very central positions, leaving the right flank completely bare.
City were now a shambles at the back, particularly down that flank. Kompany seemed completely unsure of his role, sometimes drifting too far towards the touchline (which left an unlikely centre-back pairing of Clichy and Nastasic in the centre), and sometimes remaining so central that Zabaleta was exposed two-versus-one by Ronaldo and Marcelo. Those two players had 15 shots between them over the course of the game – you expect that from Ronaldo, but the space afforded to Marcelo was extraordinary.
Real’s first and third goals came from their left – on both occasions, there simply weren’t enough City players on that side of the pitch. For that, both Mancini’s tinkering and Zabaleta’s poor positional play must take the blame.
The final 15 minutes of the game was unrecognisable from the first 15, and with such a frantic climax to the match, it could have gone either way. Better goalkeeping from Joe Hart, for example, and City would have come away with a result.
But there was a glaring problem with City’s right for the final 20 minutes of the match, with the very basic problem being that City were undermanned on that flank. Somewhere amongst (a) Mancini’s decision to change formation (b) his instructions to his players (c) and Zabaleta’s positioning, City had a clear weakness that was fully exploited by Real.