Manchester City 1-1 Real Madrid: City out

November 22, 2012

The starting line-ups

Roberto Mancini started with a back three, then moved to a back four, but Manchester City couldn’t find a second goal.

Mancini decided to start with a similar XI to the second half shape against Tottenham, when they looked good with a back three. Nine of the 11 players were the same, with the exception of Matija Nastasic coming in for the injured Gael Clichy, and Samir Nasri (ill for the Spurs game) starting in the centre alongside Yaya Toure, an extremely attack-minded midfield.

Jose Mourinho named his expected side with one small exception – Luka Modric was at the head of the midfield triangle, rather than Mesut Ozil.

The shots statistics were interesting in this match. After 17 minutes, Real Madrid had attempted 7 shots, with 5 on target – whereas City hadn’t had a single attempt.

A couple of minutes later, City moved to a four at the back – and the final shots tally (admittedly, taking into account when Real were down to ten men), was 11-15 in favour of Real, and 7-10 on target. Therefore, after the tactical switch City “won” the shots count 11-8, and 7-5 on target. The formation change was a big factor in this match, and the goals arrived during both sides’ period of dominance in terms of shots.

Mancini back three

But should Mancini have been playing a back three in the first place? In keeping with the ’spare man’ principle, broadly speaking the answer was no – Real only played with one upfront, and with Modric in for Ozil and playing deep in midfield, it wasn’t a wise move. Maybe the analysis should end there – but there was some logic to Mancini’s decision.

After all, Real weren’t playing a static, boxy 4-5-1 system – they use a lopsided XI with Cristiano Ronaldo very high up on the left, and Angel Di Maria much deeper on the right. In that sense, the move made sense; Maicon and Pablo Zabaleta could battle with Ronaldo (and track Fabio Coentrao’s runs when he moved forward). Vincent Kompany and Nastasic could remain two-versus-one against Karim Benzema, while Aleksandar Kolarov occupied Di Maria. It was 3 v 3 in the middle, and the one missing piece of the jigsaw, Alvaro Arbeloa, wasn’t a threat on the ball and could be left free. On paper, this was a decent bet.

Poor City start

On the pitch, it failed to work. City’s passing was very slow, and they were opened up readily by Real Madrid’s counter-attacking strategy. Ronaldo was given far too much space down the left, constantly dribbling past Zabaleta with Maicon too high up to provide any assistance. The midfield was also a problem – Xabi Alonso stuck tightly to David Silva, while Sami Khedira moved higher up the pitch to press Samir Nasri.

Yaya Toure was given a disciplined role and was unable to affect the game from deep, and City didn’t have rotation or variation of positioning to prompt quick passing moves through the centre, with Silva wandering into increasingly deep positions, trying to get away from Alonso, without reverse movement from the other two midfielders.

There was also a problem in front of the defence – Toure and Nasri were often too square or high up the pitch, and were opened up with a simple forward pass for Modric to run onto, although at least one of City’s centre-backs could step forward.

Real approach

Real deserve credit for their very strong start, however. Ronaldo started the match on the right with Di Maria left, and although this arrangement only lasted a short period of time, City’s defensive players must have found it disconcerting considering how their three-man backline was (probably) intended to function.

The interesting part of the Real side was down their right – Di Maria played a very deep role while Ronaldo stayed higher up (a little like Chelsea last night at Juventus), and because the Argentine tracked Kolarov’s runs, Arbeloa was free. Without the ball, he played extremely close to Pepe and often followed Aguero into deeper positions, more of a third centre-back than a right-back. His job on Aguero resulted in a first half booking, which would prove crucial when he again fouled his fellow Argentine in the second half, being dismissed.

The use of Modric was an interesting move from Mourinho – he had a decent if unspectacular game. Real’s problem at the semi-final stage last season was that Ozil stayed too high up and wanted incisive balls into him on the counter, whereas Bayern Munich had Toni Kroos who played deeper and linked play. Away from home at quality sides, Modric is a good bet to sit in the ‘proper’ midfield zone and link play. Ozil would have been higher up, and allowed Toure to assert his dominance on the game.

Benzema’s goal came because of simple poor defending from City – Kolarov didn’t put pressure on the cross on the left, Maicon let Benzema slip past him on the right. Whether this is related to the formation is questionable, but City constantly do the basics much worse when playing with a back three – the failed offside trap a little later was another good example.

Back to four

The switch to a back four, after around 20 minutes, resulted in a bizarrely immediate change in the game. Zabaleta trotted across to left-back, Maicon became the right-back, and Kolarov went to the left of midfield. Silva was now broadly the right-sided midfielder, although he remained in central positions.

There was still a lack of incision, but City now held onto the ball higher up the pitch and put more pressure on the Real backline. A couple of half-chances came and went, but Real were very good at retaining a solid shape, while also quickly pressuring City players on the ball.

The line-ups at the start of the second half, with Garcia on and City back to their usual shape

Garcia on

The start of the second half saw a further change from Mancini – Javi Garcia replaced Aleksandar Kolarov, and Nasri went to the left of midfield. This produced City’s most convincing shape of the match, and arguably their best spell of football (against eleven men, at least), although it was essentially Mancini’s tried and tested formation – two drifters on the flanks, and Toure able to move forward with the protection of a holding midfielder behind.

Garcia’s role was understated but crucial – he played right-of-centre and stopped Real’s counter-attacks. In moving closer to Ronaldo when City had possession, this allowed Maicon to get forward on the overlap. Silva also found a large amount of space in the zone behind Ronaldo, and Alonso looked much more rattled than in the first half, becoming the second Real player to be shown a yellow card for a foul on his countryman. Overloads in Real’s left-back zone, especially when Aguero moved over to that side, looked promising.

Later changes

Mancini’s decision to introduce Carlos Tevez in place of Nasri, was less successful. His initial positioning was confusing – he seemed to start to the right, maybe to further overload that Real left-back zone, but Silva became more constrained. Later Tevez went central with Aguero moving left and nearly got on the end of a glorious Silva chipped pass, but the substitution seemed unnecessary when City had started the second half so brightly.

Mourinho’s first change was odd – Modric off, Jose Callejon on. Callejon played on the left, with Benzema seemingly dropping off Ronaldo, who became the primary forward trying to use his pace in behind. Arbeloa’s red card meant Raphael Varane replaced Benzema and went to right-back, so it was now a simple 4-4-1 with Ronaldo upfront alone, offering a threat on the break now he was away from Garcia.

City rallied, but Real held on – this match was a good case study for Dzeko being more effective as a substitute.


Mancini went for a back three, it didn’t work, and he corrected his system accordingly. The introduction of Garcia was an astute move that stopped Real’s counters and allowed Toure more freedom, but that system deserved more time.

Mourinho used Modric as a passer and a ball-carrier from deep positions and it worked nicely, while Arbeloa’s narrowness – two rash tackles notwithstanding – was important in creating a spare man and preventing City from creating clear-cut chances.

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