Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona: City weather the storm before Demichelis tackle changes the tie
Goals from Lionel Messi and Daniel Alves gave Barcelona a significant lead going into the second leg.
Manuel Pellegrini unsurprisingly switched to a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 formation, but surprisingly named two left-backs in tandem, Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov. Fernandinho was fit to return in midfield, while Martin Demichelis played at the back.
Tata Martino was cautious with his team selection, playing Andres Iniesta on the left of a front three, with Cesc Fabregas in midfield.
Barcelona enjoyed unprecedented spells of possession for an away side at the Etihad, but failed to convert their dominance into clear-cut chances in the first half – before Demichelis’ rash tackle at the start of the second half changed the tie.
This was a standard 4-2-3-1 against 4-3-3 battle, with Barcelona dominating possession and making City’s shape more 4-4-1-1 for long periods.
Barcelona dominated more than Pellegrini would have anticipated – it’s simply not in his mindsest to allow the opposition such freedom on the ball. Nevertheless, City actually coped well with the sustained pressure in a purely defensive sense, although they didn’t counter-attack much, because they’re not accustomed to playing in this manner.
Martino’s decision to field an extra midfielder was noticeable from the outset, as Barcelona were amazingly dominant in terms of possession. Their superiority started in defence with Sergio Busquets dropping back to create a 3 v 2 around Alvaro Negredo and David Silva, then shuttling forward into midfield to create an overload there too, and basically making sure Barcelona were always playing triangles around City.
Higher up, Fabregas remained in midfield and Andres Iniesta drifted inside to become an extra midfielder. The game’s two most common pass combinations were Iniesta and Fabregas playing the ball to reach other. Furthermore, the full-backs remained in deep positions, and offered a passing option rather than a penetrative option breaking in behind. Barcelona always had options on the ball.
City’s defensive approach
City were successful with their aggressive defensive plan against Chelsea on Saturday, the back four charging forward quickly to prevent Chelsea’s attackers turning. Here, they were defending much deeper against a possession-based side rather than a counter-attacking side, but there was a similar approach.
Gael Clichy tracked Alexis Sanchez closely and Pablo Zabaleta followed Iniesta but passed him inside to Vincent Kompany when the playmaker moved narrow. Whenever the ball was played into Barcelona’s three forwards, Manchester City pounced quickly.
The key battle, though, was Demichelis – generally seen as City’s weak link – against his compatriot Lionel Messi. Throughout the first half, Demichelis actually performed very well: he was proactive, he read the game nicely and he intercepted balls played into Messi’s feet. His distribution was a cause for concern, as his wayward passes invited more Barcelona pressure, but he was generally in command of the situation.
In fact, the one time Messi got past a City defender, it was Kompany who had been turned – he was penalised for a shoulder barge – although he made a couple of fine challenges on Messi in the second half.
City attacked sporadically, but Victor Valdes was called into action more than Joe Hart before half-time. City usually attacked down the left, with Daniel Alves brought up the pitch and lured into a few early fouls. Jesus Navas was quiet on the right, although a couple of crosses from either flank highlighted Alvaro Negredo’s aerial threat.
More surprisingly, there were a couple of times when City caused problems in central positions. One excellent Kompany forward pass allowed Silva to get the wrong side of Busquets, later Toure drove forward dangerously to allow Navas to cross, and Silva and Negredo almost played a lovely one-two on the edge of the box. Considering City weren’t seeing much of the ball, they were using it quite efficiently.
They could have been better on the break, though. Their only truly notable counter-attack was very early on, following a Barcelona corner. In open play, the Barcelona’s full-backs rarely advanced into the final third, and neither Xavi nor Fabregas looked to get in advance of play, so the away side always had men behind the ball when attacks broke down.
Barcelona lack of movement
The drawback to guarding against counter-attacks, however, was that Barcelona never looked like scoring in the first half. Sanchez was the only player running in behind the defence, and while City’s strategy of pushing up and closing down worked well, it’s an easy strategy when there’s no danger of another opponent running in behind.
Zabaleta wouldn’t have got as tight to Iniesta, for example, if Jordi Alba was constantly overlapping past him, and Demichelis’ job would have been harder had if Fabregas was bombing on past Messi. Barcelona played in front of City rather than penetrating them – there were few passes into the box, and crosses were always unsuccessful.
The Demichelis incident
One incident changed the entire tie. Barcelona’s build-up had been gradual and patient, but City were opened up by a move completely uncharacteristic of Barcelona’s gameplan. They’d played a succession of unsuccessful 25-pass moves, but the key moment came when they won the ball inside their own half, then immediately played the killer pass to Messi. It was a one-pass move.
The Argentine had been dawdling in an offside position after a Barcelona attack had broken down, and his brilliant positioning meant it was almost impossible for Manchester City to stop him. You can question Kompany’s decision to retreat, meaning Messi became onside sooner – but it’s an incredibly rare situation with a striker retreating from a clearly offside position, and with a midfield runner on Kompany’s outside, he essentially had to consider three players and look in two directions within a couple of seconds.
Messi waited until City’s centre-backs had dropped back to play him onside, then timed his dart towards goal – and Iniesta played the pass at the perfect moment. Demichelis was now in a completely new situation: he was happy when advancing forward to close down Messi, but wasn’t comfortable when the ball was played behind him.
The double punishment of a (scored) penalty and a red card means it’s easy to suggest Demichelis should have stayed on his feet, and allowed Messi to shoot. However, he wasn’t to know the penalty would be converted, or that the penalty would be awarded in the first place, considering how close to the edge of the penalty box the foul occurred. In fact, it’s even arguable that the difference between the referee awarding a penalty and the referee awarding a free-kick was the difference between Demichelis’ foul being regarded as either foolish or beneficial – and considering it was such a fine margin, it’s tough to be too harsh.
In fact, Demichelis’ half-hearted challenge suggests he understood his mistake halfway through – perhaps as he realised how close he was to the edge of the box. He slides, but doesn’t really tackle.
Maybe Demichelis should have let Messi shoot. But this is hindsight thinking, and it’s difficult to remember any defender letting an opposition striker shoot, for fear of being dismissed if he mistimed his tackle, and being praised for such intelligent forward-thinking.
10 v 11
With ten men, Pellegrini soon made two changes, removing both his wide players and introducing Joleon Lescott as the replacement centre-back, plus Samir Nasri as a more creative wide option.
It was a 4-4-1 formation, with Pellegrini hoping that Silva and Nasri would drift inside to give City options in central positions, and therefore not leaving Alvaro Negredo (and later his replacement Edin Dzeko) isolated, as well as encouraging the full-backs forward.
And, in fairness, City had a couple of decent moments when the full-backs overlapped. Clichy got forward dangerously but then played a poor cross into the hands of Valdes, while Toure switched play to Zabaleta, who produced a knock-down that was followed with Silva’s excellent chest-and-shot.
Barcelona were frustratingly cautious with a man advantage, and it felt like Martino should have introduced an extra forward, gone with a proper 4-3-3 to really stretch City, and killed the tie before the end of the contest. Instead, Neymar was a straight swap for Sanchez, which changed little.
The main man in the second half, however, was Alves. Now no longer being tracked by Kolarov, he took advantage of his freedom and played an extremely attacking role in the second half. He squared for a fine Xavi chance, blasted narrowly past the far post after racing in behind, and then finally doubled Barca’s lead after a fine interchange with Neymar. In this situation, Alves was the perfect full-back.
A strange game to analyse: City didn’t play as they would have anticipated and were forced to withstand heavy pressure, but did so effectively for long periods. Demichelis was the biggest worry on the teamsheet and turned out to be the villain – but throughout the first half he’d actually defended very well against Messi.
Barcelona were very cautious in possession, both at 0-0/11 v 11 and 0-1 /10 v 11. They made City’s aggressive defensive strategy easier because of the lack of forward running from midfield and full-back, and risked not putting the tie to bed in the second half. Alves’ energy ensured they take a commanding lead into the second leg.
Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona: City weather the storm before Demichelis tackle changes the tie