Champions League Round Of Sixteen Preview – Part Four

Club football has entered its decisive phase, with lots to play for in every competition. With just two games left to play in the first knockout round,  let’s focus on Wednesday’s ties of the most important tournament in club football: the Champions League.


Article by Sander IJtsma, José Pérez, K.T. Stockwell and Kareem Bianchi.


Real Madrid – Manchester City


Real Madrid

Unlike in previous years, the defense has proven to be the foundation of Real Madrid’s title challenge in this season of LaLiga. Gone are the days of scoring one hundred goals per season. The current Real lead the league in both fewest goals and expected goals conceded, slightly outperforming Atlético, their crosstown rivals and defensive masters. The outstanding seasons of Casemiro and Fede Valverde have given Real’s midfield a dramatic upgrade in intensity without the ball. With the pair tracking back and counterpressing explosively, Real enjoys its most stable attack-to-defense transition in years. 

In fact, Real’s defense would better work well, because the attack does not look so hot right now. Karim Benzema has only scored or assisted twice in the last nine league games, yet the team still depends heavily on his productivity. Real placed their hopes of attacking improvement at the boots of Eden Hazard, but these hopes were crushed last Saturday with the relapse of the Belgian’s ankle injury. Now Zidane and company must place their hopes on a group of attackers—Vinicius, Rodrygo, Bale, Isco, Jović, Lucas Vázquez—who have either not contributed enough this season or have just not been given enough minutes to contribute.


Key injuries and suspensions: Eden Hazard (injured), Marco Asensio (injured).


Manchester City

What kind of season are Manchester City having? The out-of-this-world efficiency of Liverpool has them playing second fiddle in the Premier League, but after winning the Charity Shield, City is still on course to win all four Cup competitions that they play in. In all honesty though, next week’s League Cup final and the remainder of the FA Cup tournament pale in the light of Pep Guardiola’s quest to win Manchester City their first ever Champions League, and console the wounds he personally acquired in this tournament over the years. 

Three consecutive semi-final eliminations with Bayern Munich left a general sense of unfulfillment over Guardiola’s otherwise dominant and innovative German period. A painful 0-4 beating at home by Real Madrid (2014), squandering it all in the first leg of the semi-final against a Messi-inspired Barcelona (2015) and coming up just short against peak Simeone’s Atlético Madrid (2016). All of this left a scar that so far hasn’t been comforted with success on the biggest stage with Manchester City.

What is more, in Guardiola’s first season City fell unexpectedly in the first knockout round in what could be seen as Kylian Mbappé biggest moment of glory up to that point. The 2017-18 season provided a double loss against Liverpool in the quarter-final and last season’s crazy goalfest elimination against Spurs deepened the wound even further.

After six consecutive eliminations with superstar teams, the pressure is full on for Guardiola to deliver. After an injury-ridden first half of the season, City’s squad is slowly getting up to strength and the return of defensive stalwart Aymeric Laporte, together with Fernandinho’s return from suspension will prove crucial to shore up a defense that has been leaking too many goals from poorly executed defensive turnovers.

Offensively, Guardiola will be desperate to make use of Raheem Sterling, who – together with long-term injured and possible en-route to leaving the club Leroy Sané – has been a crucial element in City’s attacking strategy. Reinvigorating the role of wide wingers to stretch the pitch in offense has been a red line in Guardiola’s tactical theme in Manchester, and the pair of lightning quick wingers have a mix of skills that is hard to come by.

In midfield Guardiola has mostly used Rodri in a lone holding role, with Kevin de Bruyne enjoying maximum freedom as a hybrid free eight / number ten, depending on the third midfielder to start. With İlkay Gündoğan, De Bruyne will have most license to focus on his on-the-ball contributions, and this looks like the most likely option on Wednesday.


Key injuries and suspensions: Sané (unsure), Sterling (unsure).


Matchup

Real’s approach in this game will be heavily decided by the choice of attackers who will accompany Karim Benzema. Given what we have seen in previous games, Zidane seems likely to choose two of Vinicius, Isco or Lucas Vázquez. Isco can provide more midfield control and pressing against City’s pressing, Vinicius can provide dribbling to break down City’s defense, and Vázquez can help reinforce defense. There’s a good chance Zidane might want to reproduce the 4-4-2 diamond setup used against Paris Saint-Germain, with Isco starting and Vinicius taking the role of Hazard. 

The left back position will be another source of uncertainty. Marcelo is a more productive attacker, which is particularly useful if Real plays a narrow midfield diamond. However, Mendy remains the superior defender, and Real’s left flank might need that extra help at the back given the massive threat posed by the playmaking talents of De Bruyne and his combination with Mahrez or Sterling.



For Manchester City, most of the tactical flexibility comes from the third midfielder role. Should – as expected – Gündoğan fill in next to Rodri, we can see more of a two-plus-two defensive block in the center lane of the pitch, forcing Real’s offense to take the outside route. 

An interesting point to watch will be the possession split in the first, say, thirty minutes of the game. City are more known for their ball-hugging, but it remains to be seen if Guardiola prefers to play the high-risk high-reward game associated with a pronounced possession style, or if he is willing to settle for less possession and more defensive stability playing away from home and potentially being a bit influenced by the trauma’s of recent years.


Prediction

A low scoring game, with Real snatching the single goal win that leaves everything open for the second leg.


Olympique Lyonnais – Juventus


Olympique Lyonnais

Trying to define Olympique Lyonnais’ playing style under Rudi Garcia is near impossible. The former Olympique Marseille manager has chopped and changed both formations and starting eleven with such regularity, that twenty-six matches into the domestic campaign, his preferred shape and personnel remain unclear.

The squad itself is bursting with talent, but the issue persists as to how best to harness it. Houssem Aouar, who impressed last season in the Champions League, has raised his game in response to two season-ending injuries to key starters, Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde. The 21-year-old is supported by a plethora of promising young players including, midfielder Maxence Caqueret, 16-year-old Rayan Cherki and recent Brazilian U-23 standout, Bruno Guimarães. All that raw talent would indicate the club is capable of big performances and complex technical play. 

Nevertheless, Ligue 1 has been a minefield for OL, who have delivered few standout performances and sport a particularly disappointing home record – having won only four of twelves league matches at Stade Groupama. The club’s inconsistent play has left them seventh in the table and scrambling for European places. 


Key injuries and suspensions: Memphis Depay (injured), Jeff Reine-Adélaïde (injured), Youssouf Koné (injured).


Juventus 

Maurizio Sarri’s first seven months at Juventus cannot be defined without understanding the process behind each of the manager’s decisions. Decisions that have often stemmed from unpredictable factors such as injuries, but overall can be traced back to the need of satisfying certain non-negotiable principles underlying Sarri’s philosophy.

With pressing being designed as the leading tactical engine to carry out Sarri’s instructions, following Douglas Costa’s first injury, Juventus no longer possessed a player able to guarantee the level of quality on the ball needed to mitigate the defensive risks presented by an ageing Ronaldo. Therefore, Juve switched to a 4-3-1-2 shape, which initially appeared to be a sensible compromise, but failed the test as Juve’s pressing intensity decreased, exposing the formation’s structural issues.



Needing to regain defensive stability, as well as an offensive variety the diamond shape could not provide, when Costa surrendered to another injury Sarri accepted the reality of not being able to rely on the Brazilian and reverted back to a 4-3-3 formation.

At this stage of the season, with a superior understanding of the defensive movements necessary to make up for Ronaldo’s lack of defensive involvement, the latest solution is the one Sarri has decided to prioritize. Defensively, the last matches appear to be sending a satisfactory return, while the offensive staleness without Costa is being addressed with the use of Paulo Dybala as a false number nine and Cuadrado at right wing to compensate for his movements.

However, as much as Sarri’s changes might aim to address Juve tactically, only through the correct intensity and mental application will success follow. Fundamentally, it is these two aspects that have caused the ups and downs throughout the season and it still remains unclear as to how Sarri plans to solve them.


Key injuries and suspensions: Douglas Costa (injured), Sami Khedira (injured), Miralem Panic (doubtful).


Matchup  

In the Champions League Lyon are playing with house money; the expectations of the club, given their current form, against a side as prestigious as Juventus, are understandably low. Few supporters believe they have any real chance of getting past the Italian giant and most are simply hoping to avoid embarrassment.

Domestically there is an expectation that Lyon will possess the ball and in turn dictate the overall ebb and flow of the match. Conversely, in Europe there is a general sense the club is better suited to play on the counterattack. This could work in Garcia’s favour, as the most convoluted aspect of OL’s play has been their buildup. What is more, where the club has looked their most dangerous is in transition. As much as Garcia’s system remains a mystery, the squad is still layered with technically gifted and pacey players. 

Given the circumstances Garcia is likely to match Juventus’ 4-3-3 shape in attack, while opting for a more solid 4-4-2 defensive formation. The big mystery will be how Garcia plans to counter Juventus’ midfield. The Lyonnais faithful will be hoping for a combination of Aouar, Caqueret and Thiago Mendes, but Garcia’s propensity to include Lucas Tousart, who is a suspect passer, but a combative presence, could mean the young Caqueret watches from the bench. 

Meanwhile, Juventus may not have to look beyond the individual qualities of their front three, as all of Dybala, Ronaldo and Gonzalo Huguaín are capable of overrunning a Lyonnais backline heavily reliant on center-back Jason Denayer. The return of French international Léo Dubois to the right fullback position is something of a relief to the home side, but Dubois started against Metz on Friday night and is still reintegrating after a long absence due to injury. 

Contrarily for Juventus, the pressure not only to win, but to perform well in the process seems to compound weekly and anything but a resounding performance in the round of sixteen, against an out of form side, will heap even more pressure onto the Italian skipper. For their part, Juve will have to be the most preoccupied with Aouar and Dembélé. The latter has been somewhat enigmatic this season, but owns substantial pace, engages in plenty of movement across the line and is more than capable of converting on his chances – currently outperforming his non-penalty expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. by plus 4.7 (the highest in Ligue 1). 

That said, this match is Juve’s to lose; the club has been chasing Champions League glory for decades and a loss at this stage would be an embarrassment. At his disposal Sarri has more talent and more resources, but also greater expectations. 


Prediction

The match will be closer than expected, but Juventus will escape with a victory and enough away goals to seal the tie. 



Sander IJtsma (40) is co-founder and data-specialist of Between the Posts. He is also the man behind 11tegen11, a company that provides player scouting advice and various other data services. Pioneer of the #autotweet to provide match plots on Twitter. Father of two. Now circling back to tactical writing, which was how it all started eight years ago. [ View all posts ]

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