Schalke 04 – Manchester City: Schalke’s passionate performance makes City struggling (2-3)

All the traits that got Schalke in the Champions League last season – passionate and disciplined defending paired with quick counterattacks and dangerous set-pieces – made life difficult for Manchester City. Guardiola’s side was not capable of creating many goal scoring opportunities with their center-focused approach. To win, they needed a free-kick goal and the distribution of goalkeeper Ederson to overcome Schalke in a thrilling match.

Tactical analysis and match report by Max Bergmann.

Manchester City were probably very happy with this draw, and many claimed the match against Schalke would be nothing more than a simple compulsory task. However, the first leg game in Gelsenkirchen would prove the doubters very wrong, as some tactical quirks by the hosts would prove hard to handle for Manchester City.

Schalke manager Domenico Tedesco opted for a 5-4-1 formation, which is of course one of the most defensive formations in the game of football. To maintain some counterattacking presence, the fastest attackers of Schalke in Weston McKennie and Hamza Mendyl were lined up as the wide players in the midfield four. The defense was guided by the gigantic central defender Salif Sané. Furthermore, Ralf Fährmann was fielded between the posts, after Alexander Nübel had been preferred a couple of matches in the Bundesliga.

Pep Guardiola wanted his team to act in a versatile 4-3-3 formation which changed into a 3-2-4-1 shape in possession. Midfielder Fernandinho was therefore lined up as a central defender, moving into midfield whenever his teammates circulated the ball. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were supposed to receive the ball in more dangerous areas as central advanced midfielders. They were tasked to connect the midfield with the forward trio comprising Sergio Agüero in the center as well as Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva on the wings.

Manchester City’s issues with Schalke’s 5-4-1 formation

The intention behind Schalke’s 5-4-1 formation was composed of two main purposes. Firstly, Tedesco wanted his defenders to be capable of creating two-versus-one situations against Raheem Sterling. The back five allowed them to outnumber Sterling while still having enough defenders to cover the central spaces of the penalty area. Secondly, the 5-4-1 system allows the wingers to stay higher up the pitch during the defensive phase. As the wing-backs defended the wide areas being covered by left and right center-back, Schalke’s wide forwards could focus on counterattacking immediately after regaining possession.

Pep Guardiola aimed at outnumbering Schalke in central midfield. During Manchester City’s buildup Fernandinho positioned himself in the central defensive midfielder position, next to defensive midfielder Ilkay Gündogan. That way, the Brazilian created possible passing options to play into Schalke’s defensive unit. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva provided options between the opposition back line and midfield.

Since the strategy to progress the ball up to either of the advanced midfielders seemed to be the only concept for a long time, Schalke was able to find the right answer. By immediately pressing the playmakers when they got on the ball, with left center-back Matija Nastasić or right center-back Jeffrey Bruma, Schalke could prevent them from playing passes into more dangerous areas. Manchester City were not able to make use of the appearing gaps in Schalke’s last line. As both wingers were positioned wide, they were unable to receive passes through these gaps, and Silva and De Bruyne were pressed so effectively that they could never turn and give the pass themselves.

Manchester City’s playmakers were effectively pressed by Schalke’s center-backs.

Schalke’s attacking tactics come at a cost

The downside of Schalke’s play was that they struggled during their own possession. Only combinations around the defensive block A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. of Manchester City were successful as the wing-backs positioned themselves between opposition winger and fullback, thereby liberating themselves from their direct opponent. When the wing-backs Daniel Caligiuri and Bastian Oczipka moved up the pitch in possession, Schalke created numerical superiority against the back-four of Guardiola’s side. As right winger Bernardo Silva and left advanced midfielder David Silva supported Agüero when pressing the back-three, Schalke at times had a five-versus-four situation up top. As a result, Schalke were often aiming to play long balls to target man Uth.

Schalke’s quite offensive 3-2-5 formation without the ball. 

The five-versus-four overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. up top did come at a cost. When Schalke lost the ball in central areas while building up, the wide back-three had issues to defend against the three forwards and two advanced midfielders of Manchester City. One of these losses of possession resulted in the first goal for Manchester City. Center-back Sané received the ball without any pre-orientation. That allowed David Silva to intercept the pass and seconds later, Agüero finished after a simple square pass from Silva.

Schalke opted to threaten Manchester City during chaotic transition moments. With fast attackers, Tedesco’s side attempted to overrun City’s defense directly after winning the ball. Right before Schalke’s first goal, the concept of Tedesco was on full display. Goalkeeper Fährmann saved a free-kick and immediately played a long ball into the opposition half. Pacy winger McKennie made use of City’s disorganization and won a duel in midfield. Just seconds later, Schalke got a penalty and scored the equalizer.

Schalke’s second goal came just before half-time. It should first be noted that on either side, set-pieces played a vital role in the course of the game. Whereas City defended corner-kicks well with ten players in the own penalty-box, they had issues with an indirect free-kick. Since Manchester City set up a high offside line, tall defender Sané made use of his pace and Fernandinho could only stop the Senegalese with a foul. The resulting penalty was converted by midfielder Nabil Bentaleb into the leading goal for Schalke.

Manchester City’s final overtaking manoeuvre

Manchester City completely controlled the whole match in possession. Even the fact that center-back Nicolás Otamendi received a second yellow card did not change anything about that. Schalke still focused on defending the lead, and this allowed Manchester City to play to their strengths being in possession.

Guardiola brought on central defender Vincent Kompany and changed the formation to a 4-4-1 shape. With Fernandinho constantly staying in central defense, right back Kyle Walker was allowed to support the attack on the right wing. This enabled the wingers to position themselves more narrow. Sterling was fouled in such a tucked in position leading to a free-kick in a promising position. Former Schalke player Leroy Sané, just substituted by City coach Guardiola, converted the free-kick into the equalizing goal.

Conceding set-piece goals happens to all teams, and Schalke should probably just applaud Sané’s brilliant free kick. They should feel very bad about the way they conceded the winning goal in the last minute, however. Seconds before stoppage time would commence, City’s goalkeeper Ederson once more demonstrated his distribution qualities. The Brazilian played a long diagonal ball to Sterling, over the heads of some sleepy defenders, who went in a one-versus-one duel with goalkeeper Fährmann and scored the deciding goal of the match.


Schalke came close to matching Manchester City’s superior individual quality with a well-structured defense. In the end, the Bundesliga club was penalized for not taking the initiative although playing against a decimated team of Manchester City.

Nevertheless, the game should be a warning for Manchester City. The center-focused strategy of Guardiola’s team was too predictable and needs some revision for the second leg and possible further stages of this year’s Champions League campaign.

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Max Bergmann (21) likes to watch football from every possible angle as an ambitious coach, player, (former) referee and analyst. Holding the UEFA B-Level license, he is coaching youth teams and making video analysis. In order to extend his knowledge about tactics, physiology and psychology in sports, he is studying sports science. Whenever Max is not on the pitch or at the university, he analyses football with a focus on the Bundesliga and the other European top leagues for TotalFootballAnalysis and Between the Posts. [ View all posts ]


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