Manchester City – Real Madrid: Mancunian Masterclass Sends Shudders Through Europe (4-0)
Only the final whistle can assure success against Real Madrid, for whom the fight is never over as early as it seems. Last night was an exception to the rule. The Mancunian machine battered and bruised the reigning champions, taking apart their flaws to assert plans of total dominance.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
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Pep’s Guardiola legacy is not in question. But where is he in the pantheon of greats? Manchester City have set the bar high with the treble as their standard for success. The 12 point swing at the top of the table has turned this week into another significant checkpoint in the hunt for their goal. A victory over Chelsea at the Etihad would seal the threepeat in the Premier League, and an all-Mancunian cup final pits them as favorites, but the accursed European fortunes of the club are a stranglehold on his project.
In his way are familiar foes that can boast of generational glories on the continent. Real Madrid are two wins away from a 15th Champions League title and the feat of holding onto the crown for only the third time since its rebranding in 1992. Nothing but the best is the demand at an institution where missteps in LaLiga have moved attention away from a haul of three trophies. In a season where key individuals have been able to make the massive moments count, a fourth cup success would be fitting.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men neatly managed the first leg at the Bernabéu. So, he trusted most of the eleven he picked last week to take the field on the road. Rodrygo joined Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior in the attack; Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde, and Luka Modrić were in the middle of the park. Doubt only hung over the rearguard. Eduardo Camavinga limped off against Getafe but was ready to start. David Alaba and Éder Militão were the two center-backs, forcing Antonio Rüdiger onto the bench.
Pep was also content with the efforts of his squad in the reverse fixture. He sent out an unchanged lineup. Nathan Aké was still missing with a calf injury, so Manuel Akanji was on the left of the back four again, Kyle Walker to the right of the rearguard, and Rúben Dias was next to John Stones in the middle of the defensive chain. Rodri and Ilkay Gündogan sat behind attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva stayed as the men on the wings to flank Erling Haaland.
Madrid stuck to a similar approach from the first leg. They defended in a 4-2-3-1 formation, where the wingers pinched inward, and the pivot of Valverde and Kroos were man-oriented, dropping off to clog up the inside channels. From the off, City were willing to push out the boat much more than last week. Against this system, they used one less man in the buildup. Rather than a 4-2 base in which Stones was a central defender and Gündogan dropped next to Rodri for more control, a 3-2 shape at the back remained in their half of the field. It was indicative of a more aggressive sense of intent.
The 3-2-2-3 structure had also set out for conservative ends in the final third at the Bernabéu. Vertical passing networks through Haaland with his back to goal were rare, neither de Bruyne nor Bernardo popped up freely in the center, and Gündogan was also averse to too much risk. Here, Pep wanted City to be more fluid and dynamic in their actions, generating more problems for the defense.
4th minute: buildup sequence from Manchester City. Modrić briefly pressed Dias, so had to retreat vertically to close down Rodri. Gündogan can rotate wide to support Akanji, finds Dias again at the base of the structure and opens the center enough for Stones to pivot inwards. Rodrygo and Benzema are then forced to cover the second pivot and City eventually switch the ball to Walker on the right.
Centralized carousel of creativity
Defenders were willing to force the issue and punch passes through gaps into City’s block to produce reactions from the visitors. Bernardo was not so isolated against Camavinga, working more closely in tandem with de Bruyne from the right flank. And more activity in the center kept the Madrid midfield in constant motion. At the same time, Haaland moved to pin men at the back post and free space as a playground for his teammates. Thibaut Courtois repelled a pair of headers from the talisman inside the first 20 minutes, but his gravity in the penalty area was too much to bear for the defense by half time.
33rd minute: offensive sequence for Manchester City. Here Gündogan is on the ball far side, pinning Alaba once Haaland motions into the space behind Kroos. Kroos steps forward to Rodri and Valverde puts pressure on Akanji, allowing Haaland to get free between the lines in the blindside of Militão. He immediately fires a layoff pass to de Bruyne, but his teammate’s attempted deep pass hits Carvajal.
Camavinga pushed out to engage Walker on the right flank at the midway point of the first half. Two blue shirts were now available in the halfspace. Modrić did not want to commit prematurely to the new ball holder, de Bruyne, and Kroos was falling back into position. The attacking midfielder split the difference between the pair of veterans, breaking the lines to pick out Bernardo in the box. The winger hammered a strike to the left of a sprawling Courtois. City had taken a well-deserved lead.
Risk and reward
Another marked difference in this match to the first leg was City’s stance on defending. They set up in a 4-4-2 block in Madrid where Haaland and de Bruyne pressed from the front with extra help from Grealish if a third man dropped in to support Militão and Rüdiger. But the reigning champions were at ease on the ball in the second half, overloading their left and working the ball into the space behind the left winger. At the other end of the field, the reluctance to commit forward defenders cost Pep’s men a goal, backing off Camavinga for too long before Vinícius unleashed a long range strike.
Pep was now willing to accept a 3-on-3 at the back on home turf. Grealish often moved higher with de Bruyne and Haaland against deep possessions, but Akanji also shifted from the defense to form a 3-4-1-2 arrangement. Walker shackled Vinícius, matching him for speed, and above all, the aggression of the hosts gave their opponents little time to work out how to break the press. A second goal was a logical conclusion of the developments in this one-way affair. It duly arrived in the 37th minute.
The major difference from the first game is the way City is pressing Real Madrid. Grealish coming inside to press Militao, while Akanji jumps agressively onto Carvajal. City simply suffocated Real Madrid, which resulted in maybe the best 45 minutes of Pep's coaching carreer. pic.twitter.com/xpsxnNy3Ub— Peet (@goonerpeet) May 17, 2023
Stones stepped out and beat Benzema to a long ball from Carvajal, reinforcing City’s territorial dominance. Grealish carried the charge, feeding a pass into the feet of Gündogan to breach the box. Black and lime shirts converged on his shot, but Bernardo could flick home the rebound with his head over Alaba and into the net. Madrid were in the mire and desperately needed their powers of recovery.
Completing the destruction
City had put in one of the best first half displays imaginable. Their level of aggression dropped off after the break, but the damage was palpable. Ancelotti only turned his bench following the hour mark. Modrić exited the pitch, Rüdiger joined Militão in the center of the defense, Alaba moved to left back, and Camavinga returned to the midfield. Marco Asensio then took the place of Kroos. However, the typical response of Madrid never materialized. So, the home team chose to push on.
🗣️ “They played better than us. They deserve to reach the final.”— Football Daily (@footballdaily) May 18, 2023
Carlo Ancelotti says Manchester City deserved to beat his Real Madrid side in the UEFA Champions League semi-final last night. 🇮🇹 pic.twitter.com/936PNnWr3J
Grealish drew a foul from Camavinga, earning a free kick deep in Madrid’s territory. De Bruyne weighed his options and found the frailty. Carvajal was a little deeper on the near side of the defensive line, allowing Akanji to stay onside. His headed effort hit Militão and flew past Courtois, opening a three goal advantage. Fifteen minutes of play were remaining, affording time for one final blow.
Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, and Julian Álvarez came on to finish the dying embers of the duel. In injury time, all three substitutes combined for a fourth goal. Mahrez slipped the ball to Foden, whose finely weighted through ball assisted Álvarez. The striker netted to the right of Courtois, rounding off a ruthless body of work. Manchester City can book their tickets to Istanbul and as the firm favorites.
💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙 pic.twitter.com/LJOrsBbxNS— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 17, 2023
Manchester City must still fight for the trophy in the final in June, but this rout is one of the crowning achievements of Pep’s career— let alone at his current post. They dialed up the aggression and risk as one would expect from his men in a second leg on home soil, and execution of the highest order put the reigning champions to the sword. However, they have still not claimed any silverware. Trust Pep to keep his squad humble and continue this journey one step at a time: the results could be historic.
On the other hand, it was a chastening night for Madrid. Their triumphs with a lax structural approach to high pressing, lack of strict buildup patterns, and freeform ideas on the ball have shown the critics that all routes to success do not have to be the same. That said— as Ancelotti’s opposite number knows only too well— all strategies have pros and cons. His decisions will be under furious scrutiny, but this experience can only add to the development of a squad in transition that will come again.
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