RasenBallsport Leipzig – Manchester City: When In Doubt, Go Back To Basics (1-3)

Manchester City returned to winning ways, and it was indeed a challenging battle against an in-form RB Leipzig side. Pep Guardiola essentially went back to his tried-and-true system and the players who were instrumental in achieving the treble last season. This approach bore fruit, partly due to the contributions of substitutes Julián Álvarez and Jérémy Doku.

Tactical analysis and match report by Rahul Madhavan.

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Marco Rose’s RB Leipzig have emerged as a revelation this season, even in the face of significant departures during the summer transfer window. Their season began with a statement 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich, highlighting their ambitions. However, this triumph was swiftly followed by a setback against high-flying Bayer Leverkusen.

Despite the initial troubles, Leipzig managed to bounce back impressively, as they are unbeaten in their last seven matches, including a strong start in the Champions League against Young Boys. But facing both Bayern Munich and Manchester City in consecutive matches is certainly something few teams can handle.

Following the 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich last weekend, Rose opted to make a few changes to the starting lineup. Janis Blaswich kept his place in goal, while Lukas Klostermann, Mohamed Simakan, Castello Lukeba, and David Raum started as the back four. The midfield featured Xaver Schlager and Nicolas Seiwald, with Xavi Simons and Emil Forsberg playing ahead of them, while the in-form Loïs Openda partnered Yussuf Poulsen upfront.

Manchester City enjoyed a flawless start to the season, securing six consecutive victories in the Premier League. Nevertheless, an unexpected turn of events occurred when they faced back-to-back defeats against Newcastle United in the League Cup and Wolves in the Premier League. The Rodri-less machine has displayed its shortcomings, but this game provided an opportunity to answer the critics.

Pep Guardiola tinkered with his lineup ahead of the crucial clash against Arsenal, but Ederson kept his place in goal. The back four comprised Kyle Walker, Manuel Akanji, Ruben Dias, and the former Leipzig man Joško Gvardiol. Fortunately for Guardiola, Rodri was available for selection and started in midfield alongside Phil Foden and Rico Lewis. The front three included Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish, and Erling Haaland.

The box midfield returns

These two sides have faced each other several times in the past two years. But despite the familiarity, both teams remained committed to their core principles.

Pep Guardiola’s new signings brought a crucial attribute to the team, characterized by directness and strong ball-carrying ability in midfield. However, when City fielded the likes of Matheus Nunes, Jérémy Doku, and Mateo Kovačić alongside Foden and Julián Álvarez, their approach became markedly more direct, which came at a cost.

The game against Wolves exposed them on the break due to their increased directness. Chaos is something Guardiola strives to minimize, and with Leipzig excelling in transitional football, the Spanish manager reverted to fundamental principles and emphasized control over chaos. This led to the inclusion of players like Silva, Grealish, and Lewis over Nunes, Álvarez, and Doku.

The 3-box-3 system also made a return, with Akanji operating as a pivot alongside Rodri. This provided City with a solid rest defense to counter Leipzig, with Walker adapting to a wide center-back role.

In contrast, Leipzig settled into a 4-2-3-1 shape without possession and remained compact, which forced City to direct their play towards the flanks. Their pressing trigger was when the ball was passed to the wide center-backs (Gvardiol/Walker), prompting the wingers to initiate the press.

City responded to this by introducing a variation in their midfield setup. Rodri frequently dropped deeper, while Akanji pushed higher up the pitch. This adjustment disrupted Leipzig’s midfield positioning, creating space for City’s number eights (Lewis/Foden) and allowing the wingers to receive the ball in isolation.

Minute 13: City’s offensive sequence. Rodri positions deeper, while Akanji pushes forward. City look to utilize third-man combination to find Akanji, but Schlager reads it and closes him down. However, in doing so, he opens up space for Lewis, who makes a run between Raum and Lukeba. This movement, in turn, creates room for Silva and enables Rodri to switch the play.

With Schlager constantly positioned between Akanji and Lewis, it had the dual effect of either opening up space for Lewis to receive the ball in midfield or allowing him to execute underlapping runs that drew a center-back out of position. 

The first goal for City was a prime example of the latter scenario, as Silva found Lewis’ underlapping run before he delivered a cut-back to Foden inside the penalty box, who scored. Indeed a trademark Manchester City move.

Substitutes prove decisive for Guardiola

RB Leipzig faced significant difficulties in the first half, primarily attributed to Manchester City’s ability to keep their opponents pinned back. Furthermore, City’s shape without the ball posed challenges when Leipzig had possession.

The home team started the game with an asymmetrical 4-2-2-2 formation, deploying their full-backs higher up the field. Poulsen dropped deeper, while Openda sought opportunities to exploit City’s high defensive line. Notably, Leipzig’s pivots maintained considerable distances between them, aiming to manipulate City’s man-marking system and play through the midfield.

City’s shape out of possession mirrored their approach from last season’s encounter with Leipzig. However, this time, they showed greater aggression in midfield, with the full-backs swiftly closing down space. Essentially, City divided the pitch in half, forcing Leipzig to resort to longer passes to target Openda, who often found himself outnumbered.

Minute 51: City’s pressing. Haaland and Foden mark Leipzig’s double pivots, while Grealish and Bernardo made angled runs to press the center-backs to block the passing lane to the full-backs. If the center-back evaded the press, Gavrdiol swiftly closed the space. City also had a two-versus-one situation at the back, with Akanji and Walker marking Openda.

However, all it took was one moment for Leipzig to get back into the game. Gvardiol seemingly ventured forward to support Grealish on the left flank and City’s rest defense crumbled as a result. With the winger losing possession, the hosts made full use of it, with Openda scoring the equalizer in a trademark Leipzig move.

The game seemed to have hit a roadblock until Guardiola introduced his game-changing assets—Jérémy Doku and Julián Álvarez. Doku replaced Grealish, allowing Alvarez to play closer to Haaland. When Doku plays, City often tend to isolate him on the flanks, as he can draw the opponents towards him and create space for his teammates.

While City retained their overall shape, they made a few adjustments. Walker assumed a wider role, Silva drifted into the midfield, and Lewis dropped deeper to join Rodri as the pivot. This reshuffling bolstered City’s control in midfield.

The catalysts of chaos certainly delivered when it counted. First, Álvarez curled the ball into the net, enabling his side to take the lead, followed by Doku, who capped off a remarkable counterattacking move to secure all three points for Manchester City.


After two defeats, Guardiola and Manchester City certainly needed this result ahead of their pivotal clash against Arsenal. City reverted to the approach that brought them success last season, and Guardiola appears to have identified Akanji as a suitable replacement for the John Stones role. Notably, this performance stood out, given Leipzig’s proficiency in counter-attacks, as City effectively neutralized their threat while also fashioning several opportunities against Leipzig’s well-organized medium block.

On the flip side, Rose will be disappointed in his side’s ability to churn out clear-cut chances. They were quite wasteful in possession and failed to capitalize on turnovers. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that any team facing Manchester City would likely encounter similar challenges. Although their seven-game unbeaten streak has ended, Rose will be content with the fact that their demanding fixtures against Bayern Munich and Manchester City are now behind them, allowing them to shift their focus back to the Bundesliga.

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