Real Madrid – Manchester City: Different Year, Same Storyline (3-1, After Extra Time)

No outcome suits Real Madrid more than snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Nothing fits Pep Guardiola more than a conservative crisis on the road in Europe. Fill in the gaps.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

A seven goal showdown at the Etihad was one of the most thrilling games in 2022. The outcome of imperfections, this tie’s ebb and flow owed itself to the mastery of art forms cut from different cloth.

Few have learned the dramatics of the beautiful game better than Real Madrid. Regal by name, their rugged personality in Europe can flip a deficit on its head out of nowhere. At the heart of it all is not a stringent system: the stars are the men on the pitch. Carlo Ancelotti has trusted the muscle memory of his old guard to drag this outfit to the brink of a first Champions League in four years. And with the talismanic Karim Benzema in the form of his life, this tie would not be over till the very final whistle.

The first leg was a case in point. Heeding earlier warnings, Manchester City put Madrid to the sword in the first half hour of the contest at the Etihad as an exhibition of the systematization of greatness. Order, in stark contrast to the chaos of Madrid, has been the hallmark of their dominance in the last half decade, but controlling their opponents in this tie has already proven to be an impossible task. So still chasing a first ever Champions League title, would they resist the black magic of the Bernabéu?

Real’s 4-0 rout of Espanyol on the weekend sealed the 35th LaLiga title in the club’s history. But their comfort at the top of the league table rendered this game a priority. To this end, Ferland Mendy, Toni Kroos, and Karim Benzema all came back into the fold as members of the starting eleven. No longer suffering from a muscle problem, Casemiro sat at the base of the midfield. But the spine was without the services of David Alaba, whose adductor pain had forced him to watch from the bench at kickoff.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola made four changes to the outfit that beat Leeds United last time out. Phil Foden moved onto the left of the front three, while Riyad Mahrez operated on the right flank to restore the attacking trident from the first leg. Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva had also earned starting places in the middle of the park. But arguably, the most welcome addition was at right back. Kyle Walker started in the absence of John Stones, and João Cancelo featured at left back.

Ancelotti switches his system

Before kickoff, Ancelotti warned his men that they could not afford to be so lax defensively if they wanted to reach the final. Real Madrid’s manager had also adapted his team’s organization off the ball. As was the case in the second half of the first leg, Luka Modrić had moved higher than the rest of the midfield. He would stay close to Rodri within a 4-4-1-1 block rather than their usual 4-3-3 formation. Casemiro’s return next to Kroos further beefed up the midfield to control City’s threat in possession.

From goal kicks, Madrid employed a man-oriented, asymmetric pressing scheme. Benzema tended to move over to his right to cover Aymeric Laporte, leaving Vinícius Júnior to close down Rúben Dias.  Modrić marked Rodri, Kroos shuttled between Walker and de Bruyne, and Casemiro was a safeguard behind him. Dani Carvajal inverted from the right flank to support Federico Valverde, whereas Mendy stayed near Mahrez. In the end, Kroos handed over the duty of jumping out to press City’s right back to Mendy, undertaking much legwork to keep the whole defensive system in check.

This asymmetry fitted the tendencies of the two wingers Vinícius and Valverde. In the past, the Brazilian has had the urge to press even if it is impetuous. Meanwhile, his teammate is a willing runner and could shift his presence quickly to different areas to help Madrid drop into a deep block.

12th minute: pressing sequence from Real Madrid. Asymmetric staggering between the wide men covers the first line of City’s buildup, Modrić marks Bernardo, and Kroos watches out for Walker. Note the vertical stretch between the rows of their defensive shape and individual duels at the back.

Pep’s conservatism puts the breaks on the goal haul

Indeed, it was Valverde that was often under duress. Modrić did not gift Rodri the space and time he received in the opening stages of the contest at the Etihad. So, Bernardo kept dropping deep, roaming around Rodri as a free man to support the progression and retention of the play. Along with Cancelo, the left sided axis came to the fore. Pep’s men were far from their best, operating more cautiously than when they attacked in a 2-3-5 shape last week. However, it seemed the chaotic potential of Madrid’s forwards was of utmost concern. Here, they stuck to their task, shutting down the threat on the break.

17th minute: offensive sequence from Manchester City. Bernardo dribbles into the central lane of the pitch, drawing away Modrić from Rodri. The holding midfielder becomes free to find Cancelo, whose pass to Foden threatens penetration through the left halfspace thanks to de Bruyne’s underlapping run. Bernardo’s choice to drive diagonally inward briefly takes Casemiro’s attention, letting de Bruyne get free from his marker while he also offers a switching option if Foden had looked inward.

In longer phases without the ball, City defended in a 4-4-2 block. Jesus had initially led the line, pressing from the front with de Bruyne, before swapping roles with Foden towards the end of the first half. The wingers closed down the fullbacks on the flanks, Bernardo generated the pivot with Rodri, and Dias often jumped out from the backline to make up any shortfall within the middle of the park. Madrid’s menace was Vinícius, but City continually looked to double up on the winger, while Walker was more than a suitable athletic match for the Brazilian. The stalemate persisted till half time.

Substitutes make a difference… for both teams

Edging to the brink of elimination, Ancelotti turned to the bench. Rodrygo Goes came in for Kroos to operate as the right winger, while Valverde joined Eduardo Camavinga and Marco Asensio in the midfield. Fresh legs and offensive impetus would play its part in this narrative. Yet, the outcome would not have been as glorious as it turned out to be if Pep’s alterations were inconsequential.

Oleksandr Zinchenko replaced Walker, Cancelo moved to the right, and Jack Grealish almost scored twice from the left. But the key man was Ilkay Gündogan. The timing of his supportive movements next to Rodri pulled apart Madrid’s midfield, teeing up the opening goal of the match. He threaded a pass to Bernardo, who raced to the edge of the box, then squared the play to Mahrez. A ferocious strike put City in the lead, two ahead in the tie, and seemingly free from a dramatic conclusion.

The finishing line was in sight for City. And then the black magic took hold. Moments of the half remained when Eduardo Camavinga picked out Benzema at the far post. His hooked cutback reached Rodrygo, nipping in front of Ederson to reduce the arrears. A minute and a half later, the right winger leapt to meet a menacing delivery from Carvajal in the air: two shots on target, two goals. All of a sudden, the script was in order. All that was missing now was a goal from Real Madrid’s talisman.

In the third minute of extra time, Camavinga drove into the final third, slipping a pass to Rodrygo on his right. His cross found Benzema, drawing a foul from Dias in the box to earn a penalty. The striker stepped up, slotting an effort left of Ederson to bag his customary goal and complete the comeback.


This Real Madrid outfit clearly thrive the most if they can create chaos in unstructured phases of contests masking their frailties and confining the strengths of the elite teams in Europe. Nevertheless, to keep prevailing in the dying embers of games speaks to a level of psychological and technical prowess among the squad that grounds Ancelotti’s trust in his men. Liverpool: be sternly warned.

On the other hand, the final whistle reopened the inquiry into the ‘pitfalls’ of the project at Manchester City. Pep had placed his men in a prime position to kill this tie in the home leg, while the introduction of Gündogan nearly secured a win on the road. One can wonder if his other changes were suitable at the final reckoning, but in either case, managerial margins are tighter than discourse often implies.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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