Shakhtar Donetsk – Manchester City: Routine victory for City, who show off a myriad of build-up patterns (0-3)
Manchester City showed great flexibility in their build-up patterns and managed to control this game from the get. Once the first goal was in the net, the game was effectively over, as Shakhtar could not manage to keep City from entering their penalty area. In the second half, it was interesting to see that City was happy to concede the ball to Shakhtar and play more defensively than normal.
Shakhtar Donetsk is still not playing their home games on their home ground, the Donbass Stadium in Donetsk. That stadium is partly damaged by bombings and is currently being held by Russian occupationists. Just like the rule installed by FIFA that Russian and Ukrainian clubs cannot play each other in the Champions League or Europa League, this serves as a reminder that sports and politics are not easily separated.
As this is a website about football tactics, this article will not expand further about geo-political relationships between Russia and Ukraine, but examine the starting lineup fielded by Shakhtar’s manager Paulo Fonseca. Like most Portuguese managers, he nominally opts for a 4-2-3-1 shape.
It has become a custom at Shakhtar to have a lot of talented Brazilians up front and this team is no exception to this rule. Nineteen year-old Fernando got the nod as a left winger, Wellington played on the right and Junior Moraes has been their starting striker this season.
City looked to start in a 4-3-3 formation, but with Pep Guardiola at the helm, eleven names on a piece of paper sometimes are just eleven names on a piece of paper. Kevin de Bruyne made his first start for Manchester City after an injury that cost him a little over two months. The familiar midfield trio of David Silva – Fernandinho – Kevin de Bruyne was restored for the first time in City’s starting lineup since early May.
City build up in three patterns
One of Guardiola’s rules is to always build up with one more central player than the opponent has strikers. If the opponent presses, one or two midfielders drop in to help the defenders and make sure the ball is not just kept in the team, but also progressed along the pitch. If the opponent presses so aggressively that they are one-versus-one at the back, City’s goalkeeper Ederson or one of the defenders tries to make use of that.
Shakhtar did not press. Their 4-2-3-1 shape in possession transitioned into a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 that was positioned in a mid block A mid block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half., so City opted to play out from the back with three central players.
The build-up started with the four defenders and three midfielders of the 4-3-3 formation, but after a few passes were played, a big reshuffle resulted in a build-up pattern with just three defenders and two midfielders.
Either Fernandinho or City’s right-back John Stones would stay with the two central defenders, while the two midfield spots were filled from an unusual shuffle, involving the fullbacks and the nominal central midfielders.
Since Pep Guardiola’s stint with Bayern Munich, it has become customary for his fullbacks to perform midfield-duties at one point in the game. Against Shakhtar, he had John Stones and Benjamin Mendy – City’s fullbacks, on paper – play as holding midfielders in the build-up. Mendy would always be tucked inside, with either Stones or Fernandinho next to him.
One of the advantages of tucking the full-back in is that the passing lane to the wingers – Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez – becomes open. This was a frequent way in which City progressed the ball into Shakhtar’s half. City’s wingers possess the technical qualities to take a defender (or two) on, or lay the ball off to a high positioned De Bruyne or Silva.
The high position of the central midfielders is another advantage of Guardiola’s build-up shuffle, where the fullbacks temporarily act as holding midfielders.
This flexible build-up worked very well, and as a result the game was very one-sided in the first half. Ironically, Manchester City had seventy-five percent of possession in the first twenty minutes, but their first big chances came from counterattacks (Mahrez and Sterling), which they did not convert.
City comfortably lead
Once City managed to get on Shakhtar’s half, their shape resembled a 3-1-4-2. After being dealt the task of being a midfielder first, Mendy became a left-winger when City were in attack. With Mendy and Mahrez almost exclusively providing the width, Raheem Sterling had a lot of freedom to fill in his position as he liked. He showed some swift interchanging with David Silva in the left halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.
This way, six players were positioned in or near Shakhtar’s box. With the hounding Fernandinho, Laporte and Stones just behind that, it was nearly impossible for Shakhtar to play themselves out of trouble.
Even in the rare occasions where Shakhtar opted to play out from the back themselves, they were not in their best form. De Bruyne and Silva pressed heavily onto Shakhtar’s double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. in these situations. Most of the times, this resulted in a turnover.
Basically, all City needed in the first half was a goal. It came a bit lucky – after a failed combination – but the fact City had even numbers in one of the biggest danger zones of the football pitch will leave Shakhtar manager Fonseca scratching his head.
Just before the half hour mark, Silva volleyed in a ball that went in high over everybody’s heads after a shot was blocked.
Fonseca will scratch his head even more when he watches back footage of City’s second goal. A corner kick by Silva – which was fine, but nothing special – met the head of a completely unmarked Aymeric Laporte. He did not even jump, because he was so free, he could simply let the ball come to him. City were 0-2 up at half-time, which felt fully deserved.
City give away the ball and relax
Just like Young Boys, Club Brugge, Ajax and Galatasaray, Shakhtar has to make considerable adjustments their playing style when they play an elite team in the Champions League. In domestic play, Shakhtar are a possession-based team that often face very defensive opposition.
After absorbing an unhealthy dose of City pressing the first half, things took an unexpected turn in the second half, as Shakhtar got a chance to play their own style of football.
Just like he has learned a trick or two in Munich as Bayern’s boss, it seems as if Guardiola is tipping his toe in the water in trying to implement something new in this City team: defending deep. In their recent game against Liverpool, we saw a Manchester City side that did not try to press the opponent and instead tried to slow down the tempo of the game.
Guardiola tried to do the same here, as City fell back in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Shakhtar enjoyed nearly sixty percent possession, which is a huge number if your opponent is Manchester City.
With all this new-found possession and time on the ball, Shakhtar decided to keep it for a while, before they opted to play in between the lines. They actually did create some decent chances from their forwards’ fine interplay, especially through City’s right-hand side. Stones is a very fine central defender and a great passer, but he’s not as adept in defending as a fullback.
Another way in which Shakhtar created danger is through lofted balls over the top. They managed to shoot from inside City’s six-yard box a couple of times, which will make Guardiola ponder whether this experiment was a success or not. That Shakhtar did not score was mostly due to their own finishing and some fine saves by Ederson.
This was about as much a routine victory as you will get them for Manchester City. Guardiola probably overstated things a bit by saying that this game was ‘the best under his reign’. City gave up the ball – and some goal scoring chances – in the second half, and probably did not convert enough of their own chances. Their build-up play was excellent though, and should Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino opt to play with two strikers against them next Monday, Guardiola might revert to the build-up structure that was so successful against Shakhtar.
The Ukrainian champions now have one point from three games in this very tough and diverse group. They will not count on getting a positive result away against this monstrous City team, but with Lyon and Hoffenheim still to come there is still a chance that Shakhtar will be back in European action after the winter break.
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