UEFA Champions League 2021/22: Man City beat Leipzig but their pressing worried Pep Guardiola – tactical analysis
UEFA Champions League football is back! Manchester City returned with a 6-3 victory against Jesse Marsch’s RB Leipzig at the Etihad Stadium. This tactical analysis will dissect the tactics of both sides, and links it to an interesting scenario captured by the camera. Pep Guardiola, the head coach of Manchester City, was furious at Riyad Mahrez in the second half. Why did this happen? You will find the answers in the analysis.
City came with a fresh lineup as Pep rotated some players. İlkay Gündoğan and Kyle Walker started on the bench as Kevin De Bruyne and Oleksandr Zinchenko were starting. City were also missing Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, so Nathan Aké partnered Rúben Dias as the centre-backs.
Although Marsch could be flexible in terms of formation, his early days as RB Leipzig head coach was consistent on a 4-2-3-1. After the heavy loss to Bayern, he made some changes by dropping Dominik Szoboszlai, Kevin Kampl, and Mohamed Simakan. As the replacements, Emil Forsberg, Lukas Klostermann, and Tyler Adams returned.
City gained the upper hand
City had a very good start at the beginning of the game. They had clear positional tactics to dictate the opponents with the ball, and the build-up and second phase were smooth. Leipzig could not defend them.
City achieved a numerical advantage of 7v6 in the centre by a very “Guardiola way”. Usually, the front three were a bit higher to pin the opposition back four, although Jack Grealish sometimes received in the vacated deep flank when Zinchenko was inverted. The positioning and distancing of City players were great as they separated Leipzig individuals vertically and horizontally.
Leipzig defended between a 4-2-3-1 shape and a 4-4-2 shape, depending on Dani Olmo’s position. However, they did not give enough pressure and intensity, allowing City to dictate the tempo easily.
In the first image, we wanted to focus on the positioning of City’s midfield three. Rodrigo Hernández was a bit far from the centre-backs on that night as he tried to bring Olmo away from Dias. Meanwhile, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne would be lurking in the half-spaces to stretch the defensive midfielder. Then, they could play vertical into the centre to find Rodri.
Let’s delve into more examples. City played with a pair of deep and inverted full-backs to fix the opposition wingers. The second image shows Leipzig’s 4-4-2 defending. Since Rodri was initially high, Olmo never accessed Dias in the press as the distance was too big to travel. This gave City could foundations to move the ball around in the second phase.
Just seconds after the previous image, City moved the ball to Aké, then, to Zinchenko. Now, you could see the Leipzig block was also shifting to close spaces on the other side. And since the narrow City left-back drew the right-winger narrow, the German side must commit the right-backs to close Grealish on the flank.
But it was an uneasy task for Nordi Mukiele as B. Silva always roamed in the half-spaces. The Portuguese international kept the defence busy to create more spaces for Grealish throughout the game.
Another game scenario here. Dias and João Cancelo combined with a wall pass, which absorbed pressure to free up the other side in an instant. Leipzig shifted with their 4-4-2 block and used Forsberg to press, but passing to the right-back was just a deception of City.
As City’s real intention was to play the diagonals to hit the opposite side. They had more long passes (48) than their season mean (38.67), and these diagonals were a reason for that. Just five seconds later, Leipzig’s midblock oriented themselves to City’s right side, so the left side was free.
Furthermore, B. Silva constantly occupying the half-spaces and cleverly moved to keep the defenders perplexed. In this situation, Grealish was totally free from the right-back on the touchline, as B. Silva’s forward run engaged Mukiele. From there, the left-winger and left midfielder would combine and hit into advanced areas.
On the right side, City would have one more player as Cancelo had offensive flair to join the attack. The Portuguese right-back could rotate with Mahrez and De Bruyne, and this was how they forced Mukiele’s own goal.
This was an alternate movement from B. Silva, but we still want to show his importance to City’s constructions of the attack. In this scenario, Zinchenko received in a wider position with a left-winger pressing him. Initially, Leipzig’s Admas and Mukiele were close to each other, spacing around Grealish was closed. It was all about B. Silva’s movement to generate spaces.
Silva smartly used a double-movement to drop back into the lateral space of Zinchenko. This sudden change of direction and pace invited Adams to press, and vacated the diagonal space of Zinchenko. As a result, Grealish could access those spaces by drifting inward, with his body orienting to the larger part of the pitch.
City also tried to use Ferran Torres between the lines as a “false-9”. In this image, they broke Leipzig’s 4-2-3-1 in the centre as De Bruyne and Zinchenko stretched the defensive midfielders. The Spaniard was gradually improving in his movements, integrating more into the game, but the ability to operate behind the midfield was not good enough yet. We would be looking forward to observe his progress and how City could play with this route months later.
Pep introduced Fernandinho and Gündoğan to obtain more control. Both offered alternative qualities in the offensive construction and allowed City to move the ball forward. Firstly, Gündoğan always cleverly dropped from an advanced position to offer a vertical passing lane for centre-backs, then releasing the third-man to break into spaces behind the midfield.
Also, Fernandinho was excellent at moving into spaces behind the first line. Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen was too casual to let the Brazilian midfielder moving on his blindside in the last period of the game. City would enter advanced areas of the pitch from there. Our image above have shown this situation.
But City’s long shots and transitions also played an important part of the threats. They baited Leipzig out and hit them on the counter, scored some juicy goals.
Why Pep was furious at his wingers
Grealish and Mahrez had two goals and one assist in this game. From an offensive standpoint, they might be good but the camera captured Pep’s “fight” with the duo on the touchline. The City head coach was displeased by their defending, especially when the wingers did not do what he instructed during the break.
So, what were the issues? This section of the analysis will look into the defending of City.
Against Leipzig, as Pep said, the German side played with four deep players, and got behind quickly to reach into advanced areas. City’s initial plan was a 4-4-2 and pressing from the wide corridors. Then, provoking the opponents to play long balls or passing into the central traps of City.
The first image of the section gave the ideas of City’s pressing. When pressing, the wingers must curve the runs to first cover the full-backs, then going for the player in the centre. You could see this from Mahrez’s path, he kept Angeliño under his shadow. The same should be done on Grealish’s side as well.
What was missing? We believed the City wingers were too passive and static in the high press, they did not give the intensity in the right scenario, leaving rooms for Leipzig to escape at times.
In the early minutes, Leipzig might be a bit nervous in tight spaces, giving the ball away on some occasions. They usually pushed the full-back into the second layer, and staying wide to give centre-backs and midfielders more spaces, you could tell from Angeliño’s position above.
For City, they did not press the goalkeeper. Only when the pass was made, as De Bruyne’s behaviour indicated above, they will go for the receiver. However, you could see Mahrez was orienting himself to the left-back more.
Leipzig were brave to go into the centre, but City saw it early and closed the two players down as shaded in purple. Even Olmo dropped, Rodri was tightly marking him, so the Spanish international could not receive. Meanwhile, B. Silva also pressed Adams and forced an error. As we’ve said, Leipzig were a bit nervous at the beginning, the ball was lost here.
But that could have another outcome, as Mahrez’s passive body positioning and angle kept Angeliño off-sight. If Angeliño moved into red spaces, and Adams could loft the ball to him, City’s press were finished.
Mahrez, particularly, was not offering the right actions in the press. Sometimes the Algerian star was hardworking, pushing higher and hunting the opposition down. But on more occasions, his positionings and defensive behaviours were not up to the coach’s expectations.
Here, he temporarily replaced De Bruyne to form a 4-4-2 with Torres. But Leipzig formed a back three with Konrad Laimer, dictated the first line easily with a 3v2.
As the ball went inward and Mahrez’s positioning was awkward. He left Angeliño behind, so De Bruyne, as the temporary right-winger, was a bit wider to control the Leipzig left-back. However, since the strikers did not give any pressure to the ball, they let the oppositions played forward passes easily.
When De Bruyne moved wider, the gap was opened for a vertical pass, and Leipzig hit into spaces behind the City midfield. Cancelo was not in the frame but he was also messing up on who to defend. He had Angeliño on the flank, but Forsberg was dropping, and who should he follow? The hosts were so disorganized in that situation.
Then, after Leipzig broke the lines, it was difficult to stop as they had many players running forward from different angles. The greatest threat must be André Silva, who was smart at running into spaces behind. Apart from the striker, they also had Angeliño supporting from the flank, so Olmo had a lot of options.
City’s offside trap was really important, as they relied on the high line to reduce threat behind the defence. Leipzig were caught several times, or else more clear-cut opportunities shall be created.
Some more examples which Mahrez did not do his job well. City shifted from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 defece around the half-hour mark, so Mahrez was a bit higher.
But his defending was not good in the above image. As we have said, City players should let the goalkeeper play and catch the receiver, but Mahrez let Angeliño receveied too easily behind, the press was broken again.
Just minutes later, Mahrez was trying to press the centre-back again. However, the intensity was lacking, and he could not even close the angle, so Willi Orbán very easily lofted the ball to find Angeliño. The press was broken in the same way.
Leipzig were smarter in the second half with more ball possession. They used the goalkeeper in the build-up higher, and use two midfielders around to overload Torres. In that 2v1, Torres could only access one target, so the other one must be free to receive as indicated above. Wingers could not defend Adams and Laimer early as they were more attached to centre-backs and full-backs.
This was how City conceded the goal in the second half, the front three were too high and split easily.
In this scenario, Leipzig played out from the back again. The problem this time was Grealish’s static defending when the pass was made. He was too late to press, and allowed Klostermann to find Adams in the centre.
Then, City would be in trouble. B. Silva could not jump onto Mukiele even he read the pass in advance. If the left midfielder of City did not occupy the half-spaces, Leipzig would go vertical to hit spaces around Rodri. So, B. Silva must let Adams to play, then he could press the right-back.
And perhaps Grealish was missing the double-pressing on the flank. He should be able to read the flow of the attack early as well, and it was a good timing to double-press the full-back. However, the former Aston Villa skipper was not offering such kind of defending in this game either. That might be another reason for Pep’s anger.
It was a very peculiar game as City were a bit unusual. They had fewer passes in total than the season average (436-587.83), while only having 52.77% was a low figure in their standard. Also, they conceded three goals from 0.55 xGA, which was beyond expectation. But their clinical finishing and crazy long shots allowed them to score six from 2.3 xG, and killing Leipzig’s hope to equalize whenever the opposition thought they were back to the game.
However, as our analysis have shown, Pep and his coaching staff had a lot to work to polish the team. Meanwhile, Leipzig were unlike a team of Marsch. Defensively, they were lacking intensity, while offensively, they struggled to break lines effectively. The American head coach needed more time to transform his team, but we should remain patient as Rome wasn’t built in a day.