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Champions League preview: Man City vs Real Madrid
Hi everyone, hope you’re excited for some huge games this week! I’m publishing this preview of Man City against Real Madrid today for free readers, and then tomorrow’s article on Liverpool vs Villarreal will be for paid subscribers only. Also, this one ended up leaning more on Man City than Real Madrid, but that’s mainly just because Guardiola is more of an enigma here than Ancelotti. Enjoy!
Manchester City vs Real Madrid
A Pep Guardiola team with much more complex tactical ideas coming up against Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in the semi-finals and losing? We’ve seen it happen before.
Bayern’s defeat to Real Madrid in 2014 came to symbolise Guardiola’s Champions League struggles, but he would probably tell you a different story. In the first leg, Bayern couldn’t break down Madrid’s low block, dominating possession but getting stuck in the final third. When they lost the ball, Madrid blitzed Bayern with rapid counterattacks. Guardiola added an extra central midfielder to mitigate this and give his team more control, but on the occasions when they did still give the ball away, Madrid were dynamite.
(I know that some around Guardiola, and thus probably the man himself, think Bayern actually played very well in the first leg, pointing to their possession and shot count dominance. But watching the game back, I didn’t agree at all. Bayern were better across most of the pitch, but Real were much better in both boxes.)
In the second leg, Guardiola did exactly what everyone keeps wanting him to do: not overthink it. As chronicled in Martí Perarnau’s brilliant book Pep Confidential, Guardiola had an idea to play with a back three and an array of midfielders tucking in so he could dominate the middle of the park. It’s a radical change of system, but Guardiola is sure of it, asking his assistant Domènec Torrent to make sure he doesn’t change his mind. Of course, he changed everything and went with the players’ intuition for a more attack-minded 4-2-3-1. It did not end well.
The lesson Guardiola seemed to take was: to go with the specific tactical plans and change things rather than keep it simple, despite what the players might want.
After that, we all know what happened. Guardiola was perceived to have “overthought” it in subsequent defeats to Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon and, most recently, Chelsea. The last one was a surprise because he had so brilliantly avoided the overthinking trap in the semi-finals against Paris Saint-Germain. He finally got the control he needed to prevent counters by using stale possession. This made the team a little more boring to watch, but it solved the tactical issue he’d been struggling with for years. He beat PSG by just playing his team, then shot himself in the foot against Chelsea by changing it all again.
City are perhaps even better this year than last. They’ve added a bit more attacking firepower back after they spent last season fixing the defence. Their expected goal difference per game is the best it’s been since 2017/18.1 This is a team good enough to trust they can play their usual way. Injuries and suspensions have thrown a spanner in the works, however. João Cancelo is suspended while Kyle Walker and John Stones have both been struggling with injuries. If one of those two are to feature, it’s probably Stones due to the nature of the problem. That certainly creates room for Pep to do his thing.
Real Madrid aren’t without injury concerns themselves. Their go-to midfield in big games since the dawn of time has been Casemiro at the base behind Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. Carlo Ancelotti still wants this trio on the pitch, but he’s recognised that this is a little flimsy with all three players now over 30 years old. The “solution” has been to play Federico Valverde as a right-sided midfielder and help give the side at least a little bit more solidity. The problem is even more acute as Casemiro is unlikely to be fit. That probably means Eduardo Camavinga coming into the midfield. At 19 years old, this would be the biggest game of his career so far. But I can’t see Ancelotti changing the big game template that has worked for him this season, even without an important cog.
The one time it recently went badly wrong was without Karim Benzema. Real Madrid played a strange strikerless system against Barcelona and looked totally unmoored. Along with simply being their best player, Benzema anchors the side and gives structure in a way no one else Ancelotti trusts can. Fortunately for Ancelotti, Benzema is fit this time and, having changed the formation against Barca in March and paid the price, I wouldn’t expect any tactical surprises in this one. It’ll be a third midfielder, likely Camavinga, joining Kroos and Modrić in the middle. Valverde will be a sort of wide midfielder with Vinícius Júnior playing a much more attacking role on the opposite flank.
I’m not sure it’s the right call, personally. With both Walker and Cancelo out, City look really concerning in the full-back roles. Guardiola has some options, or he could switch to a back three, but either way, that’s where I’d want to be attacking City. Ancelotti could easily start Marco Asensio on the right opposite Vinícius and really target City on the flanks. He won’t, though. This will be a by-the-book performance from Real. As in previous big European ties, they’ll look to sit deep and likely take a 0-0 at the Etihad. There will be a few moments where they look to counter with Vinícius and Benzema, but the vast majority of the match will see City dominate possession while Real drop into a low block.
This is a big part of why I think it would be a mistake for Guardiola to radically change his approach. Yes, there will be moments when Madrid look to break. Yes, I’m sure he’s at least thought of some weird system, maybe a lopsided back three that covers Vinícius on the left but leaves Valverde in space. But I don’t think the game really calls for it. In the second leg at the Bernabéu, you can expect Madrid to attack more than they will tonight. That is the time to “overthink” it. Stick to the plan this time.
The fullbacks are an open question. If Stones can be rushed back in, I think he’ll play right back in a Walker-esque faux-centre back way. Guardiola would then want his left-back pushing into midfield, which is just fine with Oleksandr Zinchenko. If Stones isn’t fit then it’s a little more complicated. This is just a guess, but I’m thinking it would be Zinchenko as a very left-footed right back, starting there but continually moving into midfield. That would mean the left-back needs to be the more defensive option, so in comes Nathan Aké. It’s a little shaky when Aké is your more trusted full-back.
You can see why Pep might spring a surprise on us. I’m excited to find out. My prediction is that, after a lot of struggling to break down a very defensive Real Madrid, City get a 1-0 win coming in the 75th minute or so.
Stats are from FBRef using data provided by StatsBomb.