Near the lake of Lerna inhabits a serpentine water monster commonly known as the Hydra. It possess many heads, the exact number varies from one source to another. Poisonous breath and harmful blood meant that its scent was deadly. Regenerative body parts only added to its prowess, chop one head and two would grow back.
A monster. One that was only defeated by the hands of the mighty Hercules and his cousin Iolaus. They needed a specific coordinated strategy, executed rapidly before the Hydra grew new heads.
So far, 20–21 has been the season of the football Hydra, Manchester City. New body parts in Ruben Dias, regeneration of weakened parts in John Stones and tweaking their attacking strategy to hunt their prays. When the 11 heads are alive, each has its specific task in the hunting process. Yet, any of the heads can perform any of the tasks the other heads are doing. Focus on the fire breathing head, and the venomous one will bite you from behind.
In the first leg of the Champions League’s round of 16, Manchester City’s pressing smothered Broussia Moenchengladbach giving them a two goal edge going into the return leg. Despite the dominance in that game, City faced problems in their build up phase. Gladbach’s pressing scheme focusing on nullifying the eternal Joao Cancelo made it harder for City to progress the ball up the field.
Gladbach’s 4–3–3 was switching more into a 4–2–3–1 out of possession with the deepest midfielder Christoph Kramer pushing ahead of Florian Neuhaus and Denis Zakaria. The eye grabbing movement however was that of Jonas Hofmann, who moved inside to mark Joao Cancelo.
Then once the ball was played into Aymeric Laporte out wide, the winger moved out towards City’s center back and pressed him while Kramer took the baton to mark Cancelo.
City’s problems originated when Laporte tried progressing the ball further ahead. The lack of a central player either dropping into space or Rodri moving up meant that Neuhaus and Zakaria can man-mark Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundoan respectively without the fear of a free Manchester City in space.
Another example in the game shows Hofmann going inside with Cancelo, while Kramer is ready to mark Cancelo once City play the ball into Laporte and Hofmann moves out to press the French center back.
Kramer dropped because of the threat of Rodri making a run in the space, but it’s Lars Stindl who picked up Cancelo. The Portuguese was always marked during City’s build up phase. This wasn’t the issue though, the main problem was one line ahead. There were only two City players in the Zakaria-Neuhaus horizontal zone, meaning that the central duo from Gladbach could translate across the pitch without being exploited. In the vacant blue spot towards the left side of the picture is the place where Bernardo Silva should have been, theoretically forcing Neuhaus into a dilemma.
Regardless, City dominated through pressing and winning the ball in midfield. Bypassing the build up phase.
In the second leg, it was different. Gladbach continued with the 4–2–3–1 pressing shape and Hofmann going inside to mark Cancelo, but City constantly had a player dropping to make it 3 v 2 in the aforementioned horizontal part of the pitch. Stretching Zakaria and Neuhaus so that there would be a free passing option for City to progress the ball.
An example here elaborates more. City’s three in the middle are Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne who is dropping and Gundogan. Zakaria is moving towards Bernardo Silva who is out the of picture and Neuhaus — also out of the picture but his hands are visible — is stationary in between De Bruyne and Gundogan, in a dilemma whether to follow De Bruyne or keep his position to keep tabs on Gundogan because Hofmann is inside marking Cancelo. This tweak from City meant that Zakaria and Neuhaus were constantly stretched creating a gap in the center for a City player to drop and receive the ball.
Stones chose the easier pass and that is passing the ball to Kyle Walker, and Walker did the same by playing a ball down the line. In both scenarios though, the penetrative option was De Bruyne who had enough space to receive on the half turn and attack Gladbach from inside their own block. An inside man
City eventually fond De Bruyne in the space after Riyad Mahrez combined with Silva down the line, but it took them five passes and and eleven seconds rather than one pass and a couple of seconds.
Another example here showcases how the 3 v 2 scenario gave City a free option to progress the ball. Neuhaus and Zakaria can only cover De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, leaving Gundogan free to receive the ball and progress up the field.
Zakaria and Neuhaus were constantly in the blanket situation, move left and they leave Gundogan free, move right and they leave the right midfielder whether De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva free, stay in between like the example here and they can’t block the pass into either De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva.
The game was over in eighteen minutes but the significance of the second goal is in how City started the move. Phil Foden dropped into the central space unmarked as Zakaria and Neuhaus were stretched. The first moved out to mark Bernardo Silva while the latter can’t commit because of the threat of Gundogan behind him.
Stones found Foden in the space with the type of pass City should have play more of in the game. The distance between Foden and Neuhaus allowed the City player to receive on the half turn….
….and dribble past Neuhaus into the space between the midfield and defensive line. Meanwhile, Gundogan was making a run into the box which Foden found and the rest is known. 2–0 and the tie was over
During the build up phase, City’ shape was more of a 3–2–3–2 with two wide forwards. The midfield line of three stretched Zakaria and Neuhaus, creating spaces and allowing one of the three City players in that zone to be a progressive passing option, while providing him a quick path in-between Gladbach’s midfield and defensive lines.
The quality of City’s players mean that the three players positioned in the midfield line of three could be any of the front five, making it even harder for the opponent to track City’s players.
Entering the draw on Friday, City are probably favorites and every team will want to avoid them, but can European teams find their own Hercules?