Manchester City’s own Back to the Future

In the 1985 American sci-fi hit, Back to the Future, Marty McFly goes back in time accidentally while trying to flee the Libyan terrorists. While being there, Marty alters the future and most importantly saves Doc Brown in the future — The scientist who created the time machine — by writing him a note warning him about his future.

From 1985 we take the DeLorean to the Etihad. It’s the Champions League Quarter-finals where Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have always reached an end to their voyage. Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon were the culprits before.

This time it’s a Borussia Dortmund side that is sparkling with young names which they may need to sell come summer, if they fail to make the Champions League again next season.

By now, the principles for City are set in stone. Every opponent knows what to expect. It’s up to the opponent to conjure a plan and then execute it perfectly, and that’s what Dortmund did in the first half of the game despite being one goal down.

Defensively, Dortmund’s 4–5–1 wasn’t rigid. Out of possession they were constantly looking to mark the nearest passing options for the Manchester City player on the ball. Here, Marco Reus is moving inside to mark Joao Cancelo, Jude Bellingham is marking nearby Kevin De Bruyne and lastly Emre Can pushing all the way up to mark Rodri.

Dortmund’s idea off the ball was to use City’s principle of congesting the middle of the pitch against City, by instructing their midfield five to mark the nearest City player to the ball. This way, the City player on the ball had two options. Either go back or switch the ball across the field giving time for Dortmund’s block to shift across. Another example here illustrates the above, the nearest progressive options for Phil Foden are all taken out. Ansgar Knauff positioning inside to mark De Bruyne, Erling Haaland dropping to mark Rodri, Mateu Morey ready to pounce on Ilkay Gundogan and lastly the duo of Can and Bellingham doubling up on Bernardo Silva.

The fluidity of the marking was key here for Dortmund. Once City circulated the ball to the other side, Dortmund man-marked the nearest progressive passing option for City. Again, Reus moving inside to mark Cancelo, Can breathing down Rodri’s neck, Mahmoud Dahoud near Bernardo Silva and in the bottom right of the picture is Bellingham marking De Bruyne. Dortmund’s shape and marking out of possession wasn’t rigid. The marking scheme was to constantly take out the nearest progressive passing option for the City player that is currently on the ball.

As the half progressed, City couldn’t create chances at their normal rate. Dortmund’s marking in midfield made progression of the ball much harder for City. In the 22nd minute, Rodri is rushed into a pass to Kyle Walker because of Can’s presence. Knauff already knows that was the only progressive passing option available for Rodri, so he started his run even before Rodri played the ball. Meanwhile, Reus was moving inside the pitch to mark Cancelo in case City managed to quickly play a horizontal pass.

City didn’t and Walker’s pass was played into De Bruyne. This snapshot shows that out of the four passing options available for Walker, two are marked in Rodri and Cancelo. But in reality…..

All of them were marked. Dahoud was in the shadow of Bernardo Silva, and moving up to press De Bruyne was Mats Hummels. The absence of a City player pinning both of Dortmund’s center backs meant that they could participate in marking out City’s players in midfield. Due to the pressure, De Bruyne uncharacteristically put the ball out for a Dortmund throw-in.

Another example five minutes later showcases how Dortmund nullified City’s ball progression. The nearest progressive options for Bernardo Silva on the ball in this case are: Cancelo who is marked by Knauff going inside the field, Rodri who is marked by Can, Gundogan who is in-between three Dortmund players and De Bruyne who even before Bernardo Silva played the pass to, Hummels was already making the run.

Bernardo Silva played the pass into De Bruyne, but the Belgian had no option but to pass back-wards because Hummels was sticking to him. Add Bellingham’s pressure to that and Bernardo Silva had to go back to reset the attack.

By half time, City were lucky to be ahead. A dubious Bellingham goal was chalked off and the English youngster had an early shot saved by Ederson. City couldn’t create anything significant apart from De Bruyne’s goal which stemmed from a Can error.

In the second half, City changed to a four-man build up. Moving from the 3–2–3–2 with two wide forwards in possession to a 4–3–3 in possession. The switch aimed to stretch Dortmund vertically and horizontally. Now their center-backs can’t move up freely because of the presence of Gabriel Jesus and their wide forwards have to be wider than the first half to take into account Walker and Cancelo.

The setup City used in possession after the introduction of Jesus was the one we were accustomed to in the previous years. Two free 8s in De Bruyne and Gundogan behind a front three. The significance of the change though was in how City easily reached their wide forwards using their full backs, allowing for more passing combinations by the touchline. Basically, Manchester City of previous years.

Cancelo stayed at left-back in possession rather than going inside. Dortmund on the other hand were still worried of the center of the pitch as you can see Gio Reyna moving inside towards the center of the pitch next to Bellingham. The result is that after Rodri plays the horizontal pass into Cancelo…..

….Reyna is way far from Cancelo…..

…..and the Portuguese can find Foden by the touchline with a simple pass. Morey was worried of Gundogan making a run behind him, but the isolation against Foden should have worried him more.

Foden bypassed Morey but his cross was cleared by Hummels. With Dortmund afraid of being stretched across the field, City managed to use their full backs as exit stations in the build up to put their wide forwards in a 1 v 1 scenario whether directly or by using passing combinations down the touchline with assistance from the nearby number 8.

The switch from City changed the defensive game for Dortmund, the Germans were coming to congest the midfield and block the nearest progressive passing options but the halftime switch gave them another test. It was simple but effective. Another example here sees Cancelo finding Foden in a 1 v 1 against Morey.

Foden received the ball on the half turn….

…..then gazumped past the right back towards the penalty are, but again his cross didn’t meet any City player.

The change in shape also saw the return of City’s combinations down the touchline with the wide player (Riyad Mahrez) and the number 8 (De Bruyne) nearer to each other. Here, City circulate the ball from Rodri all the way back to Rodri.

The quick triangular passes froze Dahoud for three seconds, and once the ball reached Rodri again he had space and time on the ball to pick his pass. Making a run in behind Dortmund’s defence was De Bruyne….

…..who then found Foden with an incisive pass, but the latter’s shot was straight at Marwin Hitz.

The chances kept coming as Dortmund were in fear of getting stretched and therefore creating spaces in the middle. In this attack Ruben Dias found Cancelo with the easiest pass there is…

….then a combination down the left between Cancelo, Mahrez and Foden….

…..put the English wide player in a 1 v 1 situation against Manuel Akanji. The threat of Cancelo on the overlap was the catalyst for this attack as Akanji’s slight body adjustment towards the overlapping full back allowed Foden to dribble inside towards Hitz. Had this chance been scored it would have fully encapsulated City’s approach in the second half. It didn’t though as Foden’s shot went wide.

The build up to the winner did however represent the approach in the second half. Dortmund in fear of being stretched and giving spaces centrally for Mahrez and De Bruyne, allowed Walker space out wide.

After John Stones found Walker, De Bruyne dropped into his favourite position in the right channel unmarked which allowed him space and time before Thomas Delaney moved up towards him. Only De Bruyne could have played a pass like the one he did with his left foot, putting Gundogan and Foden in a position to edge narrowly past Dortmund in the first leg.

The change in approach at half time from City was part of why they improved in the second half. It allowed for easier progression down the touchline as City could build up through their full backs, because Dortmund were afraid of leaving spaces centrally. The other part was the technical quality of Foden and De Bruyne who was the best player on the pitch.

Guardiola went back in time to get ideas for the present, but when he was there the present he left was the future so he had to go back. Back to the future

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