Variance, Fortune and Control

In a world where humans want information fed to them as fast as possible, forming an opinion about a 90 minute football game seems tedious for some. The inability to focus through 90 minutes for one reason or another, forces them into the safest shortest path. Results oriented opinions.

The team who came back in the second half after being dismantled in the first, definitely smashed the opposition. Their second half display was the best away performance from an English side since the 6th of June 1944.

Opinions are in fact easy to make. Takes one second.

Yet, the beauty of football is in both its complexity and simplicity. Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have hypnotized football viewers with their complex systems and easy on the eye effective attacking football this season, but they only created little insignificant chances in their lauded display in the second half yesterday.

City’s goals originated from a corner kick and a free-kick, rather than the more accustomed threat from City’s open play attacking patterns. Despite the complexity of all attacking and defending setups, individual moments can more than often decide games and that’s the beauty of football. Its uncertainty.

It’s cruel to neglect Paris Saint-Germain’s incredible display in the first half, but this piece will rather focus on Manchester City, their problems in the first half and how once individual moments went in their favor, they unleashed their control.

Initially, Manchester City set up in their recently favored 4–2–2–2. A setup that focuses on passing combinations in the channel and the wing areas using a box that consists of the full back, the nearest center midfielder, the nearest 10 and the wide forward.

One of the reasons this attacking approach was unsuccessful against Paris Saint-Germain, was the French side’s aggressive center backs who moved out to occupy City’s number 10 and deny them space and time on the ball.

The presence of Marquinhos here, prevents Kevin De Bruyne from turning inside and forces him into a quick pass to Phil Foden out wide. Foden then played the ball back to Joao Cancelo, resetting the City attack.

On the other side it was the same, Presnel Kimpembe followed Bernardo Silva, not allowing him to turn inside and play in between PSG’s midfield and defensive line.

Whenever Bernardo tried to present himself as a passing option for City’s passing combinations to commence, Kimpembe was breathing down his neck forcing City into the safe option of resetting the attack.

Mirroring Kimpembe was Marquinhos. Both center-backs moved out to deny Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne the ability to play in between the lines and forced them into resetting City’s attacks back to square one.

Midway through the half and after going a goal down, Guardiola returned back to his more common 3–2 attacking structure with Cancelo moving inside next to Rodri.

Unluckily for Cancelo, the static nature of City’s front five in the first half helped PSG’s block to shift across easily.

Once the ball went wide, it was simple for PSG to shift their block horizontally to that side to outnumber the City players in that zone.

Another issue was Cancelo himself. In this example, under pressure from Idrissa Gueye, he scuffed his long pass into Mahrez, allowing Mitchel Bakker to collect the ball.

Then in another situation where Bakker had to go inside to maintain horizontal compactness, Cancelo’s long ball was too heavy for Riyad Mahrez and went out of play.

Then weirdly he tried to hit a long range effort fives minutes before half time. Cancelo alone shouldn’t be judged, the lack of movement in-front of him minimized his options as well.

Cancelo for all his impressive performances in that inside midfield role, isn’t a controller. He thrives in that role as a creator and when there are little to no runs in-front of him, it’s time to move things around and put the controller in a controller position. That’s why at half-time Guardiola moved his pieces around, Ilkay Gundogan went back next to Rodri, Cancelo moved out wide by the touchline and Foden was positioned more inside the field.

Theoretically, by putting a better passer in Gundogan next to Rodri and moving Foden into more of an inside role, City should have better control of the ball using central passing combinations between their highest technical players.

However, that wasn’t the only way City established their control. Foden’s threat inside forced Alessandro Florezni and Angel Di Maria into unfavorable decisions, these decisions didn’t create chances for City but it helped establishing their control over the game. An example here sees Florenzi moving inside to track Foden….

….then once De Bruyne decides against the pass and plays the ball into Gundogan, Di Maria has to move inside to keep tabs on Rodri….

….which eventually frees Cancelo who is keeping his place by the touchline. City can now progress the ball easier without pressure.

These attacks didn’t end in big chances for City, but by progressing through the PSG lines and keeping possession, they maintained control of the ball and when that is achieved, the opponent is helpless. Again, Foden’s inside presence attracts Florenzi….

….while also allowing for better passing combinations, as Gundogan’s passing skill set allows him to find Foden before the latter commenced with the passing combinations to eventually find Cancelo attacking the wide space.

The presence of Foden inside the field completely shifted the focus towards him, allowing more space for Cancelo out wide. That and putting a supreme passer in Gundogna next to Rodri allowed City to spring the ball from right to left to maintain possession and take control of the game.

Gundogan didn’t only improve City in terms of passing, his technical quality on the ball also denied PSG the retrieval of possession. Unlike Cancelo in the first half, Gueye’s pressure here fails as Gundogan does a reverse Cruyff-turn…

…putting himself in a position to find De Bruyne in between the lines.

Another illustration that shows Gundogan’s technical abilities can be seen here, dragging the ball with his backheel to create a passing angle into Rodri despite pressure from Gueye.

Then once Gueye is taken out and with De Bruyne and Foden inside the field rather than out wide, City can commence their passing sequence to maintain possession and control over the game.

De Bruyne’s magnetic field sucking Di Maria inside frees Oleksander Zinchenko here and Gundogan could have found him after De Bruyne played the pass into the German….

….but once again Gundogan receives with his back heel…

….adjusting his body position to move into space with the minimal number of touches before the passing sequence commences featuring Mahrez and Foden. This passing sequence resulted in the winning free-kick. Under pressure to break out of City’s control, Gueye fouled Foden to give Mahrez an opportunity to make it 2–1.

The wall helped Mahrez as his shot penetrated it to hit the back of the net. For all of City’s control in the second half, this wasn’t one of their best displays. Individual moments provided the goals and then total control sucked the life out of PSG.

Manchester City didn’t manage to penetrate PSG’s block, but the changes Guardiola made at half time kept the game under his team’s control, increasing the probability of an individual moment benefiting his side rather than the opponent.

An improved performance, a functioning system to control the ball and individual moments to win the half. Would the reaction have been the same had the score-line been different?

English Football. United