Despite stubbornly defending his way, Guardiola finally seemed to take a step back from his possession game and went for more pragmatic approach which was instantly rewarded with a win over his former club. Although City employed different approach against Barcelona, compared to the match played last week at Camp Nou, the match flow was quite similar. Barcelona went one up from the first shot on goal despite City being quite successful at closing them down.
GUARDIOLA’S GAME PLAN
1. ABANDONING POSSESSION AND PLAY OUT OF THE BACK MANTRA
Without his sweeper keeper, Claudio Bravo, Pep maybe didn’t want but simply had to abandon his desire to control the possession. That was the first step towards the change of strategy compared to match at Camp Nou. Playing with less skill full goalkeeper meant City can not keep the ball at the back against Barcelona pressing and led to much simpler game plan. The way Guardiola wanted to play at home, compared to the away match, is maybe best seen in clearances department. While City was reluctant to clear the ball at Camp Nou (only 15 clearances), at home ground they went for a long punt 25 times. Not allowing easy goals seemed to be the goal for Guardiola.
Above you see the passing map for both City goalkeepers in the first and second match. While Claudio Bravo was able to get to 70 per cent pass completion rate, Willy Caballero had only 37 per cent. No doubt Bravo helped City keep the possession and control the match as Guardiola wants, it also meant that a red card Bravo received was a direct consequence of game plan.
With Caballero between the sticks City opted to clear the ball much more frequently giving the possession away but keeping nice and tidy at the back avoiding crucial mistakes close to his own goal.
As a consequence of this shift in approach, City had only 35 per cent of the ball at home ground while at Camp Nou they were only three per cent behind the best passing team in the world.
2. ZABALETA ROLE
Above you see a characteristic movement from Zabaleta who cuts inside from right back position. This forces his marker Neymar make decision. Does he go and track Zabaleta inside? In this instance he does and leaves Messi alone to cover Stones and Otamendi.
Although Barcelona generally does well when pressing in numbers on the small space, above you see importance of Zabaleta’s positioning whenever the ball is on the left side of the pitch during the transition into the middle third. As Fernandinho manages to break the pressing Neymar remains in no man’s land and Zabaleta is alone with enough time and space to go for a direct ball behind high defensive line.
3. HIGH PRESSING
Although Zabaleta was important in breaking down Barcelona pressing and an option if Neymar wasn’t careful, City didn’t make much of it. They were most dangerous when they didn’t have the ball. Their positioning without the ball was formidable throughout the match. City managed 21 interceptions compared to only 10 of their opposition. However, it is even more important when they made the bulk of them. Two thirds of those balls City managed to get in middle third of the match between 30th and 75th minute. During the same period of the game Barcelona managed to intercept only four balls. To remind you, they had scored in 39th, 51st and 74th minute of the match while the first goal was direct product of work without the ball.
To conclude, it could be safely said that Guardiola went very pragmatic with his approach to the match. He kept what went well in the first game (pressing) and abandoned what wasn’t good. Once Claudio Bravo was banned for the match Guardiola had no possibility to go and win the possession game against his former team. He opted for direct game mostly over the right wing while waiting for runs from deep by De Bruyne and Silva once he managed to catch Barcelona on counter attack. Barcelona played same as they did at home and couldn’t produce much. Once City cut down on their own mistakes they went and won the game pretty much the same way they lost it last time around.
Beefsteak is part of the cow while football is made of mistakes… That’s how Guardiola comforted himself after Barcelona served him with four goals. How many mistakes Guardiola made himself is difficult to judge. However, it is certain he will not abandon his philosophy. Ball playing goalkeeper is fundamental part of how he wants his teams to play and that won’t change. Goalkeeper, however, eventually might.
Barcelona is in trouble in the back line and as game progressed, Pique and Alba both had to be substituted. Despite that, Guardiola kept De Bruyne in nr. 9 spot until 78th minute when he finally introduced Aguero. Too late, however. But decision to have De Bruyne instead of his best striker from the first minute was driven from the way Guardiola wanted to confront Luis Enrique. Aguero was consciously sacrificed as De Bruyne was fundamental part of Pep’s game plan.
While the ball was at the feet of Ter Stegen, City was very high up the pitch. However, they didn’t press. They made sure to keep passing lanes in central areas covered and prevent Busquets, Rakitić or Iniesta to come deep and pick the ball. This forced Barcelona players into predictable passing from goalkeeper to one of the center backs and then to full back. That was the trigger for aggressive closing down.
Above you see the moment Barcelona passes to Mascherano on the right side. Once the ball was near the byline City attacked in packs in the constrained space. De Bruyne was crucial here as he has mentality and physical ability to shift from left to right following fast tempo Barcelona is able to produce in the defensive line. Furthermore, he is able to press intensively and then track back. Characteristics Aguero lacks although he might be better finisher.
How hard it was for Barcelona to cope with this intensity from the attacking line we can read from possession. First quarter of hour teams were split equally on the ball. However, most indicative is that players who spent most time on the ball among hosts were Ter Stegen and Umtiti.
Above you see very good passing diagram from @11tegen11 and how this approach from Man City influenced Barcelona. Busquets, normally one of the most influential players and one who’s job is to connect defence and midfield was almost completely cut off. Their game suffered as well since Iniesta and Rakitić struggled to get on ball. Guardiola’s intent to seal off the midfield was quite a success. Instead of Busquets it was Digne and Mascherano who had to connect the lines and that is in big part thanks to De Bruyne’s mobility and hard work.
Despite solid performance that denied Barcelona the space and time in most dangerous zones, hosts managed to get into the lead after bizarre string of luck and Messi’s composure and determination. First Fernandinho slipped far away from goal and left the ball to Messi and few seconds later already won ball rolled right around penalty mark.
At that moment Messi was still surrounded by Otamendi and Silva, but both of them expected to go on counter as the ball was already won. Less than a second later, Messi was already celebrating his first goal.
From that moment Barcelona takes the initiative for following 15 minutes which was the time City needed to get back into the match. Although there were no significant tactical changes, the visitors upped their game and managed to finish the half creating few promising chances themselves.
When second half kicked off it was expected that City would continue to search for equalizer since Barcelona didn’t do anything significant. However, another bizarre moment came in 51st minute. Any other goalkeeper in any other team would leave defence to deal with lose ball 20 yards from his goal. However, Bravo is brought to be a ball playing goalkeeper so he went to do his job and – failed miserably. Poor pass into the feet of Suarez meant a prompt shot at goal that Bravo attempts to save and rightly gets sending off for hand ball outside the box. At that moment game was practically over.
Despite very ugly result in the end, City did well in terms of stifling Barcelona. While first goal was rather unlucky, red card is direct product of the way Guardiola wants to play and it determined the final result. Most certainly Guardiola will not change his philosophy as ball playing goalkeeper is fundamental to the build up play, but he might try to find another keeper.
After England and Iceland game, we have seen yet another upset in Euro quarter finals as Wales surprisingly easily dealt with heavily favoured Belgium side. Although for different reasons, both favourites got an early lead and failed to progress against “smaller” side. While England succumbed to pressure, Belgium seemed to have no coherent plan how to beat their opponents to begin with.
While Wales came into the match knowing it will be a hard battle they prepared for it, while Belgium seemed confident their quality in attack will be enough to cover for depleted defence. However, it was their attack that really disappointed and not the defence thatconcededd three goals. At times it seemed asWilmotss was playing a match of FIFA on playstation, passing the ball to Hazard and hoping he will dribble it into the net eventually.
However, the game started rather confusing for Wales. Joe Allen lost couple of balls as he passed horizontal long balls, an action that is under “Don’t do it” section in football manual. Apart from dubious passing decisions in possession there was a lot of confusion in early minutes in Wales defensive positioning.
Davies is completely distracted leaving Carrasco on side, Bale is pushing forward instead of covering Witsel and huge space behind him with Lukaku and Meunier completely free to receive the ball. In this instance Nianggolan chose to ping a long direct ball to Carrasco. However, he is so late in his decision making that, despite the hiccup in Welsh defence, right winger ends up in off side.
Opening 15 minutes were plagued by Welsh poor defensive positioning and soon after, instead closing down Nianggolan, Ramsey decides to cover the goal. That produces one of the best goals of tournament as Nianggolan hits a thunder strike into the top corner.
At that moment psychology started to influence the game heavily. Belgium seemed as they thought that Nianggolan’s individual brilliance is just a small part of what is to come while Wales actually picked themselves up defensively. On offence they were quite dangerous already.
However, above you can see how much more of the ball Wales had between 12th, when Nianggolan scored, and 30th minute when Williams got an equaliser. While Bale initially started on the left side of Robinson Kanu he slowly moved to right as somebody has reminded him there is young Lukaku Junior, Denayer (making his début at EURO) and Hazard who doesn’t track back.
Just a minute before conceding Belgium allowed one of characteristic counter attacks from Wales you can see that above. Belgium lost the ball and failed to track back into defensive position. Quick play sees Ramsey in possession and, within three touches, Bale is released behind the defensive line. Hardly any of Belgium players are in good defensive position. Hazard is notoriously released from tracking back, Lukaku is completely out of position while the worst is Denyer who can hardly deny a pass to Bale with his body orientation and positioning so close to Alderweireld.
Everything that went on for Wales went over Ramsey and Bale. Bale was crucial moving in half spaces from deeper positions while Ramsey was designated as the link between midfield and attack. This link was so effective due to clever movement by Welsh players, however, a lot of credit goes to Marc Wilmots’ side.
They were defending extremely deep, probably to deny space for Bale’s runs, however that obviously didn’t work as Bale wasn’t playing on the shoulder of the defenders. He was coming from deep to pick the through balls or for solo runs.
Above you can see how poor Belgium positioning is. Taylor on the ball isn’t pressed by anyone, he has his head high and calculating his options with time. He has Allen, Leadley, Bale and Gunter(on the right touchline out of view) to pick from. Intensity, or lack of, the Belgium defence was appalling. They half bothered to pick up players in their zones of responsibility, defended too deep and let all the time on the ball for Wales to pick their options during whole first half.
At half time it was evident Wales was targeting right flank where Lukaku and Denyer failed to cope with runs of their opponents. They didn’t try at all to disturb Wales’ entering the middle third and allowed easy avenues for Wales to go down right flank.
After initial 15 minutes when they scored, they failed to create anything apart crosses for Lukaku who was lost between three defenders. Only visible attempt to create space was Lukaku dropping deep to open up the space for De Bruyne who was advancing from CAM position. However, that ended in the lap of three center backs. Anything else was up to individual decisions and qualities of their offensive players.
With second half kick off Wilmots made few changes in personnel and their approach to the game. Belgium finally showed intention to close down Wales in their defensive zone in attempt to win the possession a bit higher.
However, this was usually poorly coordinated between Lukaku and rest of offensive trio De Bruyne, Nianggolan and Hazard. Wilmots also substituted Carrasco with Fellaini who was supposed to help Lukaku with those high balls. This brought changes in their shape as well. De Bruyne was moved wide while Fellaini came closer to goal exchanging his place with Nianggolan on CAM position. However, general idea of play didn’t change at all.
As time passed it seemed as intention was to give the ball to Hazard and hope he will do something with it other than get clogged in eight men Welsh wall. Other part of Wilmots’ plan with Fellaini’s presence was to rise the number of Crosses. From 15 in the first half Belgium got to 19 during the second. Only three of total 34 crosses connected. Sadly, there was nothing else to their game. They took away the possession from Wales but failed to do anything with it. Below is still shot of their typical attack.
Hazard who was playing on the left wing is bunching up with Nianggolan at CAM position while at the same time De Bruyne cuts in from right wing and Lukaku dropping deep. Even Witsel is coming to the party from his covering position. Although Welsh defensive positioning is far from perfect in this instance, they have taken half of Belgium squad out of the game.
In meanwhile, on the other side of the pitch…
Belgium was poor at defending in first half, but with beginning of second, when they started to press higher up the pitch, lack of defensive cohesion became apparent. As Bale makes a long direct pass for Ramsey’s run, Denayer and Fellaini fail to track while Lukaku is occupied with Gunter. Ramsey is free to run into space left behind the defensive line and another poor defensive display lets Robson Kanu to free himself from three Belgians and score.
As time went on Wilmots and his player were ever more nervous and, as they didn’t have sound plan to attack Wales, things got only worse. Changed to sort of 3-4-3 and then 3-3-4 in dying minutes meant only more confusion as players tripped on each other in front of Welsh goal and in the end another break down the right finished off the game.
To conclude, we can point few crucial moments. Above all it was Belgium that went on the field expecting an easy win after they trashed Hungary. However, Wales defended much better and Belgium ran out of luck and space for their star offence to shine. Furthermore, they were appalling in defence which was, kind of, expected, but offensive class should make up for that. If Wilmots had any idea how to attack.
Wales on other hand didn’t have the hardest job defensively as Belgium worked against itself for the most part of the match. With the ball, however, they did amazing job first half as opposition failed to cope with deep forward runs from Bale and Ramsey. Again, Belgium had their part in it as it was defending very deep and didn’t make an attempt to close higher and prevent Wales from getting to middle third. However, we have seen why in the second half. They are just too disjointed when pressing high to be effective leaving even more space for runners from deep.
If anything, as Belgium commited in attack, they left more space for Ramsey and Bale to run behind disjointed defensive lines.