If somehow the meeting of two of Europe’s most talented teams wasn’t enough reason to get excited for Barcelona’s Champions League group stage tie against Man City, the added storyline of Pep Guardiola’s return to the Camp Nou certainly added another fascinating dynamic to it. Here the Spaniard, in the early stages of his brand new English-based project, would attempt to take down the very beast which he helped to create during his time in charge of Barça between 2008 and 2012. A tough test indeed, as he knows better than anyone.
Guardiola’s certainly not averse to making notable tactical tweaks in these sorts of big matches (or in any, for that matter), but even for him the absence of Sergio Agüero from the away side’s starting XI was a surprise choice. He confirmed prior to the game that it was a deliberate decision, not one forced upon him through fitness issues, the manager choosing instead to deploy Kevin De Bruyne as something of a false-nine to ensure greater security and link-up play in the midfield zones.
That saw them line-up in what started out as a 4-1-4-1 formation in possession, while Luis Enrique’s Barça side adopted their usual 4-3-3; headed by the deadly trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez. Stopping those three from getting too involved by pressing high up the field and suffocating the service into them was at the heart of the Man City game plan – and, for the most part, it proved to be a largely successful tactic during the first-half.
Man City’s structure in those phases when they pushed high saw İlkay Gündoğan join De Bruyne as the two most advanced players, pressing the opposition centre-backs. This was then supported by Nolito and Raheem Sterling pushing on to close down Javier Mascherano and Lucas Digne (an early replacement for the injured Jordi Alba) respectively in the full-back areas, as well as Fernandinho and David Silva covering two of Barça’s midfielders in central parts of the pitch. The third one, most commonly Ivan Rakitić, often had a bit more space but was covered well by Nolito moving infield when the ball was on the opposite side of the field.
Consequently, Barça’s ability to build from the back was rather limited compared to usual. They still kept the ball a fair amount, and weren’t overly prone to losing it in dangerous areas, but moving possession through the central zones proved to be very tough because of Man City’s effective man and spatial coverage. That progression instead had to happen more in wider areas, with Andrés Iniesta and Rakitić forced to drift towards the flanks in order to receive the ball, and not through their pivot, Sergio Busquets.
Another way that Man City flooded the midfield zone, albeit this time more for the purpose of combatting Barça’s own pressing attempts, came through their right-back Pablo Zabaleta. He consistently joined Fernandinho in midfield when the away side held the ball, in a similar way to how Philipp Lahm did the same under Guardiola at Bayern Munich, leading to brief shifts into a three-man backline. As a result the shape turned into a flowing kind of 3-2-4-1, the fluidity in their structure being a real asset whenever turnovers occurred either way because they could then suitably adjust in quick time.
Overall Man City built a very solid foundation for themselves during the first-half. Messi, Neymar and Suárez were only able to complete 21 passes between them in those opening 45 minutes due to their lack of consistent service, and it was they, through some decent opportunities for De Bruyne, Gündoğan, Nolito and John Stones, who had more shots at goal. The worry for them, though, was that they went into the break 1-0 down due to a goal from relatively nothing in the 17th minute. Not through any tactical issue, perhaps even more irritatingly for Guardiola, but just a simple Fernandinho slip in his own box which Messi, as he always does, pounced on.
If that was a case of Man City shooting themselves in one foot, then Claudio Bravo took it upon himself to shoot them in the other during the early stages of the second-half. The goalkeeper’s first error came when rushing outside of his box to collect a loose ball and accidentally gifting possession straight to the chasing Suárez, before then deliberately handling the Uruguayan’s lofted shot – a handball which led to a straight red card. One moment of madness which meant, just like that, there was far less reason for the away side to remain optimistic about the rest of the game.
Now down to ten men, there was only so much that the away side were able to do for the remaining 40 minutes or so. Maintaining the effectiveness of their pressing high up the field with one less player proved to be impossible, the additional space playing right into Barça’s hands, and helping to contribute to what ended up being a rather sudden capitulation of a tiring Man City. Nolito and Zabaleta having to leave the field (the former to be replaced by Willy Caballero, the latter for Gaël Clichy because of an injury) also played a part, given their good performances in their functional roles until this point in the game.
There were just eight minutes between Bravo being sent off and Barça doubling their lead. Unsurprisingly Messi was the one to get the second, through a delightful left-footed finish after cutting in from the right side, and a further eight minutes later he completed his hat-trick by tapping home a Suárez cross. Two further instances of Man City sloppily giving the ball away in their own half led to both of those chances arising in the first place, but big credit has to be given to Barça at the same time for the way they killed the game off.
Most of the way they did it, on top of being ruthless in front of goal, came through some superb closing down when Man City had possession at the back. It was like a swarming movement at times, using their extra man to great advantage and cutting off passing lanes to force their opponents into a significant number of misplaced passes or long balls. Their midfield trio were particularly effective with this, and they were enabled to step up onto Man City’s own midfielders by the high line which their defensive block behind them was holding. Man City may have stifled Barça in a similar way throughout the first-half, but now the tables were turned and Enrique’s team were able to secure the win.
Jérémy Mathieu (who came on for Gerard Piqué in the first-half) was sent from the field just a few minutes after Messi completed his hat-trick, leaving them to also see out the rest of the game with ten men, but they’d already inflicted the damage on the away side by this point. Or rather most of it, anyway, as Neymar went on to complete the scoring and made it 4-0 in the 89th minute (although not before missing a penalty as well).
It wasn’t pretty for Man City at all in the end but, contrary to the easy narrative that the drastic scoreline offers, this was far from a bad performance by the English side. With 11 players on the field they ended up being more than a match for Barça, and as a team they quite arguably got things right on the night; it was individual errors which cost them the most. Frustrating for Guardiola on his return to his former club, albeit a reason to remain positive about the direction which his new team are going on.
And as for Barça, 13 goals scored and one conceded in their three group games so far is pretty damn impressive to say the least. Going to Manchester for the return game in a couple of weeks is bound to be a tough test for them if the first-half of this match was anything to go by, but they travel in the knowledge that a draw will be enough to see them qualify for the knockout stages with two matches to spare.