Going into the first knockout round of this year’s Champions League, the match-up between a flowing Man City and Leonardo Jardim’s free-scoring Monaco side had a strong case to be touted as the most exciting draw. Neither of the teams have been particularly defensively-inclined this season, proving prone to errors at the back while instead relying on the pace and firepower at their disposal to see opponents off. So goals and an open tie could be expected between the two. And that, to understate things, was exactly what we got.
Man City’s line-up was in accordance to those which have yielded the best performances for them under Pep Guardiola. Setting up in a 4-1-4-1, Yaya Touré sat as the single pivot in midfield while playmakers David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne took up roaming central roles further ahead of the Ivorian. Either side of those two were Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling, who have both been on great form as of late, and Sergio Agüero up top completed a very dangerous attacking selection.
The away side meanwhile played in what proved to be a hybrid of a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 shape, with the revitalised Radamel Falcao and the talented young Kylian Mbappé acting as the two most advanced players. They similarly had a left-footed magician called (Bernardo) Silva in their side, who operated from the right, while Thomas Lemar played on the opposing flank. Then Fabinho and Tiemoué Bakayoko made up the centre of midfield for Jardim’s team.
Given their styles, and personnel, it was of little surprise that a fast start ensued. City’s biggest threat in the early stages came down their left side. Sané’s acceleration and dribbling ability in one-on-ones was something they’ve been exploiting well since he secured a more permanent place in the first-team, and he caused right-back Djibril Sidibé a number of awkward problems. It was his combinations with Silva which made it particularly difficult to stop for Monaco, the Spaniard drifting towards the half-spaces as he does to find pockets of space and link-up with his teammate.
When the home side got the ball high up the pitch into those positions they mostly looked quite comfortable with possession. The real problem proved to be getting it there in the first place, though. Monaco adopted a very high, man-orientated press, capitalising on City’s insistence to build from the back no matter what by forcing numerous turnovers in dangerous areas. That was particularly noticeable from goal-kicks, as well as when Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones peeled wide in deep areas to receive the ball.
City’s attempted build-up phase typically took place in something of a 2-3-2-3 shape at first – the two centre-backs stretched out, with Touré central and in the same line as the full-backs, Fernandinho and Bacary Sagna. Monaco’s front two were often able to position themselves smartly enough to pressure Otamendi and Stones, while simultaneously blocking the passing lanes into Touré. The rest of the team then suitably pushed up and covered the runs of any players, most commonly Silva, who dropped deep to try and offer support.
There were occasions when they were able to break the press in that system. The marking by Fabinho and Bakayoko on Silva and De Bruyne respectively meant that the latter two could drift wide and create space for Agüero to drop into, and the striker utilised that very well throughout. But it was very much a high risk, high reward thing. Smart, incisive balls through (or above) the lines were needed to get into the attacking players, and naturally that opened tons of space if done properly; but when those went astray, which they did more often than not, Monaco had good positioning to take advantage of it. Willy Caballero was particularly guilty of giving it away through poor execution.
Due to that, the home side’s greater share of possession (71% in the first-half) and their sheer directness as a unit, Monaco’s best chances came in transitional phases. Mbappé and Silva were at the heart of creating two of their better opportunities in such a fashion in the opening quarter of the game through some exceptional close control and passing range, while Benjamin Mendy and Sidibé epitomised the nature of their style with overlapping runs from deep. It was fairly fitting, then, that the opening couple of goals of the game came from the respective main strengths of each side.
The Manchester-based club took the lead initially in the 26th minute through Sterling, when he tapped in from short range following some smart play by the Silva and Sané double-act (the German being the one to claim the assist after some great touches prior to that). Monaco hit back shortly afterwards though – the equaliser starting from an ambitious pass by Caballero when the away team were holding their high press. Fabinho cut it out, played a delayed one-two with Silva, then whipped an exquisite cross onto Falcao’s head.
Only a ten second gap occurred between Caballero’s mistake and the Colombian heading home. What will have likely irritated Guardiola even more about the goal, though, was that City had actually shown signs of solving their problems in the build-up phase in the ten minutes prior to that. Rather than sticking with the 2-3-2-3, just after the 20-minute mark they started to switch the first two lines around and take up more of a 3-2-2-3.
That change saw Fernandinho move infield alongside Touré, while Sagna would drop a little deeper and be alongside Otamendi and Stones. Until then, the two full-backs had been pretty obsolete; Monaco found it easy to make them inaccessible by simply pushing Lemar and Silva up to mark them. Now though the pair were far more useful, Sagna contributing to establishing a numerical advantage over Falcao and Mbappé with the other defenders while Fernandinho strengthened the centre of the field.
Typically, despite the adjustments having already begun by that time, City were in their initial 2-3-2-3 build-up shape at the time when Caballero gifted the ball to Fabinho for the Monaco equaliser. There was no systematic fault to blame for the third goal of the night though. A free-kick on the half-way line was quickly played over the top which caught the defence unaware and Mbappé, who became the second-youngest ever Frenchman to score in the Champions League, emphatically rifled home in the 40th minute.
There was a period of relative calm between then and half-time. It had been a pretty breathless opening half, both teams trying to take the initiative and bring the game to their opponents. Asking for too much more of the same felt slightly greedy. But ask we did – and we sure as hell received.
Within just three minutes of the game’s resumption, Monaco had a great chance to extend their lead to two when Otamendi, who was also slow off the mark when trying to deal with Mbappé for the second goal, gave a penalty away for a clumsy foul on Falcao. After a notable delay El Tigre’s eventual effort from 12 yards was tame though, Caballero guessing the right way, easily saving it and keeping the deficit down to one.
Given that Jardim’s team were still in a very advantageous position at the time, calling that the turning point in the tie like many have since feels a bit simple. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Yet undeniably it did let City off the hook. And they were able to massively capitalise on that lifeline in the 58th minute when Agüero got his first to level things on the night. Danijel Subašić had a big part to play in it, the Argentine’s shot from an unfavourable angle somehow going through him, although Sterling’s role was equally key: his interception, run and through-ball helping to create the opportunity from nothing.
Of course, it wasn’t 2-2 for long. The ‘defending is optional’ mantra had already been demonstrated numerous times up to this point, and the second counter-attacking goal in a matter of minutes was scored shortly after. This time it was Falcao who buried the chance that appeared, getting his brace and redeeming himself for the penalty miss by pulling off a quite sensational chip over a helpless Caballero.
City made their first sub of the night straight afterwards, Pablo Zabaleta replacing Fernandinho; the Argentine going to right-back and Bacary Sagna moving over to the left. Things stayed mostly the same for City after that, as they had for the opening 15 minutes of the half and would until the final whistle. Sagna taking the role of the Brazilian and moving infield occasionally, while Zabaleta maintained a wider position on the right, were the only adjustments worth specifically noting for City.
As for Monaco, their plan similarly remained as it was. They did drop a little after Falcao gave them the lead again, although not by much – and probably not by the amount they should’ve. Their fatigue naturally began to set in during the closing stages, something which being deeper would’ve countered and covered up more, but instead their openness allowed the game to remain quick and stretched out. Which, as it turned out, favoured City quite considerably.
The home side’s increasing control of the game was demonstrated in the 71st minute when Agüero equalised (again) from a corner to make it 3-3, and the floodgates slightly opened at that point. Stones then put them back into the lead not long afterwards, converting from another set-piece situation, before Sané got himself a deserved goal in the 82nd minute. And that, at long last, completed the scoring.
So, 5-3 it ended. A thrilling match that surpassed even the biggest of expectations, while still being intriguing on a tactical level. The perfect combination, huh? Let’s hope we get even more of the same for the second-leg in Monaco.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).