Hopes were extremely high for the initial meeting of Man City and Monaco in the Champions League three weeks ago. After they played out a thrilling 5-3 in the first leg at The Etihad, it's fair to say that the anticipation was more than justified. So, naturally, there was good reason to be excited about this return game in Fontvieille too – and once again the pair delivered.
Monaco were forced into a couple of changes from the eleven that started in Manchester, with Kamil Glik being suspended and star striker Radamel Falcao out injured in what appeared to be two quite big blows for Leonardo Jardim’s team. Jemerson and Valère Germain were the respective replacements for that pair. Those two slotted straight into the side, though, meaning the 4-4-2 type system that was deployed before could remain very much intact.
Likewise, Man City made two personnel switches as well – albeit through choice more than necessity. Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov came in, Yaya Touré and Nicolás Otamendi going out, which saw Fernandinho take up a permanent midfield role after initially starting at left-back last time. He was joined in the centre of the pitch by David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, then, in what, to some people, was regarded as an oddly attacking selection by Pep Guardiola given the two-goal aggregate lead they held.
The intention was very much for Guardiola’s team to go out and do what a Guardiola team does best. Take the game to their opponents. Operate in a style that suits them. Let the players attack. Trying to stop this Monaco side from scoring seems to be a somewhat futile task, anyway, so setting up purposely to play preventative football didn’t make much sense. A reasonable enough plan. For the opening 45 minutes, however, City were well off the pace and completely unable to demonstrate their qualities as Monaco established full control.
It didn’t take long for the home side’s pressure to turn into a goal; the eighth minute, to be precise, was when the 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé tapped him from short range to halve the deficit. Bernardo Silva claimed the assist, although Benjamin Mendy, who went on to demonstrate a constant threat on the left side from full-back, played a key role too by collecting a loose ball (after his own cross was headed back out to him) and cleverly driving into the box.
As in the first leg, the momentum and supremacy which Monaco generated was largely achieved by their work out of possession. Their front four of Germain, Mbappé, Silva and Thomas Lemar all pushed extremely high, forcing City’s defenders very deep during the build-up phase and creating a big vacuum of space between that set of players and the midfielders of both teams. If Silva or De Bruyne dropped deep to try and occupy that space, Monaco’s midfield duo of Fabinho and Tiemoué Bakayoko would man-mark them and easily prevent the passing option into their feet.
Similarly, City’s system to build possession was identical for the most part. It started as a 2-3-2-3, perhaps a little surprisingly after the issues they had at The Etihad in that same shape, although very quickly they again began reshuffling those first two lines on occasions. Fernandinho would drop into the middle of the two centre-backs to instigate that, forming a wider line of three and outnumbering Monaco’s strikers, and Sagna would then move from right-back to a more central position.
When he moved there initially, Lemar was understandably torn on whether to follow his fellow Frenchman all the way infield. It forced him into a tricky decision. Leaving Sagna unmarked would give City an easy route to progress through the middle of the field, while following him would then open lots of space for Stones in the channel to push up the pitch. City undoubtedly looked more comfortable in that shape again, a result of it limiting the effectiveness of the original set-up that Monaco held out of possession.
This time around, however, Monaco demonstrated some better adaption in reaction to the change in structure, rotating their man-marking system slightly at times (such as getting Bakayoko to push up onto Sagna, or one of the strikers to drop deeper) to not be as vulnerable to it. That cohesion in pressing and the sheer pace at which they did it, on top of the manner in which they cut out the passes into the midfield zones with ease, was a deadly mixture. Moving the ball up the field was a real tough task for City.
After gaining possession for themselves, Monaco’s variety of attacking movements played a key role in ensuring that City were unable to win possession and break out. The combination play on the left side was particularly dangerous. Mendy was bright and adventurous, while Lemar and Mbappé, who dovetailed their runs well, teamed up with him to overload the flank and create a numerical advantage. Over on the opposite flank, Silva regularly drifted inside to create space for Djibril Sidibé to bomb into up the outside from right-back.
They were comparatively less threatening on the right, a result of not having the bonus of Mbappé’s dynamic runs into the channels over there as much, although Fabinho pushing forward from midfield at clever times towards that side helped to keep them looking sharp there regardless. His ability to make well-timed runs was evident for the second goal of the night, too, which was scored in the 29th minute by the Brazilian who’s enjoyed a successful conversion from full-back into a midfielder in recent times.
Once again the movement pattern on the left created the opportunity for Fabinho to tuck home. Mbappé initially received the ball on the half-way line and drove up the flank to the other end of the field, gave his supporting cast a chance to join him, and shortly afterwards Mendy would end up picking out (as usual) a perfect cross into the path of Fabinho. He made it 2-0. Just like that, City’s lead had been eradicated. It was, to be frank, an awful half from them. But a genuinely brilliant one from Monaco at the same time.
It’s rare that you’ll ever see a Guardiola side so heavily outplayed as they were in that first-half. Not only did City fail to attempt even a single shot, they made just 15 passes in the final third: showing how few opportunities they had to even try and move the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch. Following the game, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager repeatedly mentioned in his press conference that “[they] played for only 45 minutes” – and ultimately that wasn’t enough.
That the number of completed final third passes represented less than 15% of their tally for the full game (106), though, also shows just how much things improved for the away side after the interval. Guardiola’s intentions would finally come to fruition. In many ways, the manner in which the tone of the match-up developed was similar to the leg played in Manchester. Monaco took control initially, pressing high and hurting City’s development of possession, before the English side then grew into the game and grabbed control themselves.
Trying to pinpoint the exact reason(s) for the drastic change would be a slight guess. It’s likely that the mental aspect of the tie came into play, given that the situation of who needed to do what to progress had altered significantly since kick-off. City simply had to score now, or else they’d be going out. Monaco had no need to be so expansive as well, and physically wouldn’t have wanted to risk tiring themselves out too early as they previously did in Manchester.
From a tactical perspective, Monaco’s drop in intensity certainly played a part – their front four being a little more conservative with pressing gave Guardiola’s team a crucial piece of extra time and space during the initial build-up phase. The man-marking of De Bruyne and Silva was also looser, Bakayoko and Fabinho being less willing to abandon positions and track their men, reducing the gap between the defence and midfield and consequently easing City’s task of progressing up the pitch.
Now able to hold possession closer to Monaco’s goal, they were then finally in a position to get the two playmakers involved as much as they planned. De Bruyne floated around in the right half-space, and Silva did the same on the left. To help narrow the gap between them, ensure better spacing and have more bodies in midfield, John Stones often moved forward to join Fernandinho in the centre. The young English defender has received a lot of (unfair?) criticism in recent times, but he ended up being one of City’s most consistent performers on the night.
Converting possession into chances was a slight struggle at first. It still took until the hour mark for City to register their first attempt on goal. They gradually created more though, the control increasing; the number of clever, penetrative runs from Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling out wide shooting up in particular. Those two getting behind Monaco’s full-backs proved to be Guardiola’s most dangerous weapon, and they were big beneficiaries of the extra play that City managed in the half-spaces.
Sergio Agüero was on the receiving end of a few attempted cutbacks from those two when they got to the byline, although the lack of a truly precise final ball saw those opportunities go begging. As did a few others that they generated. But things were way, way better and they were playing their natural game, leaving Monaco to cling on desperately under the pressure. City’s plan didn’t really change at all. This was what they wanted to do all along. They were just able to execute it much better.
And they got their reward for an improved performance in the 71st minute, when Sané scored from a rebound after Danijel Subašić pushed Sterling’s effort into his path. Sané’s been sensational ever since he properly broke into the team in the middle of December, offering a crucial, direct route to goal from wide positions, and he once again had a significant contribution up his sleeve at the Stade Louis II. At the time, given how the second-half had gone, it felt as if that was going to be the defining moment that finally settled a crazy tie.
But insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There were still twenty minutes left, and given everything else that’d happened of course there was going to be one more twist in the tale. It didn’t take long to arrive, Bakayoko the scorer as he headed in from a wide free-kick at the other end of the field to make it 3-1 in Fontvieille. Plus, most crucially of all, he made it 6-6 on aggregate and re-established Monaco’s lead on away goals.
It was a poor goal for City to concede – not due to it coming from a set-piece but because of the way that they set themselves up to defend it. By holding as high a defensive line as they did, City were practically inviting a risky, inswinging delivery right behind them. And Lemar certainly obliged. Dropping a couple of yards deeper wouldn’t have necessarily guaranteed that a goal wasn’t scored, per se, but having such a significantly-sized gap between the goalkeeper and the defenders meant that the most hazardous type of ball from that position was open to be utilised. And not too long afterwards the final whistle went.
Pinning the blame on that single moment for City’s elimination, though, would of course be to ignore the far bigger picture. It was the awful execution of their strategy (and Monaco’s superb execution of their own) in the first-half that ended up costing them, no matter how considerably they improved after the interval. They allowed the home side far too much control. That was what put City in the position where their two-goal advantage from the first leg was wiped out. Or, if you’re that way inclined, you can blame the away goals rule for it not just going to extra-time instead.
So, for the first time ever, a Guardiola-managed team was unable to make it to at least the semi-final stage of the Champions League. City’s pursuit of European club football’s elite trophy will have to wait a little longer. Monaco advance, meanwhile, and just how far Jardim and his exciting young side can go in the competition is sure to be of real interest.
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).