Manchester City confirmed their spot in the quarter-finals of the Champions League with a 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach, taking the tie 4-0 on aggregate.
It was another managerial masterclass from Pep Guardiola who continues to rewrite the rulebooks on how to set teams up, taking a leaf out of his former mentor Johan Cruyff’s book, to keep Man City’s hopes of a quadruple going.
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For quite some time Guardiola has endured the wrath of Fantasy Football fans for his constant rotation between games, a luxury for the Catalan coach with the sheer quality at his disposal. It’s hard to predict which Man City players to get in your FPL teams (outside of Ederson) because there is no guarantee they will be playing every game of the season. We’re all just participating in a massive game of roulette and Guardiola is the croupier.
But ‘Pep Roulette’ doesn’t only affect FPL players. Certainly not since he has taken it to a completely new level. Now the opposition managers are hurting too. It was already hard for opponents to prepare to face Man City as they didn’t know who would be playing. Although you can set up to defend well enough against systems, each player will bring something different to the way Man City play. For example, you’d set up to face Raheem Sterling in a different way than you would against Bernardo Silva. Or Gabriel Jesus compared to Sergio Aguero.
So, what do you do when a team lines up in one formation but plays in a shape that barely resembles it? You lose, as Gladbach found out on Tuesday night. Guardiola set his Man City side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Bernardo Silva the most-advanced forward, or the False No.9 on paper. Manchester ‘We Don’t Even Needs Strikers’ City, as the Gladbach Twitter account quipped.
Manchester 'We Don't Even Need Strikers' City 😬 https://t.co/HskXK8o3d2
— Gladbach (@borussia_en) March 16, 2021
But come the end of the night the average positions for Man City resembled more of a 3-2-mess, with their players switching so seamlessly between positions. As BT Sport commentator Darren Fletcher noted at the start of the second half: “It’s a bit of a waste of time with this City team to actually put that team graphic on the screen because it doesn’t really bear any resemblance to the way they actually play.
“It’s alright on paper the theory about where they all might be, but it’s the modern day version of total football because they’re so fluid.”
Two players in particular that were key to latest level of ‘Pep Roulette’ were Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan.
It might appear easy to come to that conclusion considering they scored Man City’s two goals on the night, but their contribution was about so much more than that. As we mentioned Silva was the most-advanced player in Man City’s starting XI on paper when the team sheets came out 75 minutes before kick off, with De Bruyne playing in the No. 10 role. But in the opening 10 minutes of the game, the pair were constantly switching the leading role, a fluid understanding that sometimes had De Bruyne more advanced, sometimes it was Silva and on other occasions they were alongside each other mimicking a 4-4-2 with the rest of their team-mates.
As the game went on, it became clear De Bruyne’s role was to be the False No.9 and it was from that position he opened the scoring with a rocket of a shot. Waiting around the edge of the area, De Bruyne received the ball from Riyad Mahrez and, without taking a touch, allowed it to roll across his body onto his left foot before beating Yann Sommer with an excellent long-range effort. De Bruyne is right-footed.
It was the 25th goal he has scored from outside the box in all competitions for Man City, the most of any Premier League player since he joined the club in 2015. And it didn’t hamper his creativity, as De Bruyne finished the game creating three chances, more than any other Man City player.
Again with ‘Pep Roulette’, it’s not always going to be De Bruyne in this position but that doesn’t really matter for Man City, as they are all being coached in a similar way.
“We try to make the movements into the box when we arrive up front and it’s different players in different areas so I think sometimes it’s difficult,” De Bruyne told BT Sport after the game.
“But I think even when Gabby [Gabriel Jesus] or Kun [Sergio Aguero] plays it’s a little bit similar, obviously they’re more named as a striker but they do the same job. So if they are there or not we try to maintain a good shape and come in good positions.”
Then there’s Gundogan and his ever-changing role in the midfield. With Joao Cancelo moving into the midfield when Man City have the ball, signalling the start of the 3-2-5/2-3-5, Gundogan is given the freedom to roam a bit more and against Gladbach that took him out to the left.
Alongside Phil Foden and Cancelo, Gundogan formed an almost perfect line on Man City’s left flank, constantly switching the ball with the latter to help keep control of the game. But it was his understanding with the former than gave Man City their second goal, as Foden received the ball on the turn, ran through the Gladbach midfield and played an excellent pass into Gundogan who finished coolly pass Sommer. It was his 15th goal in 33 games across all competitions for Man City this season, a remarkable return for a player had scored seven in his first 131 appearances for the club.
The positioning of De Bruyne and Gundogan has a positive impact on Man City at the back too, as they help provide the first line of defence. A team cannot test Ederson or the back four if Man City’s attacking players have already won the ball back.
“I think it’s always important when you’re stable as a defence and as a team,” De Bruyne added.
“It gives the whole team confidence and it’s really nice for Eddy [Ederson] and the defenders, they are there to try and stop the goal and I think the guys up front and in the middle try to stay in shape to help them whenever we can and it’s easier when we don’t concede.”
Man City have now gone a little over 700 minutes without conceding in the Champions League since Porto breached their net in the opening game. Only Arsenal in 2005/06 have had a longer such streak in the completion without conceding, going 995 minutes en route to the Champions League final with Jens Lehmann and Manuel Almunia their heroes.
Is there really any point trying to plan for Man City? Because Guardiola will just have another tactical surprise up his sleeve and right now it has Man City en route to the quadruple.