Football Features

Shakhtar 0-3 Manchester City: How Pep’s patchwork defence passed their first test

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 22:17, 18 September 2019 | Updated: 17:43, 29 September 2019

Manchester City’s Champions League campaign got off to the ideal start in what could have been a problematic trip to Ukraine, beating Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0.

Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring after Ilkay Gundogan struck the post before the two combined again, for the latter to slot home and give City a comfortable lead at half-time.

Kevin De Bruyne played Gabriel Jesus through to seal the game in the 76th minute as Pep and co. returned to England with a morale-boosting win following their disappointing defeat at Norwich City on Saturday.

City’s attack may have looked at their scintillating best at times, but it was their defence which most spectators’ eyes were on pre-game.

Following the injury to John Stones, Pep Guardiola had just Nicolas Otamendi as his only fit centre-half. The likes of Kyle Walker and Fernandinho have experience playing there in the past – very limited experience, it must be said – and Guardiola’s pre-match suggestions as to who would play where proved to be true.

Walker started at right-back, eventually being replaced by Joao Cancelo at the end of the game. Otamendi was the man who played next to him, as Fernandinho joined the Argentinian in the heart of the defence. Some suggested that Benjamin Mendy should start at left-back, but Oleksandr Zinchenko kept his place.

Quite surprisingly, the only two times that City were exploited came down the right-hand side – the only flank where both players were playing in their natural positions. A piercing run from Taison allowed him to get in behind Rodri before playing a ball through to Junior Moraes (far too easily, in truth) – Ederson was strong to deny the Ukrainian.

The two combined again just a few minutes later – again, it was a moment of Taison brilliance that opened up the City defence before Ederson, again, came out to smother.

It must be said, however, that City’s defence rarely looked troubled, or even vulnerable. It was more down to the skill of Taison than the ineptitude of Otamendi and co. that Shakhtar’s two chances were created. They were rarely exposed, partly due to their dominance of the game but also due to their midfield.

Often, City are happy to leave their back four fairly open in games when the likes of Laporte, Stones or Vincent Kompany (in the past) play – they trust them to do the job and are happy to leave players up the pitch and prepare for the counter-attack.

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In Ukraine, however, it was noticeable how hard the midfield worked defensively in order to ensure that a repeat of Carrow Road did not occur. Gundogan, a midfielder who has been deployed defensively previously, was put alongside De Bruyne in front of Rodri. However, the German was more than happy to slip in alongside the Spaniard in the holding role when City did not have the ball.

De Bruyne and Gundogan between them got through an awful amount of leg work. De Bruyne, in particular, was very impressive as he was able to showcase his passing range whilst also making sure City kept control of the game.

The wide players also put in a shift – Mahrez down the right and Sterling down the left. Many may remember how Guardiola deployed Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery at Bayern Munich: wingers who had far more to do than just score or assist. They were made to run tirelessly up and down the flank to support their side at both ends of the pitch and it appears that Pep may turn to this tactic again as he looks to shore up a defence that, when left exposed, will be an Achilles heel.

The defence, man for man, was good, but Fernandinho stood out. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: the Brazilian is a midfielder who loves to defend, to tackle, to nibble at his opponents. Granted, he will surely face sterner tests, but it was he who was forced to bail out defensive partner Otamendi when Shakhtar had their only shot on target in the game, as he flew across to put Moraes off just before he pulled the trigger.

It was a mature performance from City, something which has been few and far between in Europe – at least, for a team of their quality. They controlled the game in an imperious manner; they weren’t relentless, just persistent at a manageable pace. Yes, it could have been more than three, but at no point did they overcommit in scenarios to try and drive home their lead.

They played like a side that wanted a clean sheet and they got it. Okay, Shakhtar offered very little, but take nothing away from Pep’s defence. As their centre-back crisis continues, don’t be surprised to see City control teams rather than annihilate them.

As a whole, they need to be responsible with their tactics. In Ukraine, they were exactly that.