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Manchester City vs Real Madrid: 3 Key Points

Some quick thoughts on a Sunday night as we draw close to a massive game

Real Madrid v Manchester City: UEFA Champions League Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

We are now just two days away from Real Madrid’s game at the Etihad vs Manchester City where Carlo Ancelotti’s men will battle against a Pep Guardiola side that’s starved of Champions League success.

Real, of course, played in that stadium (behind closed doors due to the pandemic) in 2020 in the Champions League round-of-16, where they ultimately fell and crumbled out of the competition.

Here’s an excerpt from my Immediate Reaction piece from that game in Manchester in 2020:

As prophesied, Manchester City displayed all the tactical wrinkles they’re known for: Pressing, counter-pressing, incisive passing, and a high-line dance there for the taking.

Only their high line never got to be punished, as they defended high up the pitch — as far as Real Madrid’s penalty box, and got in the heads of Real Madrid’s defenders and ball-carriers. Zidane’s men could not find a way to cross their half-way line consistently. Without Ramos and Marcelo, Real Madrid had a drop in press-resistancy. Isco was missing too, and with Kroos and Modric not dropping deep to help escape the press, Casemiro suffered — hounded by blue shirts every time he got the ball.

Perhaps most frustrating was that Real Madrid undid themselves. Sure — City’s press was great. But was it good enough for Varane to make two shocking mistakes the way he did? Uncharacteristically, Varane couldn’t deal with two high-stake sequences:

This time, the team hopes it’s much different. We will do more thorough tactical previews in podcast form before the game, but wanted to hit you with some quick facts, a bit off-the-cuff, on this fine Sunday:

  • Manchester City are a team that adjust well in-game to opponents’ tactics, generally speaking. In the last three games they’ve faced Real Madrid, they have gone into into half-time on equal terms, but, after some tweaks, took home the win at full-time. Guardiola is a manager that has plan B ready, as he explained to me in 2020 after the first leg when I asked him about preparing for Zinedine Zidane’s versatility:

  • City will likely be without Kyle Walker and John Stones and will also be without Joao Cancelo. Walker is doubtful with an injury he suffered in the 2nd leg of the quarter-final clash vs Atletico Madrid; while Cancelo is suspended. This has been a huge development because: 1) Cancelo has been one of the best attacking wing-backs in Europe this season; and 2) City use their full-backs for everything in the build-up phase, and both have been so important in stopping transition attacks with their tracking. Real Madrid’s wing-back situation is definitely a little dicey right now, but they can at least breathe a bit in the first leg because of the situations of Cancelo and Walker.
  • Manchester City have kept four clean sheets in their last four Champions League matches, but it wasn’t easy for them vs Atletico. They struggled creating against a low block, but also struggled when Atletico took the game to them in the second leg. On top of that, they can struggle if a talented team bullies them — something that was definitely apparent recently against Liverpool in the FA cup when Jurgen Klopp’s men relentlessly pressed them into mistakes. Point is: Real Madrid can do one of those things (defend deep, or play a higher line and press), but shouldn’t take the middle ground like they did in most of the tie against Chelsea and PSG, otherwise the hole will be too big to recover from. They have to be better disciplined from a positional standpoint because City are more ruthless than Real’s two previous opponents.

There are also obvious things: Gabriel Jesus played like a maniac on the weekend, and is probably the best presser in world football from his position — undoubtedly something that Eder Militao, Casemiro, Ferland Mendy (if he plays), and others will be tested with. Kevin de Bruyne is also, as always, going to be problematic attacking in transition. Even without space, he is a cheat code — but give him a sniff, like an open lane or a player to pick out in either half space (City are masters at fluid, unpredictable off-ball movement into the channels), and he’ll cook.

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