Tactical Analysis: Manchester City vs. Real Madrid (UCL Last 16)


Finally, Manchester City showed their capability to beat the best teams in Europe, winning both away and home leg match against the 13th times crowned champions of the UEFA Champions League, Real Madrid.

At the Santiago Bernabéu, despite Isco opening with a goal within an hour mark, Real Madrid still went to lose the game as they conceded two goals in the last 30 minutes. Gabriel Jesus’ and Kevin De Bruyne’s goals helped the Citizens to come from behind, while to make things worse for Madrid, Sergio Ramos picked up a red card and was suspended for the return leg.

The FARPost Technical Study Group looks critically at the events of this match and reveals insightful perspective for all the football students, ahead of City’s mouthwatering clash against Olympique Lyonnais in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals in Portugal.

Last week Friday, City secured their Last 8 spot by winning with the same goal margin as the first leg; 2-1 (making it 4-2 on aggregate) with Raheem Sterling opening the scoring sheet within 9 minutes into play, after City’s effective high pressing trap against Madrid’s early build-up from deep.

But Benzema equalized 19 minutes later with a clinical header from a well-delivered cross by Rodygo from the right flank. City found a winning goal through Gabriel Jesus (68’) after a terrible defensive error by Varane, in which one could credit Jesus for the pressure he put Varane under forcing a bad mistake at the back.

1.First Leg vs. Second Leg in terms of Game Approach & Formations

Zinédine Zidane’s team played in a 4-3-3 formation. Ferland Mendy returned to the lineup after being rested for a couple of La Liga games. The midfield trio was formed by Casemiro, Federico Valverde and Luka Modrić; Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos were left on the bench, while Vinícius Júnior started as the left-winger.

City played in a 4-4-1-1. Aymeric Laporte started the game and partnered with Nicolás Otamendi; Rodrigo Hernández and İlkay Gündoğan played as the pivots. It was slightly unusual that Bernardo Silva started as the striker while Jesus was the left-winger.

1.1 Line-up and Formations


1.2 Structural Analysis of the Second Leg in Manchester

Both teams approached the game with an identical formation of 1:4:3:3, City going for a more mobile forward three with no ‘traditional box nine’ while Madrid deployed Benzema as a key point of reference on the striking line.

2. How City’s high press was proven to be a key weapon?

City’s superiority over Real was actually more emphatic than the scoreline suggests. From the first whistle, City made their intentions clear with aggressive high pressing having Phil Foden in an advanced role (central) together with the mobility of Sterling and Jesus (wide forwards), City’s aggressive high press with the forward three, making it very difficult for the Spanish champions to start their build-ups, forcing both Militao and Varane to split wide, setting visible pressing traps on Militao who has technical limitations.

Courtois had to advance into the edge of the big box to give them numerical balance against City’s forward three while pushing both fullbacks (Mendy and Carvajal) wide and high on the initial build-up phase.

PRESSING TRAP: City’s forward three applying high press against Madrid’s First build-up Phase

The reference of how effective was the high press is how City managed to find their opening goal. Sterling curved his pressing run well to pressurize Militao and followed the pass to Varane and remained central to cut the possibility of a pass back to Militao and ready to pressurize Courtois too.

Foden was also blocking the possibility for Varane to pass into the midfield zone. Jesus was able to press successfully and win the ball to pass to Sterling, who’s already in the goalmouth, for him to score.

PRESSING 1:Sterling forcing wide Pass    PRESSING 2:Jesus successful press to win the ball


GOAL (Sterling 9’) Jesus makes a pass to Sterling and he scores


3. Madrid’s Key Attacking Organizational Patterns

On a few occassions, Madrid were able to beat City’s high press, by-passing the high press with a long pass direct to either Benzema or Rodygo. They also varied their midfield shape by dropping Kroos to be alongside Casemero, making a ‘double pivot’ to try give them numerical balance against City’s midfield press. A few times Madrid found numerical superiority on the right side, pressurizing Walker who often faced a 2v1 (with Hazard and Mendy) and they got some handful opportunities from this situation.

Madrid’s numerical superiority on the left midfield

Madrid gaining final third entry on the left

Madrid managed to beat City’s high press to find their opening goal. Benzema’s intelligent moves to often drag Cancelo into the left half-space freed Rodrygo and with every long switch into Rodrygo, it exposed Cancelo to face one on one challenges with Rodrygo and now allowed Benzema to made the deep run into the box while know well Rodrygo’s superior technical qualities to eliminate Cancelo and deliver a quality cross into the box, with Benzema becoming a key target man given his excellent aerial qualities, and this is exactly how they find their equalizing goal.

4. How City looked in terms of the attacking patterns?

Surprisingly City has over 20 long balls on their build-up, with Madrid’s high man-orientated defence against their build-up making it difficult for City to start their build-up from the back. Jesus proved to be superior in the air, winning 8 aerial duels against Verane (winning 3).

City’s winning goal came from Jesus giving Verane problems, applying pressure to ‘force an error’ which lead into Jesus benefiting from the error and secured their Last 8 spot.

Jesus applying pressure to Verane to force the ‘error’ that lead into City’s winning goal

City clearly opted to play long balls over Madrid’s high man-to-man pressing to exploit the space behind the press.

5. City’s short build-up: Variations to try beat Madrid’s man-orientation marking

Man City applied very interesting machamisms to try beat Madrid’s man-orientated defensive approach to make it hard for them to have fluidity on their early build-up. They applied a lot of rotation looking to unsettle Madrid’s man-marking approach, with both teams applying a formation of 1:4:3:3, this meant the midfield three versus three will be interesting, however, City were clever by often allowing Walker to invert into the right half-space, operating more as a  ‘pivot’ and allowed  Cancelo to stay wide but move up higher, this created a four versus three in the midfield and Cancelo together with Jesus were key options to ‘exit’ in the midfield congestion, with successful entries through the left side (both goals created from the left side)

Madrid’s man-orientated defensive press against City’s build-up

Below is an allustration of how City was using rotation in order to be superior in the midfield while constantly overloading Madrid’s right side of defence.

City’s positional roration

  1. Conclusion

This must be one of the greatest victories in City’s history which every City fan would have imprinted on their minds. These tactics were different from the usual approach of City, but they were not new. We have seen similar pressing systems and uses of the double-pivot in their 3-1 win at Old Trafford against their City rivals, Manchester United. Mentally, City were better than before as they did not allow their first-leg lead get into them, and the spirit of the team also contributed to this victory.

For Madrid, it must be mentioned how they missed Ramos who got a red card on the first leg and was serving his suspension from the first leg.

The 34-year-old remains a magnificent defender with real presence and at the Etihad, Real paid a heavy price for his red card in the first leg of this quarter-final, played at the Bernabeu six months ago. His organisation and composure was badly missed with his usual central defensive partner Varane – upon whom the burden of responsibility fell in Ramos’ absence – suffering a personal nightmare.

There is no doubt that City’s victory sent a strong message to the world by knocking 13 times UEFA Champions out of the competition. Pep highlighting great fighting spirit from the team and furthermore, mentioning how his scouting or analysis department is already a step ahead with the preparation of their Last 8 opponents; Lyon.

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By FARPost Technical Study Group

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