Tactics recap: Bayern Munich 3-1 Manchester City

For 80 minutes Wednesday evening Manchester City were so thoroughly outclassed by Bayern Munich it was difficult to believe they had a squad of European football’s most expensive and indeed most talented players. 

So comprehensive was the German side’s dominance that the home crowd applauded Bayern right winger Arjen Robben when he was substituted in the 78th minute.
After suffering a shocking 3-2 defeat to Aston Villa at the weekend in which a series of mistakes cost City a game they had controlled with ease, Wednesday evening’s contest was an entirely different story. Bayern hardly gave City a whiff of the ball, let alone any meaningful goal scoring chances. Although Alvaro Negredo struck late for City and David Silva nearly made it 3-2 with a free kick off the bar, the final 3-1 scoreline did not accurately reflect Bayern’s superiority.

Early this week Michael Cox wrote a piece for Soccernet stressing that City’s two league defeats to Cardiff and Villa were largely a product of lapses in concentration and avoidable mistakes. 

Silly individual errors certainly played their part last night. Joe Hart should have kept out Franck Ribery’s opener, Gael Clichy fell asleep and allowed Thomas Muller to get in behind the back four for the second and Fernandinho gave away possession in midfield far too easily for Bayern’s third. But equally as crucial as City’s individual errors was the way Manuel Pellegrini set his side out to play.

It’s no secret that Pep Guardiola-coached sides generally play a 4-3-3 with three talented passing center midfielders and look to dominate possession. Yesterday Guardiola used Philipp Lahm in front of the back four with Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger higher up the pitch to Lahm’s left and right respectively. To compete in midfield and not allow Bayern to comfortably retain the ball, City needed to match Bayern’s three center midfielders with three of their own. Instead, Pellegrini opted for more of a 4-4-2 shape. Defensively, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero stayed high up the pitch closer to the Bayern center backs and did little tracking back. This left their two center midfielders Yaya Toure and Fernandinho outnumbered 3 v. 2 in the central midfield zone. They generally picked up the two more advanced Bayern center midfielders, meaning one was always spare to drop off and collect passes without being closed down. This enabled Bayern to comfortably keep the ball and dictate the tempo. As a result City spent the bulk of the contest chasing Bayern in their defensive half without getting anywhere near the ball.  When they were able to win it back, Aguero and Dzeko were too high up the pitch to provide an outlet to spring counters. Bayern pressed quickly and relentlessly and forced City into knocking desperate long balls out of the back that simply gave possession right back to the visitors.

Aguero was substituted for David Silva in the 70th minute and City switched to a 4-2-3-1.  The change to three center midfielders coincided with City’s strongest spell of the game. Silva worked the space between the Bayern lines and provided a link to Negredo (who had come on to replace Dzeko) that City had lacked when they were in a 4-4-2. In Aguero’s 70 minutes on the pitch he had just 8 passes. In Silva’s 20 minutes he had 18. 

David Silva passes versus Bayern Munich via FourFourTwo (red= unsuccessful pass, blue= successful, light blue= chance created, yellow= assist)

Sergio Aguero passes versus Bayern Munich
Silva provided the pass for Negredo’s goal and also provided the ball through for Toure that led to Jerome Boateng making a cynical last ditch tackle and being sent off.  That’s not to say Aguero was to blame for the defeat and shouldn’t have been involved. In fact his pace could have been the biggest threat in behind the high line Bayern were playing. But he needed to playing alongside a creative midfielder with the positional awareness to drift into pockets of space and play through balls for him in behind the defense rather than alongside a #9. Had City gone with a 4-2-3-1 from the outside they’d have been better able to compete in the center midfield zone and we may have seen a much closer affair.

Match commentator Gary Neville went as far as saying that if Pellegrini were an English manager he’d have been called naïve for sticking with the 4-4-2 for so long. A stinging indictment, but one that’s difficult to argue with on the basis of last night’s performance.