3 Tactical Decisions that won Pep Guardiola the game against Zinedine Zidane!

For years, there has been one constant accusation that has been made on Pep Guardiola; Pep refuses to adapt as per his opponent, situation and objective in the UEFA Champions League. This is also the reason that many believe for Manchester City’s failure to progress beyond the Round-of-16 stage or quarter-finals stage.

However this season, the Man City coach has shown enough and more evidence to the fact that winning is just as much a priority as is sticking to his principles of football. While City’s 2–1 win over Real Madrid in the 2nd leg of the R-16 tie may have seemed like a game of individual errors which led to the result, in truth Pep’s decisions sure had a huge impact. Here are the key takeaways for which Pep deserves a fair share of credit:

Ederson’s Long passing

It is impossible that any football fan who watched the game didn’t make note of Ederson’s inclination towards long passes, something that he rarely opts for. To give you a clearer idea, let’s have a look at this in terms of numbers. Ederson averages about 3.5 long passes per game in the Premier League out 7 long pass attempts, which is an accuracy of 50%. In their 2–1 win against Madrid, the Brazilian attempted a massive 24 long passes out of which he completed just 9 (38% accuracy). As against all of the big teams that like to play out, Zidane opted to press high against City’s build-up with Benzema, Modric and Kroos given the duty. City didn’t force playing out from the back and instead took the longer route in an attempt to find Sterling and Jesus in space. The advantage here was that when Real Madrid center-backs won the aerial duels from the goal-kicks, Kroos and Modric were so far high up the pitch that the 2nd balls had gone to City’s midfielders.

Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus’ selection almost as a front-two was also justified given how their physicality help receive passes with defenders to their back. Although they couldn’t win majority of the aerial duels from goal-kicks against the Madrid center-backs, they managed to stretch and create enough space for the City midfielders to arrive and bag the 2nd balls.

The only other games in which Ederson had attempted as many long passes were against Atalanta in the group stage when he had 24 attempts and 17 attempts in home and away respectively. Let’s keep in mind how Atalanta are also an extremely high-pressing side and Pep chose to adapt to suit the opponent!

Asymmetry in wide areas:

This was yet another clear feature that City had added in the game, two full-backs with two contrasting roles. We aren’t talking about one being offensive and the other being defensive but this in purely in terms of positioning. On the left flank, Pep had Cancelo bombing forward while Walker was pretty restricted with regard to his movement. Despite, it would be fair to say that both full-backs were equally important with their contribution towards attack.

While Cancelo was providing width on one flank, Walker occupied pockets of space in deeper areas of the pitch to allow Kevin De Bruyne gain space in the right half-space. In short, the width was taken care of by De Bruyne and Sterling on the right while width was taken care of by Cancelo and Jesus on the other. Asymmetry is yet another enemy of man-marking schemes. This combining with false 9 completely took out Zidane’s man-marking approach to control City’s build-up and the chances kept coming. It indeed proved to be a problem for Madrid’s left-flank as Hazard constantly was under put in situations to make a decision:

Should he stay higher up the pitch as Walker stays deep and allow De Bruyne space in the right flank?


Should he cover De Bruyne who could be far more threatening and allow Walker time on the ball?

This dilemma haunted Hazard throughout the game and Walker ended up dictating the pace while City were in possession. Walker had more touches than any other player on the pitch with 96. Out of this, 73 touches were in the middle-third as compared to Cancelo’s 36. On the other hand, Cancelo had about 38 touches in the attacking-third compared to Walker who had merely 8

Credit: https://twitter.com/CompsFooty

False 9 beats Man-Marking all day every day

If you have been an avid follower of Pep Guardiola over the years closely, you would know when and where he opts to use false 9. The one thing many fans know is the fact that it’s very a cool, intellectual term to use in conversations about football and tactics. But what a lot of people don’t know is why and when to have a false 9 in their line-up. While Pep has been deploying this technique since his Barca days as he did with Messi and Fabregas, he didn’t really opt for it during his stint at Bayern. However with Manchester City, he has deployed at least in 4–5 games a season and on most occasions, he succeeds as well. The last time this was a success as huge as the two legs against Madrid was during his 1–3 win against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup when Bernardo Silva was deployed as the false 9.

As you may all know, a false 9 is someone who occupies no fixed position and simply roams around the pitch to overload areas where numerical superiority is needed.

The benefit is mainly two-fold:

a) It provides an extra passing option to the player in possession which helps the team hold possession

b) It absolutely confuses the markers as to whom they should track as the false 9 literally is all over the pitch and thereby pulling his marker out

After the game against Manchester United, De Bruyne was asked about the reason why they had opted to go for a false 9. His response was:

“We did it against teams that prefer to play man-against-man — Cardiff, United, in Barcelona away we did it the first year with Pep, so we’ve done it a couple of times. With Bernardo dropping it is four against three in the midfield, so they have to choose what they do — if they put their defender up there is more space behind and if not Bernardo is going to be free and that is what we tried to do.”

This is what happens seconds later:

It is pretty much the same case with Zidane as well as he has always preferred a high-pressing man-to-man marking system against teams that like to play possession football. It is not something new but he has been doing it since his very first years, especially in El Clasicos. There have been games wherein Barcelona absolutely played out of the pressure and created havoc with the space in between the lines while there have been games they struggled to play out from the back. But with Pep’s decision to go with a false 9, he succeeded in both games to progress the ball into the final-third as he kept finding his midfielders as well as Phil Foden in space in front of the back-four.

When you look back at how it all started, Messi was first deployed into a false 9 role against Real Madrid wherein the game ended 2–6 to Barca. That very first attempt at false 9 was also to destroy Madrid’s man-marking system.

Click here for analysis from back in 2017 when Barca managed to break Zidane’s man-marking scheme and went on to win the game 0–3 at the Bernabeu

Some interesting facts which explain the game further:

a) Toni Kroos had the most pressure attempts for Real Madrid with 20 but a success rate of merely 25%

b) While Phil Foden was supposed to lead the attack-line, he had merely 3 touches in the penalty area, which is more than only 3 players; Laporte, Fernandinho and Walker (all being defenders)

c) Despite Real Madrid’s high pressure, they won 0 tackles in the attacking-third

d) Joao Cancelo and Ilkay Gundogan who aren’t regular starters for City, were one of the best players on the pitch yesterday as Cancelo had the most dribbles by any player on the pitch while Gundogan had a passing accuracy of over 95% giving City total control in midfield

What does a team need to win a football game? 1–0! How does the team do it? Well you can find out right here in, what will be soon, a library of tactics.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store