Manchester City’s first travels of the 2019/2020 Champions League saw them return to Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk for the third successive season. However, there was something different about this trip. Pep Guardiola has long believed that the 4-3-3 system was the best way for his side to defend, but after failing to win the Champions League year after year Guardiola has made a tactical shift.
Pep Guardiola Shifts Champions League Style
Solid on the Counter-Attack
For most of the last decade, the Champions League winner has been an elite counter-attacking side. Going all the way back to Guardiola’s second Champions League title with Barcelona, every winner since has been elite on the counter. From the treble-winning Bayern Munich to the Messi-Suarez-Neymar Barca or the Zidane-Ronaldo Real Madrid or even the 2018/19 Liverpool side.
All of those teams had possession-based tactics but when it really mattered, they wanted to defend and hit teams on the counter. They didn’t build winners with counter-attacking-only tactics. When the attack didn’t work they could pull it back and recycle the possession.
This Manchester City side has been built for just that. Everyone knows the talent level at City is astronomical, but since Guardiola took over he has been extremely rigid in how he wants to defend. He opted exclusively to press sides in his typical 4-3-3 formation, but this season he has started adapting to prepare the side for Europe.
Champions League Formation for Pep Guardiola
One of the most interesting things about those Real Madrid teams was Zidane’s interest in playing 4-4-2 when it mattered most. Time after time Ronaldo would be moved up alongside Karim Benzema when the games mattered. Even when they were playing with a 4-3-3 in the league, things would change when it came to the Champions League.
Pep Guardiola has adopted a similar philosophy in the Champions League for City, but before explaining it, it is important to note this system change came out of possession. When City lost the ball, Ilkay Gundogan would drop in next to Rodrigo in midfield while Kevin De Bruyne would push forward closest to Gabriel Jesus.
From there, Manchester City counter-attacked Shakhtar to death. City only held 54% of the possession in this game, but they out-shot Shakhtar 18 to six. Guardiola and his team made a clear decision to counter-attack quickly in this game instead of keeping possession, something he has been reluctant to do in past Champions League ties.
There were some moments of sustained possession but those barely created as the counter-attacks did. Throughout the second half, City were finding De Bruyne in space with runners. Giving him options to pass to in space seems like a pretty good strategy.
The only problem was that City missed a boatload of chances. Even the first goal was a rebound after Gundogan hit the post. Raheem Sterling also hit the post and was crucially offside for a disallowed goal from Nicolas Otamendi. It’s frankly hard to remember how many times Gundogan was through on goal, he had three missed chances in the second half alone.
That is slightly worrying, but since they won 3-0 it’s hard to be too upset. Sergio Aguero nor David Silva played in this game, and Bernardo Silva came on with 15 minutes left. With any of them on the field for an extended period of time, you expect that more of those chances would have been finished.
So when City land back in Manchester, they will feel like they could have done better in Ukraine, but they got three points on the road in Europe playing a different style than they are used too. That’s a credit to great players ready to succeed.