City were far superior but at 1-1 looked vulnerable. Their failure to take chances could stop them from winning the tournament
For a while now, it has been apparent the goals-against column in the Premier League table did not mean what it appeared to when considering Manchester City. It shows 35 goals conceded, the second lowest total in the league, only two behind the champions, Liverpool. But that does not mean City have the second-best defence.
Friday’s Champions League win over Real Madrid was highly impressive, an emphatic 2-1 defeat of the newly crowned Spanish champions that represented City’s finest European night at the Etihad of the Sheikh Mansour era, but it also highlighted that the fact they scored 17 more goals than anybody else in the Premier League this season does not mean City have the best attack.
To an extent, this is an issue of semantics. What is a defence? What is an attack? To what extent in a conception of football as holistic as Pep Guardiola’s can one section of the side be separated out from the others? But just as City’s defensive numbers are boosted by the way their midfield dominates against lesser sides – meaning there are several games a season in which the backline is barely tested – so that control enables them to rack up big numbers: 11 times this season they scored four or more in a league game, while not actually being that clinical.
The first leg in Madrid was an unusual performance for a Guardiola team, suggesting a more pragmatic approach. It was a masterclass in holding an opponent at arm’s length before unleashing Raheem Sterling against weary defenders for the final 17 minutes. The concession of the goal came against the run of play, but City still had the poise and belief to come back.
The only thought was that a slightly shambolic Madrid perhaps did not deserve that degree of respect and that a full-on City assault might have obliterated them. But given how often Guardiola has suffered for a lack of caution in European ties, that seemed an almost churlish reservation to express and, besides, a 2-1 win at the Bernabéu is rarely anything other than an excellent result.
This Madrid were supposed to be different. Over lockdown, Zinedine Zidane had supposedly toughened them up and improved their fitness. They won La Liga by keeping six clean sheets in their first eight games back. To which the only response can be: how? The absence of Sergio Ramos weakened Madrid, of course, but the richest side in the world shouldn’t be so reliant on one player.
City’s approach was the opposite to that taken in Madrid. They pressed hard from the off and Madrid collapsed. It was as if the visitors had never experienced pressing before. There was something almost pathetic about it, like one of those children’s dramas in which the bully disintegrates at the first sign of resistance, yet further evidence of the decadence of super-club culture. The worry for Madrid had been that Éder Militão, in for Ramos, would be the weak link, but he was the only member of the Madrid back four who wasn’t dispossessed during the game. None of City’s back four were dispossessed at all.
In that sense, Guardiola’s gameplan worked perfectly and was superbly executed – even if Madrid were so acquiescent you began to wonder how much of a tactical triumph it actually was. And yet when Karim Benzema equalised, it began to resemble a classic Guardiola European exit. His side had appeared in absolute control but had failed to take chances and then had suddenly proved susceptible to a flailing opponent.
City played so well that they won 2-1 but it should have been 5-1 (or even 5-0)
If anything, City were even more dominant after half-time and from Gabriel Jesus’s goal were never seriously in danger of going out. Yet still they wasted opportunities. City’s analysts, whose reactions are clearly visible and audible in the absence of fans, were particularly exercised by Ilkay Gündogan’s decision to try to play the ball on to Sterling eight minutes into the second half, a pass he overhit, when another turnover had given him a shooting opportunity on the edge of the penalty area. But that was only one of perhaps half-a-dozen occasions when a poor decision led to a chance being squandered.
To say City played so well they won 2-1 but it should have been 5-1 (or even 5-0: Rodrygo beat João Cancelo rather too easily and, precise as his cross was, none of the three City players surrounding Benzema as he headed in got a touch on him) feels barely a criticism at all, but this is a recurring issue. Guardiola regularly has spoken of failures in both boxes being the cause of a poor result.
Perhaps this is even a necessary failing when your dream is essentially a team of midfielders. If you value players for their passing, movement and tactical intelligence, necessarily you don’t value the more traditional defensive and attacking arts – tackling, heading, marking, shooting, finishing – quite as highly.
That’s where the Sergio Agüero-Jesus dynamic is so fascinating. Jesus is, by far, the more Guardiola player, and his hounding of Dani Carvajal was a major reason for City’s success. But brilliant as the finish for his goal was, he is nothing like the scorer Agüero is. The Argentinian has adapted to become a more Guardiola-style forward, but in Madrid when both were fit it was Jesus who started.
Direct comparison is skewed by the fact that late goals in big wins against demoralised opponents tend to be easier to score, which makes City look more efficient than they are. But, still, this season they have needed more chances to score a goal than Liverpool, Tottenham or Arsenal. City score a lot because they create a lot of chances rather than being particularly ruthless in front of goal.
In that sense, they are the opposite of Zidane’s Madrid, who are a team that tend to win the moments. Across the two legs, City dominated to such an extent through midfield they won comfortably, but that lack of clinical edge remains the biggest obstacle to them lifting the Champions League.
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