In their 2-1 defeat of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday – a result that secured a place in the last-16 as group winners – Manchester City followed their own blueprint for victory to the finest detail.
In possession Pep Guardiola’s side were at their spellbinding best, zipping the ball across the Etihad turf through channels only they could see, to teammates who found space where there was none.
There are 100 ways in which City can score a goal, and in the opening 45 minutes against the French heavyweights they tried damn-near all of them.
When the visitors had the ball, City pressed like a pack of hunting dogs, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bernardo Silva leading the charge, before Gabriel Jesus replaced the former and took up the duties.
What was most striking though was the way that City looked to exploit PSG’s greatest weakness; their attacking strength.
Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar are three of the best attackers in the world and any fan would want them on their team. All three were predictably involved in PSG’s goal, a low Mbappe strike that finished off a lethal counter-attack just after half-time.
But deploying such an attack-minded front line comes at a cost, one that Manchester United fans know all too well. Whenever City reclaimed the ball and attacked, the terrifying trio turned, looked on and walked. They did not track back like Bernardo, or busy themselves like Raheem Sterling, but waited around the halfway line anticipating the next chance to attack.
Raheem Sterling of Manchester City celebrates after scoring
(Image: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
That’s all well and good, but when playing a ball-retaining and technically superb team like City, any side that excuses three players from defensive duties will get dominated in midfield.
Mauricio Pochettino, the PSG manager, has never coached a team like that before. His Southampton and Tottenham sides pressed and worked as a collective, capable of toppling the top sides due to the collective sum of their powers. PSG can’t do that.
In the Manchester derby two-and-a-half weeks ago, a game a dominant City won 2-0, United couldn’t live with City. They allowed themselves to be pressed by the Blues, and by not pressing City properly or tracking back – Cristiano Ronaldo was largely guilty of this – afforded City all the time in the world to pick them apart.
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If United hire Pochettino as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s replacement, then their fans will not have been overly encouraged by the way the Argentine set up his team in a way that allowed City to control long periods of the game.
Likewise, if Pochettino wants to move to a team that will press as a collective and buy into his team-first philosophy, then United in their current state hardly seems the perfect match.
On Wednesday night, Pochettino picked a team full of attacking talents who don’t like defending and who press half-heartedly rather than as a well-drilled collective. Sound familiar?
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