Let’s be honest, that was one of the least exciting games Manchester City have played all season. Nevertheless, getting the victory is obviously all that matters and securing the top spot in the Champions League group should be celebrated. But I would be lying if I said I was on the edge of my seat for that one.
The City side we saw in the first half looked somewhat similar to the team we are used to, but a version of that team that is sleep-derived, in a food coma or hungover. Pep Guardiola’s team didn’t have any problems maintaining possession throughout the first half but lacked any sense of dynamism and played at an unfamiliarly slow pace.
The multitude of lineup changes that Pep made for this game are likely the reason for this drop in quality, though he was right to rotate his squad for this game. A group of players that haven’t spent much time on the pitch together will lack chemistry and guys like Danilo Luiz, Yaya Touré and Eliaquim Mangala have not seen the field much this season.
City have been dependent on building attacks out of the back all season, and that has been dictated by John Stones, Fernandinho, and whichever of Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva dropped into the defensive midfield. Replacing Stones and Fernandinho with Mangala and Touré clearly affected the team’s ability to pass from the backline, and that should be no surprise. I’m not suggesting that either of those guys played poorly, because Yaya did organize the team well and Mangala was strong defensively, but they are just not on the same level as they guys they replaced.
Pep tried to accommodate this lineup by compressing his backline in possession to create more short passing options and giving De Bruyne the freedom to roam in order to pick up the ball from the defense. Danilo, who replaced Fabian Delph at left-back, played the position more traditionally but failed to make an impact early on. The majority of the attack in the first half flowed down the right flank and Kyle Walker was influential in that buildup, moving into/out of midfield and up/down the wing creating space.
Feyenoord, a team that had no chance at advancing out of the group stage, played without the pressure of needing a result and it allowed them to be very patient. They pushed all of the City attacks to the outside and didn’t allow the Blues to strike through the center of the pitch.
They did not press but maintained smart positioning to control the flow into areas they were comfortable defending. This defensive approach was coupled with a City team that lacked aggressiveness, leading to a relatively uneventful first half. The Blues were able to get the ball down the wings into areas where they could cross into the box, but there often were no attackers making runs.
Some of the best opportunities City had developed from quickly winning back possession off their own turnovers. Yaya Touré, despite his lack of activity offensively, was strong in stepping up on Feyenoord players, thwarting counters and resetting the attack immediately.
City came out with a spark in the second half that reminded everyone that this is a team that hasn’t lost yet this season. And Pep made a couple of substitutions that set his team up to get the winning goal. The first change, bringing on Gabriel Jesus for Kevin De Bruyne, reshaped the team with the Brazilian on the left wing and Raheem Sterling moved back to his more natural right wing, occupied by Bernardo Silva previously. This substitution was coupled with the full-backs, Danilo and Walker, consistently stepping into midfield as distributors.
The attacking setup now allowed for several players (Jesus, Sergio Agüero, Sterling and Bernardo) to rotate between the wings and attacking midfield. The Jesus-Agüero partnership continued to be a fluid blend where we could see any combination of one on the wing, a traditional two-striker upfront formation, as well as one playing behind the other. With these changes, Bernardo, who started the game as an attacking winger, rotated back into midfield where he showed to be more effective as a creator than finisher.
City continued to find themselves when Pep brought on Phil Foden for Yaya Touré, moving Ilkay Gundogan into the holding midfielder role. Moving Gundogan back as a deep-lying playmaker unlocked the speed City usually play with, as they are most effective when creating quick attacks from deep in midfield. Gundogan played a beautiful final ball to Sterling for the game-winning goal and looked stronger with the adjustments Guardiola made.
I was looking forward to watching this game mostly to see the young guys play, and was actually disappointed we didn’t get to see more of them. Maybe I was naïve in thinking Pep would start Foden, Brahim Díaz or Tosin Adarabioyo in a game that still had some semblance of importance. And we can blame the starters for not scoring early on to make Pep feel more comfortable bringing on the youngsters earlier, but it was good to see them get some run nonetheless.
Brahim only got a few minutes but displayed some impressive dribbling skills and Foden continues to display a great grasp for the game. Both guys looked comfortable out there and I fully expect flashes of brilliance from them soon, hopefully in the next Champions League game, which really has no significance at all for City.
This game didn’t give me that satisfying warm-all-over feeling like I usually get watching City, but they definitely finished better than they started. I feel bad complaining about City because they are literally the most successful team I have ever supported yet here we are. It was good to see the squad get rotated because Pep is going to need to use these guys with four consecutive midweek games coming up as City look to continue their winning streak.