So Manchester City finally lost this season, going down to Shakhtar Donetsk by a final score of 2-1 on Wednesday. The epic winning streak across all competitions is over, which is kind of a bummer but ultimately not a big deal.
This game meant absolutely nothing for City with first place in their Champions League group wrapped up, and suffering a loss may take off some pressure from a team that must be aware of the record setting pace they've been on.
Regardless, there are plenty of positives to take from this game. For starters, no one got hurt, no one got a red card, and most of the starting eleven got a rest as we approach the Manchester Derby at the weekend.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of concerning things from City in this game, as you would expect from a loss. I’m hesitant to place blame to heavily on the shoulders of individuals players because Pep Guardiola selected a lineup chock full of unfamiliarity, youth, and experimentation.
We all expected Pep to rotate the starting eleven given the circumstances, but all the power to anyone who could have predicted this particular setup. City came out in some variation of a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 with a three man backline of Eliaquim Mangala, Fernandinho and Tosin Adarabioyo from left to right. Phil Foden and Danilo played as wing-backs or wide midfielders depending on your perspective, with Yaya Touré and Ilkay Gundogan sitting in as central midfielders in front of the backline. The attacking line consisted of Leroy Sané, Gabriel Jesus, and Bernardo Silva.
Based on talent alone, you could argue that City still should have won this match, but it was easy to tell from the get go that this lineup just wasn’t going to work. My first thought when seeing this setup was that Pep would simplify his gameplan and play long balls from deep in midfield down the wings to running attackers with three players (Fernandinho, Gundogan and Touré) capable of distributing.
City did try to do so to a certain extent, but the lack of a dedicated attacking midfield presence often left the build-up play trapped in the corner. The front three played tight, allowing for the wing-backs to step up into space on the wings while Sané and Bernardo were given freedom to roam into the center of the pitch. However, City were unable to create many quality chances at all despite dominating possession, often in dangerous areas.
All that being said, the real problem on Wednesday was the defense. It was really bad, particularly in the first half and particularly on the right side. I had to look away from the screen a couple times in this game because I couldn’t handle the reaction shots of Fernandinho’s face after City left themselves exposed time and time again.
Mangala wasn’t the weakest link out there, but he certainly didn’t instill much confidence. He applied little to no pressure on the ball and got into the habit of stepping up into midfield to shut down counter attacks, but would then inexplicably desert the player he had committed to marking (which happened to lead to the second goal).
I have more complaints about the right side of City’s defense, consisting of Adarabioyo as the outside center-back with Danilo as the wing-back. These two looked clueless out there for most of the first half and were the primary reason for both Shakhtar goals. It didn’t help that the holding midfielder on their side of the field was Yaya Touré, who is not the best at tracking back on defense.
Shakhtar destroyed City down the right, focusing attacks down their left wing while Danilo was caught upfield, pulling Adarabioyo way out of position. Touré did not do a good job of moving into Tosin’s position, leaving loads of space for Shakhtar to attack.
Even when Danilo and Adarabioyo were both back on defense they were still exposed. City’s back three maintained a tight line, leaving the wing-backs to defend the space on the outside. Shakhtar left winger Bernard found himself with the ball at the corner of the box with both of City’s right side defenders in position. A simple overlapping run by the Shakhtar full-back pulled Danilo slightly off Bernard as him and Adarabioyo failed to communicate, giving the Brazilian time to settle and curl a beautiful shot past Ederson.
The second goal was primarily on these guys again, when a diagonal long ball from the midfield caught both defenders ball watching with no awareness of Shakhtar left-back Ismaily running around them for a one-on-one chance with Ederson, who came off his line but failed to make the clearance.
To their credit, Danilo and Tosin looked better in the second half and seemed to settle into their roles. Adarabioyo was more comfortable after some changes were made and he found himself at the center of the back three in fact. The young Englishman also was calm on the ball and made some quality, decisive passes. He is still a very young player, especially for a central defender, and unfamiliar circumstances likely played a role in the dysfunction between him and Danilo.
Anyway, now that the negatives are out of the way. Let’s talk about some exciting things we saw in this game. First of all, Ilkay Gundogan was really impressive. His ability to maintain possession and win possession back was influential, showing all the skills we expected from him before he was forced to miss so much time last season. I’m still not sure if he’s ever going to be an actual defensive midfielder considering his box-to-box capabilities and natural aggressiveness moving into advanced, but he’s a really, really well rounded player regardless.
What was even more exciting was the play of youngsters Phil Foden (17 years old) and Brahim Diaz (18 years old). Simply put, I absolutely love both of these kids. Foden got the start at left wing-back and was one of City’s better players. His ability to read the game is evident in his play and he matches it with superb technical skill. He played a through ball to Gabriel Jesus in the second half with the perfect weight on it and left the Brazilian alone on goal (he probably should have done better with the chance).
Brahim came in for Sané in the 62nd minute and immediately made himself known. His dribbling skills are insane and he has a strength that is rare for a player of his age. The Spaniard routinely beat multiple Shakhtar players off the dribble and was City’s most dangerous player for the last half hour. City ended the game with Foden on the left side of midfield with Diaz operating on the left wing giving us a view of what the future may look like and it looks awfully bright.
Despite the loss, City fans should take more positives out of this game than negatives. We will likely never see this defensive combination in any game that matters going forward and the young players showed a fearlessness and ability to excite. Manchester United is next on the calendar and City treated the game against Shakhtar exactly as they should have in preparation for the biggest match of the season.