Manchester City dominated Feyenoord on the road to a final score of 4-0 in their first Champions League game of the new campaign.
Sometimes one team has such an advantage in skill and talent, that we can push tactics to the back-burner. I’m pretty sure City’s game against Feyenoord was one of those instances. Don’t get me wrong, Pep Guardiola put his squad in a great position going into this game but City simply looked like men amongst boys against the Dutch champions.
There are plenty of instances of teams with a talent disadvantage pulling out a result, but Feyenoord did not appear to have the mental or physical ability to even threaten City. The Dutch side was without their starting full-backs and their top striker, and had a starting lineup without a single player that has played in the Champions League before. Their inexperience showed early and this game was over almost as soon as it started.
The blueprint for teams trying to overcome a drastic talent disparity is to park the bus and frustrate their opponent. Maintaining a clean sheet for as long as possible creates increasing pressure on the favorites to take the lead. As the pressure grows, the stronger team will often sacrifice defensive responsibility in order to push forward for a winning goal, often leading to counter-attacking openings that can lead to chances or dangerous set pieces for their opponent.
This is what Feyenoord was most likely trying do against Manchester City.
That gameplan lasted less than two minutes before City took the lead and all that stuff I said before gets thrown out the window.
After the first goal by John Stones in the 2nd minute, the proverbial flood gates were opened and City treated Feyenoord like a fat guy treats a buffet. With the lead in hand early, the Citizens were able to play with patience and freedom.
City’s lineup was announced as a 3-5-2 with Fernandinho dropping in as the central player in the backline, flanked by Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Though City did feature this structure at times during the game, they appeared to primarily align in a 4-3-3 with Gabriel Jesus on the left and Bernardo Silva on the right of the front three. Fernandinho played his natural role as a defensive midfielder and dropped in between the center backs to form a 3-man backline at times.
This has been a constant theme of this season so far, but City continue to play with positional and formational fluidity that is almost impossible to plan for. This is a team that doesn’t appear to have a single definitive structure on how to attack opponents, but have a bunch of intelligent players that can read and react to the game as it progresses.
Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are generally the foundation in City’s ability to play this way and this game was a showcase of that. Both players are attacking midfielders by trade, but moved across every inch of the pitch in this game. City maintained possession beautifully and were content in doing so in whatever space was available.
When Feyenoord fell into a ultra defensive shape and did not apply pressure on the backline, City moved the ball within the defense with De Bruyne and Silva dropping deep in support until a gap was there to move the ball forward. Similarly, when Bernardo Silva or Sergio Agüero dropped deep to pick up the ball, Kevin and David would make runs into the space that these players vacated. This awareness allows City to maintain incredible spacing and exploit gaps caused by the movements of their teammates and opponents.
The impact that De Bruyne and Silva have on the game is so tremendous because they make these movements and plays throughout the defense, midfield, and attack. I realize telling City fans how great these two guys are is a textbook example of preaching to the choir but they deserve all of the praise because there is not one aspect of the game that they do not fundamentally effect.
City adjusted their lineup accordingly as their substitutions played out, with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané coming in for Agüero and Fernandinho to occupy the right and left wings, respectively. Fabian Delph got some time as well, slotting in as a defensive midfielder next to and then in place of Fernandinho.
Regardless of the lineup, City consistently put themselves in strong positions to go along with the physicality and determination to finish chances. Feyenoord barely put any pressure on the ball and relied on packing numbers in and around to box to thwart City’s scoring opportunities.
Playing this soft press indicates they expected City would be overly aggressive and push numbers irresponsibly forward, something we have seen in the past. Having numbers behind the ball would put Feyenoord in a position to absorb pressure and attack on the counter when the chances came. But the Blues were patient in possession and did not fall into this trap, playing the ball through the back until Feyenoord’s defense inevitably loosened.
Feyenoord’s strategy also failed because they didn’t match this gameplan with an urgency to clear balls in dangerous areas. John Stones scored two goals off short corners, both scenarios in which De Bruyne and Silva played two passes between one another before crossing the ball into the box with relative ease. The Feyenoord defense was simply giving them that much space and Stones was able to win both headers on the receiving end.
Goals by Agüero and Gabriel Jesus came about due to similar circumstances, with City players more aggressive in attacking crosses into the box and first to loose balls.
Feyenoord were able to maintain only 28% possession and produce one shot on target (which was a very easy save for Éderson). There were few situations in this game, if any, that actually made City nervous; their domination was that severe.
A four-goal victory is a great way to start a Champions League campaign and alleviates any stress the team or fan base had going in. To make things better, Napoli, who many would argue is City’s most difficult group stage opponent, lost in their opener against Shakhtar Donetsk. The Blues were the favorites to win this group coming in, and there is more reason to expect this after this first round of Champions League play.