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Manchester City 2-0 Shakhtar Donetsk, Champions League: Tactical Analysis

The Ukrainian champs provided a formidable test, but the Blues’ class put them over the top.

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Manchester City pulled out a tough 2-0 victory at home against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, giving the Blues a fifth straight clean sheet and putting them on top of their Champions League group through two games. Shakhtar were a challenge for Pep Guardiola’s team however, and were able to compete with City for far longer than many opponents have so far this season.

Shakhtar, the reigning champions of the Ukrainian Premier League, are a talented team with good chemistry who utilized a simple yet effective gameplan. Manager Paulo Fonseca devised a strategy that had his team maintain a tight, compressed structure, which allowed them to play conservatively in defense but also move forward into the attack as an entire team.

When in possession, Shakhtar would advance all of their outfield players to provide additional passing options and flood areas of the pitch in order to maintain control of the ball. In fact, there were several occasions throughout the game where every outfield player for Shakhtar was in City’s half.

This gameplan worked well for the visitors as they are able to move the ball amongst themselves very quickly and accurately. City have faced few teams this season who have been able to play one-touch passes and create passing triangles as effectively as Paulo Fonseca’s team. Shakhtar were looking to exploit a City defense that has been strong this season but is used to controlling the game and can become impatient.

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Shakhtar’s offensive mentality was coupled with a defensive scheme that did not press aggressively, instead opting to congest passing lanes (especially in midfield) and intercept balls played on the ground. It is interesting to wonder how Shakhtar’s tactics would differ if Benjamin Mendy was available for this game, as this defensive compression gave City space to work down the wings, and it’s not very smart to give Mendy space to work down the wings.

Overall, Shakhtar’s strategy was effective for much of the game as it cut off City’s ability to work the ball through midfield, which is a plan the Blues often utilize.

To City’s credit, despite not dominating the game as some would expect, they responded to Shakhtar’s approach in an intelligent and efficient manner. Defensively, City were not forced to make any spectacular plays but were solid throughout. I don’t recall any reckless challenges that risked giving Shakhtar a free kick in a dangerous position, something that City have been guilty of at times this season. In contrast, the Blues were patient and stepped to attackers at the appropriate times.

It’s worth mentioning that the new starting left-back Fabian Delph was exceptional in this game. Delph, a natural midfielder, was solid in defense and played intelligently. He was nowhere near as aggressive getting forward as Mendy has been, though I doubt anyone expected him to be. Delph maintained strong defensive position and moved forward down the left wing and into midfield at appropriate times. The Englishman won a couple of tackles that thwarted attacks down the right wing for Shakhtar and did not seem out of place at left-back.

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Perhaps curiously, Shakhtar seemed to focus much of their attack down their left wing against Kyle Walker. This obviously could have been to use the talent of left-back Ismaily and left winger Bernard as much as possible, but you would think that Fonseca would look to generate attacks against the player unfamiliar with the position, which was the case with Delph.

On the attacking side, City displayed some difficulty in breaking down the Shakhtar defense at times but managed to improve as the game went on. Pep’s team took whatever space they could get, often resulting in play developing down the wings. With Shakhtar flooding the midfield, City tried to sacrifice this area of the pitch but seemed to have trouble adjusting to this strategy.

City’s play throughout the season has been highlighted by the three central players (Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Fernandinho) roaming around midfield controlling the pace of the game while attackers move ahead of them to provide passing lanes. Because of Shakhtar’s strategy the Blues emphasized this dynamic much less, and we had situations where City would vacate the central midfield entirely.

A common scenario throughout the first half saw a large amount of space between the City defense and the attack, with the midfielders often tilted heavily in one direction or another. With Fernandinho (and De Bruyne at times) dropping deep to pick up possession from the defense, the attackers would look to make runs forwards as soon as possible instead of presenting themselves as options for short passes. There was rarely an outlet to play the ball into midfield from the back, leaving the full-backs to make passes down the wing or back to center-backs John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi.

Furthermore, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva stretched out to the right and left flanks more dramatically than usual. This led to a lot of switches of play and long passes, either over the top or on the ground into space. Delph was effective in cutting into midfield to take advantage of space or provide an available passing option. Granted, everything a team managed by Pep Guardiola does is for a reason and these were tactics either set before the game to compensate to what was expected or an adjustment made early in the game. Either way, it was a gameplan that showed some inconsistency at first, but developed into a strong attack as the game progressed.

As City maintained possession more effectively throughout the game, the emphasis on playing down the wings became increasingly more effective. Shakhtar’s intensity and efficiency dwindled deeper into the game, giving City opportunities to make intelligent runs into space and exploit the defense.

The second goal came as a result of this buildup, as the ball was played out to Kyle Walker, who played a ball down the sideline to Raheem Sterling, who had been subbed on for Gabriel Jesus. Bernardo Silva, another substitute who was playing in the front three late in the match, made a great run into the space behind the Shakhtar left-back.

Sterling continued his run and Leroy Sané made a great run towards the box from his position on the left wing. Sané’s run to the near post pulled two defenders with him and left a nice pocket for Sterling to settle into just outside the six-yard box. Bernardo showed good vision and found Sterling for his sixth goal in eight games this season.

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

City created a number of chances simply by getting the ball wide, though were equally if not more effective attacking Shakhtar on the counter. Thanks to City’s defensive shape without the ball, they were often in great position to counter attack as soon as they regained possession. Shakhtar’s compressed shape was only stretched in moments of transition defense, letting City develop quick attacks with the large space the visitors left behind.

Specifically, the best bit of buildup play from the Blues in the entire game did not even result in a goal: Shakhtar had a throw-in near the midfield that was eventually intercepted by Fernandinho; Sergio Agüero dropped in deep from his striker position (an uncommon sight in this game) before laying it off to David Silva. The Spaniard was able to continue his run to the edge of the box where he played a perfect lobbed pass over the defenders to Agüero, who had continued his run. Sergio was able to run onto the pass and fire a shot on net off the volley, but it was right into the keeper’s chest.

Additionally, the first City goal came about from a misplaced Shakhtar pass in midfield that fell to Kevin De Bruyne. He played it to Silva who carried the ball to the edge of box where he cut back to fend off a challenge from a Shakhtar defender, and Silva found De Bruyne making a late run just outside the 18. The Belgian picked up the ball almost flat-footed, turned and curled a beautiful shot into the top right corner of the net.

As the game went on with City in the lead and increasing their control on the game, Shakhtar could not maintain the effectiveness they showed in the first half, culminating in a more productive second half for the Citizens.

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

A player who really deserves credit in this game is City goalkeeper Éderson. The Brazilian has been great all season (five straight clean sheets!) and had a noticeable impact in this game despite not having to make many difficult saves. His distribution is starting to shine through more and more as the season goes on and it’s becoming a weapon City will use to create many chances.

There was an instance in the game where Éderson threw the ball onto a streaking Sané halfway down the pitch and another where he played a perfect kick to Agüero that traveled at least 60 yeards on a straight line, both of which led to quality chances for City.

City’s system under Guardiola will always feature cohesion and fluidity, though this game was won in a slightly different fashion. Though the tactics have only differed slightly, it is not the first time this season we have seen a different tweak deployed by Pep. It is very promising to see the team be this malleable and leads me to believe there is not one distinctive strategy or formation to combat Manchester City. And that is great news for the Blues.