Manchester City dispatched Bristol City on the road with a 3-2 second leg victory (5-3 on aggregate) to reach the League Cup Final where they will play Arsenal at Wembley. Overall, this game was a better display by the Blues than the first leg, but it was far from a flawless performance by Pep Guardiola’s team.
This game seemed to be generally split into two stages. The first stage of the game was ultimately defined by the score of the first leg, which gave a 2-1 lead going into the match. For all of you who watched City’s home leg of the semi-final will remember that Bristol City proved to be a formidable foe. Not only did they take a lead in the first half of the game, but also maintained a draw until the closing minutes of the game and Sergio Agüero’s heroics. They were comfortable on the ball and took the attack to City effectively.
The second leg showed a much different team for much of the game, one that lacked cohesion and confidence. It appeared as though they were secure in playing City when the onus was on the Blues to be the aggressors. However, having to come back against one of the best teams in the world seemed to shake Bristol City and left a similar tactical gameplan much less effective.
Pep Guardiola was in a position of power where he could roll out a simple strategy and allow Bristol City to beat themselves. Lee Johnson’s team did just that for much of the first half, though you can’t really blame them for making a run at Manchester City since chances like this are few and far between for Championship clubs. Bristol City actively pressed and pushed their midfield forward into the attack whenever an opportunity presented itself.
With midfielders making ambitious runs into the box on the counter attack, Johnson would often leave his backline deep as a safety net in case the attack broke down. Well, the attack often broke down and the space between the backline and the attack/midfield of Bristol City was more than exploited by the Manchester City midfield.
Claudio Bravo’s distribution deserves some credit for the team’s ability to counter the counter in this match. The CHilean has gotten his fair share of criticism from the City faithful and the media, and rightfully so. That being said, Bravo looked comfortable on the ball tonight and his distribution was impressive, not only based on its technical precision but also timing and opportunism.
Bravo did a really good job of identifying when a Bristol City attack left them out of position and would simply get the ball into space where a teammate would have a lot of ground to run onto. I thought Bravo was hesitant on these opportunities in the past but he took full advantage on Tuesday night, sparking a number of City attacks.
The other advantage Pep Guardiola was able to hold over Lee Johnson’s head in this game was in his press. When teams are bunkered down in an uber-defensive shape and just look to boot it out of danger, Pep will tend to ramp up the press so City can close on opponents before they even get the chance to get the ball off their feet. But Guardiola was familiar with Bristol’s desire to play out of the back when possible, and pressed in second gear instead of fifth.
City would close down as they normally do, but would do so somewhat gingerly in an attempt to bracket their opponent and close off passing lanes. Furthermore, when the Blues had Bristol City in a vulnerable position, they would flood that area of the pitch with additional pressure. This often occurred in the corners where Agüero and the opposite winger would drift over to intercept passes back to center-backs or central midfielders.
Now, if you’ll recall I mentioned earlier that this game seemed to break down in two stages. The first stage was all that good stuff I talked about before, but the second stage was around the 60-minute mark which is when City just seemed to get really nonchalant and reckless.
It honestly seemed like they realized that they were up 4-1 aggregate against a second tier club and forgot their fundamentals. I’d imagine if this is the case that it irritated Pep Guardiola to no end and he’ll have any mental lapses taken care of ASAP.
Granted, City were still the better team in this second stage of the match, but the final half hour more closely resembled the first leg. John Stones made a couple of mistakes that should never happen, one of which led to the first Bristol City goal. As a team, City lost their urgency a little and that was coupled with an opponent that had finally found their “we have nothing left to lose” mentality. Whether the game was ever in doubt would depend on whether you’re talking to an optimistic or pessimistic person, but those stoppage minutes seemed way longer than they should have.
Nevertheless, Manchester City are in the final of the League Cup and the first chance to fill the trophy case is upon us. Battling past Bristol City was a more challenging task than I had envisioned but great teams are able to find a variety of paths to victory. City will hopefully be closer to full health by the time this final comes around, allowing Pep to field the strongest 11 possible.