What a massive victory that was for Manchester City on the road against FC Basel in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. A 4-0 away result essentially puts City into the quarter final with the home leg still to come.
I think a lot of City fans were going into this upcoming stretch of games with a little bit of trepidation given the number of crucial matches in the near future, but this game eases so much of that tension. Furthermore, the now 16-point lead in the Premier League allows Pep Guardiola to put back-to-back fixtures against Arsenal and Chelsea to the back burner when those would normally be make-or-break matches.
Now Guardiola can focus his squad on the FA Cup fixture with Wigan Athletic on Monday and the League Cup final against Arsenal the following weekend with some cushion for squad rotation afterward if need be.
This game was an absolute demolition and it was pretty clear from the opening kickoff that Basel didn’t belong on the pitch with City. A 4-0 victory looks amazing on paper by itself, but I though City actually looked a little rusty at times and could have had several more goals if their passes in the final third connected as they usually do. That being said, the Blues obviously deserve a lot of credit for how they played in this match and their ability to maintain possession and get past Basel’s pressure was fantastic.
Basel’s lineup was announced as a 3-4-3 but they appeared to set up in more of a 5-4-1 throughout the game, though they didn’t sit ridiculously deep like a lot of opponents have against City. Their central striker, Dimitri Oberlin, applied the majority of the pressure on the City backline, while the 4-man midfield behind him attempted to bracket City’s midfield, encouraging the passing flow through the full-backs. Unfortunately, Basel played like a team that knew they had no chance and appeared to more concerned with maintaining their positioning than actually marking individual players.
It is well documented that City will expose whatever opening their opposition gives them, so regardless of the Basel defense’s intentions, the away team was able to find space easily. The Swiss side looked like a collection of players who didn’t want to be the one to mess up, ultimately leading to a tremendous amount of indecisiveness in their marking responsibilities. Because of that, City were able to make runs and dribbles right through the midfield, only having to deal with half-hearted challenges from players not committed to defend. Their slow reaction time cost them on the opening goal, when Ilkay Gundogan simply was more determined to get to the spot than the man marking him.
Basel’s hesitation also left them in a lot of desperate defensive situations, resulting in breakdowns that created overloads on one player. Bernardo Silva’s goal came as a direct result of a Sergio Agüero run that pulled the entire backline with him. This left the Portuguese winger alone on the right side of goal to pick up the flicked clearance with time to pick out a spot past the keeper.
Agüero took tremendous advantage of this Basel flaw throughout, as Pep had him flowing all over the pitch in this game, operating from wing to wing, deep into midfield, and of course in his natural position as the center forward.
Manchester City also had their press and ball recovery skills turned to the max against Basel, battering the home team with recycled attacks time after time. It doesn’t hurt that City are not one of those great teams that rest on their laurels when they know they have an easy victory or the result is in hand. Pep Guardiola just won’t let them take their foot off the pedal. Even with a 4-goal lead, City’s effort to get the ball back from Basel was in fifth gear, never giving their opponent an inch of comfort.
City’s formation, as always, was reported as a 4-3-3 and it certainly was that as they held possession in their own half. But Pep went back to inverting his full-backs with the ball in the attacking third, converting his team to more of a 2-3-2-3 with Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker stepping up into a midfield role. This seems to be Pep’s preferred set up against inferior teams as it stabilizes the possession deep in the opponent’s half and creates a number of different passing options given the fluidity of his full-back’s positioning and the versatility of the midfielders.
In the second half, to top it all off after being up four goals, Pep brings on Leroy Sané and David Silva, which must be just the most demoralizing thing an opponent can see. Having substitutes of that quality is insane by itself but bringing them on with a massive lead is the ultimate haymaker move. These moves were probably motivated with an eye on getting some key players (Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling) some much needed rest while also knocking some rust off players coming off injury. And they certainly looked a tad rusty but that’s okay and that’s why they were in there anyway.
Credit to the Basel fans for being energetic throughout even with their team getting wrecked, but this round is done and dusted. City will definitely see this thing out in three weeks and it’s now time for all of us to start scouting the rest of field. The draw fell our way in this round but there is a considerably more difficult opponent waiting in the quarter finals. But as we proved against Basel, we’ll be ready for anyone.