Manchester City enter the home leg of their Champions League quarterfinal matchup against Tottenham facing a one goal deficit and without an away goal. This puts them in a challenging, yet not panic-inducing, position to move forward in the competition. But the question then becomes - how do the Blues exactly make this comeback work?
The answer to that questions starts by understanding how Spurs played in the first leg and projecting how that may change given the current circumstances. Mauricio Pochettino countered Pep Guardiola’s use of two holding midfielders by positioning his two most advanced attackers into the passing lanes to these players from the center backs, thus forcing the buildup out of the back to the fullbacks.
Now with a one goal lead and without Harry Kane, Pochettino may implement a more conservative system though it is a fair expectation that disrupting the central passing channels will still be a core component of the gameplan. This forces the Manchester City fullbacks to be focal points of the attack as it transitions from the back to the front.
There is no question that Kyle Walker will start at right back but the left back conundrum unfortunately continues. The prevailing wisdom appears to desire either Benjamin Mendy or Oleksandr Zinchenko (if healthy) to start at left full, though the player that should start is actually Danilo.
Including the Brazilian in the starting eleven makes sense because there is also a strong argument that City should play a more direct style in this home leg. At White Hart Lane, the lack of quick vertical transitions hampered the attack and the slow ball movement allowed Spurs players to recover before City could expose any created space. This problem is solved with increased directness, which is elevated by Danilo’s right-footedness and passing ability.
Despite being a goal up, it’s unlikely Tottenham will completely bunker and will look for an away goal despite any adjustments Pochettino makes to bolster his defense. That means there will still be space in between for City to exploit, even during stable bouts of possession.
Balls over the top from the center backs will be less effective as the defensive shape will be intact, and this is where Danilo comes into play. With Spurs allowing the center back to fullback pass, Guardiola can use his right-footed left back and some choreographed off-ball movements to create quality chances without distorting his own defensive shape in the event of a Tottenham counter.
The keys to this progression working is the inclusion of Leroy Sane and his pace to get in behind, in addition to Danilo making a decision on his first touch as he’ll have no need to turn to access a wide passing range with his strong foot. When a pass from Aymeric Laporte (presumably) approaches Danilo, the left-sided players will react and start their movements. One iteration would look something like this (apologies for the congested representation).
The play above puts Tottenham in a base 3-5-2 formation, which is a personal expectation, but the direct buildup from City would track regardless of how Pochettino’s side lines up. Furthermore, this representation is the most direct of all the direct options that Danilo has in this scenario, with Leroy Sane making a run in behind before the ball even reaches the Brazilian’s foot. The angle of his run may differ depending on how Spurs react to the pass to Danilo, particularly if right back Kieran Trippier is the player responsible for closing down.
Regardless, successfully getting Sane in behind while the defense is recovering to a pass to Danilo results in multiple passing options: Raheem Sterling on the far post, Bernardo on a cutback run, and Aguero making a late run near post after dropping in as a decoy.
But as the blue arrows indicate in the play above, playing Sane in behind is not Danilo’s only option. In fact, he would be smart to read each play individually and vary his decisions. He could just as effectively pass to Kevin De Bruyne, who could then play Sane in behind himself or start a one-two combination pass with Sergio Aguero. The latter would look something like this (apologies again for the congested representation).
The variations that are possible are obviously numerous, Sane could be the one dropping into the midfield while Aguero runs in behind down the left wing for example. Or a one-two combination could start with Aguero and shuttle to De Bruyne. Or it could be something that isn’t even mentioned here.
The overarching factor that makes all these variations potentially dangerous is that they will exploit a hole in the defense while it is reacting to a previous pass. And Spurs will react even if they don’t want to originally because the one-touch passing from Danilo will force them to.
Corresponding movements from the off-ball players may change depending on how Pochettino designs his marking assignments, but an effective variation exists regardless of that decision. Most importantly, this attacking philosophy puts City back in the position to dictate game flow, which wasn’t the case last time.
Forcing Mauricio Pochettino to adjust to him is exactly what Pep Guardiola wants. Manchester City don’t rely on Danilo to be a creative force, but if Tottenham have to treat him as such, they’ll have to make changes that will open up space for City’s natural attacking flow. That’s why he’s the choice at left back for Wednesday.