After the match, several Manchester City footballers dropped exhausted on the damp grass of the Allianz Arena. Bayern Munich had demanded from Pep Guardiola’s team an intense defensive exercise to contain the wave of attacks in which the German champions wanted to convert the game to come back from 3-0 in the first leg. “We are exhausted,” Guardiola admitted in the press room. His team showed a defensive character and a propensity to counterattack in the Munich arena that they will not hesitate to display at the Santiago Bernabéu if necessary.
That the first leg of the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid is played first at the Madrid venue may provide another example of the defensive improvement that Guardiola has tried to inoculate City. “We were solid because we defended very well in our area and this is the facet in which we have improved the most compared to previous seasons. We were lucky before missing the penalty, they had one or two chances and anything could happen, but we defended very well”, stressed the Santpedor coach. “In the difficult moments we played a very good defensive game as a team,” Belgian attacker Kevin De Bruyne also highlighted.
Guardiola set a historic mark on Wednesday by becoming the first coach to reach ten European Cup semifinals. To achieve this historic tenth time in which they reached the penultimate round of the Champions League, the statistics revealed that for the first time a team of theirs won a tie with less possession than their rival in the two games. City posted 42% ball possession at the Etihad and 44% at the Allianz Arena. The precedent that came closest to this rare bird in the career of the Catalan coach occurred in the second leg of the 2020-21 Champions League semifinals against PSG. By then, the French group reduced the possession of the citizens 44% in the Parc des Princes.
The tie with Bayern has confirmed this chameleonic version of City in which the government of the ball is stripped of fundamentalism to make way for withdrawals in their own half and the search to attack spaces with Erling Haaland’s devastating stride. The Norwegian has not only made an impact in City’s attacking game. He has also provided new defensive nuances that allow him to play other types of games during specific moments. “Due to the characteristics of our players, we now have the capacity to be able to kill the counter with Haaland and De Bruyne, more than with Bernardo Silva or Grealish. It is a weapon to be exploited”, analyzes Rodrigo Hernández. Madrid will have to pass the test of containing Haaland’s powerful starts without Militão, sanctioned for the Bernabéu appointment. The Madrid midfielder also admits that his team can intentionally contract in their own half if necessary. “Sometimes, it is good for us to be attacked and withdraw a little to find those spaces”, Rodri abounds, “but we know what our game is and what we try to do is combine it with this other one”.
The numbers describe a team trying to adjust to gain defensive strength. The Munich game has reinforced the idea that this Manchester City has increased its repertoire to win games that bring it closer to winning the title that culminates Guardiola’s work. “Now we concede fewer goals. One of the pending tasks that this competition demands is to be tough defensively. Conceding only one goal in this tie with Bayern Munich is a sign that things are being done well in this regard. The key is to grow each year, to absorb concepts. We have gained experience, it is a matter of commitment and sacrifice, of wanting to defend”, adds Rodrigo.
The Spanish international has been one of the main beneficiaries of the line-up and the mold that Guardiola seems to have established for games with the highest defensive demand. The double position of Stones as a second pivot in attack and as a center back in defense, when City withdraws, exposes him less. The consolidation of him as the best midfielder in the Premier League required a lot of overexertion to the limit due to the advanced pressure ordered by Guardiola. On many occasions, behind him only the centrals remained. This forced him to run many meters back when the rivals broke the pressure lines. With Stones as squire and with Akanji and Aké, two center backs, acting as wingers, City is a less vulnerable team and Rodrigo no longer plays so sold.
The formula had its first great success in January, in the league match against Liverpool at the Etihad (4-1). It was no coincidence that Guardiola repeated it in the two meetings with Bayern. “The Stones thing was already done by Pep with Alaba and with Lahm in his stage at Bayern. It is one of those resources that he devises to improve the release of the ball and also to be more solid, ”explains Domènec Torrent, a member of Guardiola’s coaching staff for ten years.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid is postulated as the next rival to test this more industrial and less allegorical fur of City, which has reached the semifinals with the poster for the least thrashed team in the competition, with four goals conceded in ten meetings. In five of the last eight Champions League games he has kept Ederson’s clean sheet. From Munich, the expedition of the English team left convinced that now they have more arguments and more resources than a year ago to dethrone the champion.
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