Is there anything to win when you put your billion-Pound star ensemble on an airplane and travel across Europe to play in the cold of the Slobidshchyna? At least three points in the Champions League group stage. That is the motivation for Pep Guardiola, knowing that Shakhtar Donetsk vs Manchester City might not turn out to be pretty. But that is not what City is all about right now.
Some football philosophers may suggest that the best teams sometimes look average and win nevertheless. That is what Manchester City have done in the past few weeks. Usually, head coach Guardiola comes up with a variety of tactical ideas; some outlandish, most brilliant.
But the Catalan also knows how valuable his players are and how many of them can make match-altering moves. It is the beauty of the current City squad that the likes of Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sané battle for two spots in the starting XI, that Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus often battle for one berth, with Guardiola knowing that each of them can rip through defences and score the one decisive goal.
Just take a look at City’s encounter with Liverpool, a fixture which has caused Guardiola major trouble under the guidance of Jürgen Klopp. Both were on par on that day. The Reds even kept the ball possession rate at around 50 per cent, which seems like an insult to Guardiola. But then after 85 minutes, Sané was fouled inside Liverpool’s box and Mahrez had the chance to close the show.
It would not have been a totally convincing win, yet the three points would have created a gap between City and their biggest Premier League rival. This time City let it slip through their fingers, next time probably not.
Filling the De Bruyne hole
In terms of tactics and personnel, Guardiola has recently not done as much experimenting as at the beginning of the season. He shies away from trying out a back three and instead uses different back four set ups, with Benjamin Mendy often the more active of the two full-backs supporting Sterling or Sané on the left side.
What has hurt City’s level of performance the most is the injury to Kevin De Bruyne who could have had ridden the wave of his World Cup performance. Without the Belgian standout, Guardiola is in search of a playmaker who is able to connect the pieces and boost David Silva.
İlkay Gündoğan has had underwhelming outings and is not in his fitting No. 8 role but instead roams between a deep-lying 6 and a high 10. As a No. 6, his style is limited because he relies on short dribbles and smart turns that are not necessarily required in the backfield. As a No. 10, he lacks the kind of explosiveness that is needed to make runs into the deep and to threaten the back line at the edge of the box.
That is one of the reasons why Bernardo Silva plays a more prominent role in City’s line-up. The Portuguese has morphed from winger to attacking midfielder to box-to-box playmaker within a few months. Guardiola made clear after the match at Anfield that it is not just Bernardo’s attacking skills but rather his calmness on the ball and pressing resistance that are of value against strong pressing sides such as Liverpool. The modern-day playmaker is required to create plays and to secure the ball against intense attacks. Bernardo can do both and may have found a new home within City’s starting XI.
Fred-less Shakhtar less of a threat
As for their opponents, the reigning Ukrainian champions and cup winners, Shakhtar have lost a step compared to last season for one simple reason. Fred plays or bench-warms at Manchester United now, and there is no replacement in sight.
Paulo Fonseca, Shakhtar’s Portuguese head coach, tries to find ways to make the central midfield as forceful as it was with Fred, but that is a tall order for Maycon or fellow Brazilian Alan Patrick who usually play alongside the more defensive-minded Taras Stepanenko.
Tayson and the rest of the attacking department in Shakhtar’s 4-2-3-1 do not get the kind of support to cause as much havoc as in 2017-18 which makes the entire team less threatening. With that said, the match could turn out to be a tedious endeavour for City. They have to secure a win in order to make things less complicated than they should be after falling short to Olympique Lyon in the first match of the group stage.
It would not be surprising if Guardiola sticks to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 variation and intends to overwhelm Shakhtar on the flanks while playing it rather safe in the middle of the park where Bernardo and David Silva should have an edge over the opposition’s centre-midfield. Sometimes simplicity is key when you conduct a world-class team on a trip east.
Constantin has selected Bernardo and David Silva plus Sergio Aguero for Shakhtar Donetsk vs Manchester City on Twelve’s game, but who would you choose? Download our app on Android or iOS to take him on!