Champions League Preview – Manchester City v Monaco
While not the high-profile encounter involving a Ligue 1 team of last week, Monaco’s trip to the Etihad Stadium this evening is nevertheless an intriguing one. Manchester City’s season has been one of mixed fortunes; dogged by injuries (Vincent Kompany, Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus) and the failure of big-name transfers (Claudio Bravo, John Stones) to settle, the team have seemingly underachieved, at least by the high standards of manager Pep Guardiola. However, the team may be hitting their stride at just the right time; after a 4-0 thrashing by Everton that saw the team fall out of the top four for the first time all season, they recorded a battling draw against Spurs. That has been followed by three successive wins that, while admittedly over weaker opposition that Monaco will offer, have shown the promise that Guardiola’s latest tactical tweak has in store.
Variously called a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3, the formation was borne out of necessity; against Spurs, Guardiola faced an aggressive, high-pressing opponent with marauding fullbacks (sound familiar?) with a dearth of central midfielders. Gundogan was injured, Fernandinho was suspended and Fernando, while included on the bench that day, wasn’t at full fitness. Desperate, Guardiola played Yaya Touré in front of the back four, with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne ahead of him. Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané played on the wings, with Sergio Aguero in his default position at center forward.
To many observers, that front six, ahead of City’s notoriously inconsistent defense, was tantamount to suicide, especially given Touré’s attacking proclivities. However, to the surprise of many, the seemingly experimental eleven worked, and Guardiola has stuck with it. The fullbacks (likely Pablo Zabaleta and Fernandinho, with Aleksandar Kolarov playing centrally and Gael Clichy a doubt with a back issue) play very high up the pitch, pinning back the opposing fullbacks and subduing their attacking intent. The two central midfielders sit slightly deeper than one might expect, protecting Touré, while the wide players tuck in to create additional pressure, leaving Aguero to stretch play centrally. It’s admittedly not been tested against a high calibre of opposition after its debut against Spurs, but its effectiveness is remarkable in that it allows City to not only dominate possession but also play on the counter, making it a suitable approach to limit Monaco’s own propensity for counter-attacking play.
There are, of course, some questions over Manchester City’s back four and goalkeeping situations. Willy Caballero was hugely influential in Malaga’s unlikely run to the Champions’ League quarterfinals in 2012-13, but his recent replacement of Claudio Bravo is his first sustained spell of first-team football in almost three years. Vincent Kompany’s persistent injury crisis continues, and the marginal form of Nicolas Otamendi has seen Aleksandar Kolarov drafted into central defense. This may not be a negative against Monaco, though; the Russian combines decent recovery pace with a good ability to break out of defence, either to provide cover for Touré or to break up opposing counterattacks. John Stones, on the other hand, is more of a question mark, but even his performances have improved in the last month or so, meaning that City are in decent stead, all things considered, with a system that has huge potential for foiling Monaco while still offering a great deal in attack.
The visitors, on the other hand, look a little rattled at present. After imperious performances against Nice and Paris Saint-Germain in recent weeks, Monaco have flagged ever so slightly, recently earning a combative win against Montpellier and coming from behind to draw at Bastia. Like City, both of these teams play a counter-attacking style, and their willingness to cede possession confounded Monaco. That said, Monaco have generally risen to the occasion against top opposition, defeating Spurs home and away in the group stage and impressing in their two matches against PSG. That is not, however, to say that Monaco enter the match without questions, particularly in defense.
With Jemerson suspended, Andrea Raggi looks to come in at central defense; the Italian’s versatility has been a boon for Monaco this season, but he lacks the pace and range of the Brazilian. With Kamil Glik less apt to stray out of the penalty area to meet opposing attackers, Jemerson’s mobility will be sorely missed; there have even been some suggestions that, given the good form of Almamy Touré at right back, Djibril Sidibé be moved inside. The inherent perils of that move have seen it dismissed out of hand, but, with the rest of the side the familiar first choice eleven, Monaco’s centre backs necessarily become the obvious weakness to exploit.
Were Jemerson available, Monaco would be slight favorites for this encounter, even on the road, as City face similar doubts about their defense. However, given how impressive City were in their two home matches that mattered in the group stage, Monaco should approach this match with some trepidation. Keeping the score close and nabbing an away goal should be enough to put the visitors in good stead come the reverse fixture at the Stade Louis II, but to expect the kind of dominant performance that we are accustomed to seeing from Monaco seems a bit foolish given both sides’ available personnel and form.
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Willy Caballero; Pablo Zabaleta, John Stones, Aleksandar Kolarov, Fernandinho; David Silva, Yaya Touré, Kevin de Bruyne; Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sané
AS Monaco (4-4-2): Danijel Subasic; Djibril Sidibé, Kamil Glik, Andrea Raggi, Benjamin Mendy; Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Tiemoué Bakayoko, Thomas Lemar; Valere Germain, Radamel Falcao
Predicted Score: Manchester City 2-1 AS Monaco