Having lost 2 – 0 to Tottenham last weekend, Manchester City are looking to bounce back as they travel away to face Greek champions, Olympiacos in this week’s UEFA Champions League matchup. The Citizens are sitting top of Group C’s table with three wins from three. Walking away with any form of points will see City more than likely progress through to the round of 16. In addition, City has just recently announced that Pep Guardiola has signed a new two-year contract with City running until 2023. Guardiola claimed that he still had unfinished business at Manchester City.
On the other hand, Olympiacos need a win to keep their chances of progressing alive. They lost their last two matches to City and FC Porto but overcame Marseille in their opening fixture. Olympiacos manager Pedro Martins came out during the week and said that if his side played the way they did against City in the second half of their previous meeting, then they can get a positive outcome. The last time that these two sides clashed, City prevailed 3 – 0 with goals scored by Ferran Torres, Gabriel Jesus, and João Cancelo. The key for the Piraeus club will be to ensure they don’t concede early on and to frustrate City by reducing the spaces to play around the penalty area.
This tactical analysis will break down the tactics used by both Olympiacos and Manchester City. This analysis will also highlight the structural changes made to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition.
Deploying a 5-4-1 formation, the Piraeus side started with former FC Porto shot-stopper Jose Sá between the posts. Pape Cissé, Ousseynou Ba, and Portuguese defender Rúben Semedo made up the three at the back. Mohamed Dräger and former Bayern Munich defender, Rafinha were positioned out on the flanks but were tasked to form five at the back when Olympiacos were out of possession. Pedro Rodriguez and Yann M’Vila linked play in and around the central midfield areas. Finally, Giorgos Masouras and Mady Camara supported Greek international captain and striker Kostas Fortounis during attacking phases.
Going with a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, the Citizens bought Benjamin Mendy back into the defence, along with Rúben Dias, John Stones and Joaõ Cancelo. Resting Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gündogan and Rodri roamed around central areas looking to provide the link between defence and attack. That left Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling to support Gabriel Jesus in more advanced areas. Guardiola came out during the week and said that he wanted to be patient with Agüero’s return from injury, needing him to be fully fit and ready to continue the season.
The Greek wall
Organisation and shape were going to be the name of the game for Olympiacos. If they could force City to play wide and prevent players like Foden, Stirling and Jesus from getting the ball in between lines, then they could reduce the number of goal-scoring opportunities that they’d have.
When you have giants like Cissé, Ba and Semedo who tower over City’s front line, aerial crosses aren’t going to be too much of a problem. The back five also had to make sure that the distances between them were shortened so that if one had to step up to prevent a City player from turning in between lines, then the second man could cover the space he leaves behind. Whilst the midfield line was tasked with preventing balls from reaching City’s front men, they still needed to apply pressure on Gündogan and Rodri as the players who recycled possession.
If the Greek side could force an errant pass, then they could hit City on the counter when they have limited numbers at the back. This was a tactic that a number of Premier League teams have used to exploit the Cityzens this season. The challenge would then be how to manage the space if Rodri and Gündogan dropped deeper. Would they push up and leave a larger gap between them and the defensive line? Or would they allow City’s midfielders to have time on the ball?
The image above highlights the tight and compact structure that Olympiacos would form out of possession. The positioning of Masouras and Camara would depend on the movement of Mendy and Cancelo. If the fullbacks were positioned deeper to connect with the centre-backs, then Masouras and Camara would mark them. If the City fullbacks were in a more attacking position higher up the field, then Olympiacos fullbacks Dräger and Rafinha would step out wide. Then that would enable Masouras and Camara to tuck in more centrally and block passing lanes to City’s attackers.
Because of the lack of space in central areas, tried to create 2v1 overloads in wide areas with the aim of isolating Dräger on the right-hand side. That way Mendy could overlap and provide service into the box. Again, because of the height difference, City were relying on poor defensive marking compared to a 1v1 aerial duel. If Mendy was looking for the overlap, then Masouras would hand him over to Dräger and pick up Foden. That way Olympiacos kept numerical balance out wide.
Realising that they weren’t going to get a great deal of success by spending their time crossing the ball, City then circulated the ball to open up spaces centrally to find players in between lines. This is when City look their most dangerous, especially if they can exploit poor defensive marking through third man combinations. The image below highlights how the centre-backs were able to disrupt City’s ability to combine between lines. It also gives a textbook example of how they were able to manage the spaces between their midfield and defensive lines.
When in central areas, Olympiacos don’t need to worry about Cancelo and Mendy so they pack the middle. Here City were able to bypass the midfield line and find Jesus. If you’re a centre back marking a striker, your job is not to let them turn. As they receive the ball you should be touch tight to win the ball or force them back. So whilst getting players in between lines is great, if they are not able to receive and progress the ball, the play becomes ineffective. City are no stranger to this and come up against this week in and week out.
This is where the third man becomes dangerous. The moment Foden plays the ball into Jesus, Sterling makes the run into the space that Cissé leaves. However, what Cissé does next is a mark of intelligent defending. Rather than placing pressure right on the back of Jesus, he angles his run to the left shoulder so that when he arrives, he can cut off the pass to Sterling. The explosiveness of Sterling’s run gave him away, so Cissé was able to know where Jesus was going to pass even before he received the ball. From winning the ball, Olympiacos are then able to find the highest players and spring a counterattack on City.
Breaking down the wall
There were two primary ways in which Guardiola’s side looked to try and break down the Greek defensive block. The first method was looking to combine centrally to release a forward runner. If we look at City’s general structure, Mendy and Cancelo would often provide the width which allowed Foden, Sterling, Jesus and Bernardo to push centrally and float in between Olympiacos’ defensive and midfield line. Out of those players, Foden would often be the one to move into wider positions to support Mendy and would then drift around the top of the opposition box. Interestingly, Cancelo would also drift in centrally when the ball was on the left-hand side. He would look for areas where he could link play and create numerical overloads. His central positioning would also help keep defensive stability in case Rodri or Günodgan decided to push forward and place added pressure on the opposition backline.
Below is an example of a phase of play in which City aimed to release one of their wider forward runners. As Gündogan receives the ball with time to play, Sterling makes two movements to lose his marker. On his second movement, he rapidly drops indicating for the ball to be played to him. Here, we also notice that he has also pulled a central defender out of position allowing Raheem to make another burst into that space.
Sterling then flicks the ball around to Jesus who now has two options that he can play. This is the ideal case for City having an option both left and right for the bounce pass. Because of the momentum that City now have, Olympiacos’ back-line just drops to try and keep all the action in front of them. If the ball gets to a forward runner behind the backline, they are in big trouble. If they can see everything in front, at least the defenders can still make a block or an interception.
The second main method was to take advantage of Olympiacos’ vulnerable structure during moments of transition. With the agility and pace of City’s attacking players, if they could get in a position to drive at the Greek defensive line, then they were more likely to get a shot on goal. That is what eventuated late in the first half when the Citizens finally got their first goal after applying a considerable amount of pressure on the Greek defensive unit.
Again Gündogan, who was very active throughout the game, receives the ball in midfield after a turnover in possession. Identifying the 2 v 1 out wide, he plays the aerial pass to a wider positioned Jesus.
With the Brazilian striker in space, he can then drive with the ball until he can lay it off to Sterling making the forward run. With a clever backheel pass from Sterling to Foden, the young midfielder slots in the first goal of the game. Once City had an attacking player driving at the back line, the only way they could be stopped was through a blocked shot or a poor pass. Therefore, by creating sustained pressure on the Olympiacos defensive unit, City were able to force individual defensive errors and create a number of goal scoring opportunities.
Throwing caution to the wind
Reflecting on the context of Olympiacos’ situation, if they were to have any hopes of progressing to the round of 16, they would need to take points away from this match. They could no longer sit back and defend their goal line. They had to score. From the first five minutes of the second half, we saw the Piraeus side place pressure on City in their own half. In order to do so, they would need the ball in the opposition half. Still focusing on playing out under pressure, their aim was to find a player with space in the midfield zone. Once a player had time and space to face forward, then that would be the trigger for Masouras, Camara and Fortounis to make forward runs in behind City’s high defensive line.
Now, if Olympiacos could force an error from City in their own half, then the Greek side could regain possession and put City under pressure. In the scenario below, City opts to recycle possession around the back to open up a passing lane to a supporting midfielder. However, once the ball is played to one side, Olympiacos can then mark man for man and limit the space of City’s immediate receivers.
Once Stones receives the ball, Fortounis’s role is to divide the field and prevent Stones from playing back to Ederson. As soon as Stones feels like he has the space to step forward, the Greek captain will then change his pace and place pressure on him. With immediate options closed down, Stones then has to play the ball long to the front line. As previously stated, with the height of three Olympiacos centre-backs, aerial balls are not going to be a problem. Once the ball has been won, the aim would be to find an advanced teammate as soon as possible before City’s defence could reorganise. Whilst creating more opportunities than they did in the first half, they couldn’t find the much needed equalising goal.
After holding out for the three points City are now all but guaranteed a place in the round of 16 with two games to play. Having not yet won the coveted Champions League trophy with the Citizens, Guardiola will be relying on keeping the rest of his squad injury-free and waiting on the return of Argentinian superstar, Agüero.