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Champions League final: where the game was won and lost | Jonathan Wilson

city high line

Historically the problem for Pep Guardiola sides in Europe is the high line he runs, so if the press goes wrong, their teams may be vulnerable to balls from the back – as Bayern played against Real Madrid and for City against Barcelona in 2014 and Monaco against Monaco. 2015, Liverpool 2018 and Lyon last year. It was a problem for City locally last season – especially in the title-winning Chelsea loss to Norwich, Wolves, Manchester United and Liverpool – and even earlier in this campaign, Tottenham against Leicester 5-2 at home and vice versa. Guardiola's big success in December was to adjust the balance of the press to tackle a potential vulnerability that was inevitable with his approach, but that's how he brought United City out and, most importantly, made Chelsea in Timo's FA Cup semi-finals. Werner's escapades were a permanent source of threat. Werner was also a threat in Chelsea's league win over City, but the lessons of this match were probably less relevant as it was a heavily weakened City pick.

Blocking Chelsea's opponents

Given the space behind City's defensive line at all times, how can they minimize the danger posed by balls being played behind them? It's all about positioning. First of all, the team needs to be compact from back to front, which means it's easier to keep the ball, especially City playing at a slightly slower pace this season because the distances between the players are less and therefore the transitions between them are less risky – the game effectively trying to turn it into something close to a rondo, pre-match exercises in which players in a circle try to keep the ball away from the other two players in the middle.

A compact shape also means that when possession is lost, there are usually two or perhaps more players in a position to shut down the opponent with the new ball. But where City has really improved this season is to ensure, whenever possible, that there is always one more defender up front than the opponent's forwards ready to strike – in practice it's usually two v one or three v two. City almost always have five men behind the ball, something that sets them apart from the more gung-ho pressing style of the German school so that they are positioned to jump, or leave them with three or two players in the next group on the field.

fake nine of the city

There's been fake nines since late

century but can probably be attributed to the modern popularization of the role to Guardiola (even though Luciano Spalletti's use of Francesco Totti in Rome and Alex Ferguson's use of Cristiano Ronaldo before he deployed Lionel Messi). It is remarkable how, in a little over a decade, the once-so-radical position has now normalized to the point where there are so many variants of the false nines. What is striking now in Barcelona 2014 is how many natural goalscorers they have with the front three of Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi in the central role receding. This City plays effectively without a striker, except for Riyad Mahrez, City's most in-form striker, on the right. Phil Foden will be dragged from the left, but whether it's Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne with the fake nines, the other deep and City's leading striker Ilkay Gundogan is leaving midfield. N'Golo Kanté successfully suppressed De Bruyne in that Cup semi-final; Trying to save the Belgian could be key to Guardiola's order.

kevin de bruyne is stifled by n'golo kanté in the fa cup semi-final. can manchester city find a way to liberate the belgian?
Kevin De Bruyne, FA Cup semi-final. Can Manchester City find a way to liberate the Belgian? Photo: Matt McNulty / Manchester City FC / Getty Images

Chelsea's defense

Chelsea's back trio advantage against a line forward as well as City's is that it offers more natural flexibility than a back four. Assuming Mason Mount is used as one of two creative midfielders with Kanté in front of the back trio, with Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho, there's a basic trapezoidal sole that can be adjusted to accommodate whatever City does. The problem appears to be to the left of Chelsea, where Riyad Mahrez instantly put pressure on Ben Chilwell, assuming his high starting position was favored over Marcos Alonso. This will at least cast doubt in Chilwell's mind and make him less effective at taking on the offensive than he has been in recent weeks, which could reduce the threat Chelsea could present.

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Azpilicueta and/or James

In Chelsea's last three games, Reece James was used with César on the right side of the back trio. Azpilicueta is on the right flank. Apparently this was meant to pair James with Jamie Vardy's pace in two games against Leicester, and it was surprising that Thomas Tuchel held up against Aston Villa on Sunday. Andreas Christensen is likely to come as a right wing centre-back, but Azpilicueta is much more likely to return to midfield where James is on the wing-back. While Azpilicueta doesn't present anything like James' offensive threat, City's distraction from Chelsea off center isn't with pace – and James will be vital in offering forward width, especially if on the opposite wing Chilwell is occupied by trying to negate Mahrez.

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