Monday, February 23, 2015

City vs. Barcelona

While I would be the first to admit that I prefer the Premier League to the Champions League, it's hard not to get excited for games like this. This is the sort of game that was unthinkable even 10 years ago, a clash with one of the heavyweights of world football. It's important to just appreciate that, and to know that no matter how City play this is still an incredible time for the club.

Because it will be tough for City to get something out of this game.

I think the major key of the game is this: can City hit them on the break? Both teams are known for their passing and attack-minded football. But let's be real: you can't out-possess Barcelona. Even though they are not the prime side of a few years ago, they are still averaging 62% possession in La Liga (and 60% in the Champions League). City have managed 60% in the Premier League (tops in England), but only 51% against the tougher competition of the Champions League. With Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, and Messi, Barca are only going to give the ball away so many times, and I feel that City will have to settle for Barca having more of the ball.

Given that an opponent has had the ball more than City in just three games all season, you would think this might not work in City's favor. But a strange thing happens to City's results when you filter by time of possession: the worse City are at keeping the ball, the better they perform. In fact, they have won all six of their Premier League games when they averaged less than 55% possession. And it's not just in the PL either, City have a 2-0-1 record in the Champions League when out-possessed and a 0-2-1 record when winning the possession battle.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I think it makes perfect sense given how City have looked this year. If you had to describe the area City is weakest, it's on the counter-attack. The Stoke game early in the year was the clearest example this, when Diouf ran practically the entire field to put the ball through Hart's legs. Chelsea also gave us problems as a counter-attacking team, and even in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal both their goals were a direct result of turnovers leading to counter-attacks. Toure is not quick (though he can certainly attain a high top speed), Fernando isn't any quicker, and Fernandinho may be the worst tackler in transition since Roger Johnson. It's very easy to bypass our midfield on the counter, and then you're just dealing with Old Man Demichelis (assuming he plays, he didn't start at the weekend so I think Manuel was resting him for this game unfortunately) and Kompany. Even though we don't do so very often, playing with a more counter-attacking style lets our defenders stay in front of the ball, and by doing so reduces our opponents' goal threat significantly.

The problem for Barca is that since they are a possession-based team, they aren't ideally equipped to take advantage of our biggest weakness. That's not to say they're incapable of breaking down our defense; I don't think you could say that about any team. They will have to try to pass through us though, and with two screeners in the Fernand brothers in front of the back four, City should be able to force the ball wide. Barca don't have a lot of height, so dealing with crosses (our other Achilles heel) won't be a big issue, and we can hopefully contain their attack.

The question is, will Manuel set us up to play on the counter, rather than attempt to dominate possession? It goes against his philosophy, but I think it would be naive to try and beat Barca at their own game. When we win the ball, we should look to break quickly and not rely on throwing numbers forward in attack. City have after all produced some pretty brilliant counter-attacking goals in recent seasons; here's hoping we can get a few against Barca.

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