Champions League bold predictions: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City shut down PSG, Bayern’s Sane shines, more


The Champions League is back on Paramount+ with a string of mouth-watering Matchday 2 clashes, headlined by the meeting of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City at the Parc des Princes. Let’s take a look at how that game and two others might play out:

PSG vs. Manchester City: Front four to shut down Parisians

Predicting the tactical intricacies of Pep Guardiola is invariably to place oneself on a hiding to nothing. His modus operandi is the unexpected. Come the biggest games of the season there is always the threat that one of football’s greatest minds will go full galaxy brain. Could this at last be where we discover what a false center back is?

Perhaps. But equally if one were looking for signs as to how Guardiola might be successful against PSG one would not have to go far back. After al,l it was only in the spring that City beat their opponents home and away to reach the Champions League final, an ultimately comprehensive 4-1 win on aggregate that saw their manager react impressively to early travails and set in course a system that throttled the Parisians right at the heart of the operation.

The first leg in particular proved to be a masterclass in pressing after Marquinhos’ opener gave an underwhelming PSG false hope in the Parc des Princes. From then out Guardiola switched to a 4-2-4 that was far more effective defensively than it might appear on paper with Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne operating as center forwards whose chief responsibility was to conduct the press, forcing the home side into backwards or sideways passes out to the flanks where the wide forward and full back could win the ball back.

Manchester City’s press on PSG drags Idrissa Gueye deeper with no passing options on for Marquinhos
Wyscout/Sky Sport

On other occasions PSG could not even get the ball wide but were pressured into giving the ball to Keylor Navas to thump long. When Kylian Mbappe and Neymar are lined up against your defense there is surely no better tactic than to make them beat you in the air. If you’re dragging Idrissa Gueye out of midfield so that he can offer a pass to his goalkeeper so that the Costa Rican can thump it long all the better.

City’s goals on the Parc des Princes that day might have come from set pieces — Riyad Mahrez’s brilliant free kick following a short corner worked to De Bruyne, whose cross evaded everyone including Navas — but both ultimately dated back to the visitors putting the pressure on PSG to cede possession in the flanks or nervously punt the ball upfield.

Mauricio Pochettino will have counters available should City repeat this approach. Neymar may have been relatively reluctant to follow his midfielders on that night but he is not always; if Lionel Messi is fit his recent years at Barcelona have been defined by him moving ever deeper to pick up the ball. If he can then turn the likes of Rodri and spot Mbappe ahead of him this game could go rather differently than last season’s. Though for all this to click together PSG need time with all their stars on the field, the one luxury they have not been able to purchase after an uproarious summer. City, by contrast, know each others’ foibles implicitly.

While Guardiola had generally gravitated back to his favored 4-3-3 system this season — albeit with the notable twist of Gabriel Jesus’ redeployment as a touchline hugging right winger — what returned on the big occasion again on Saturday when City needed a win against Chelsea? Some of the cast may have changed, Bernardo Silva was now among the two deeper midfielders, Phil Foden pushed alongside De Bruyne to make room for Jack Grealish on the left, but that same shape was apparent in and out of possession.

Manchester City’s pass network in Saturday’s 1-0 win at Chelsea
TruMedia

As Guardiola attempts to manage what might just be the most challenging trio of fixtures in football — away games against the Blues, PSG and Liverpool — it is hard to imagine he did not at least take a look back at the plan that had served him so well on his last landmark road victory. Don’t be surprised if he returns to the winning formula again.

Bayern Munich vs. Dynamo Kyiv: Sane hot streak continues

There may be few forwards across Europe in quite such a rich vein of form as Leroy Sane at the moment. His assist in Bayern Munich’s 3-1 win at Greuter Furth on Friday took his streak of games with a direct hand in a goal to six, in which time he has five assists and three goals. It has made for quite the renaissance for the former Schalke and Manchester City winger, who had struggled to excel on a consistent basis in his first season in Bavaria.

For most of that season he played on the right of Hansi Flick’s 4-2-3-1, tasked with driving infield on his stronger left foot to make a direct impact on the scoresheet in the same way Arjen Robben had done for so long. Yet it was not such an easy fit for Sane, who had spent much of his formative years with Guardiola using him to stretch the play down the left. The end result was 10 goals and 12 assists in 44 games, numbers he is well set to eclipse this season now that new manager Julian Nagelsmann has returned him to his favored flank.

The contrast this season is stark, even if the sample size is small. Played off the left in Bundesliga or Champions League games Sane creates a chance every 32 minutes and has a direct hand in a goal, whether by scoring or assisting, every 54 minutes. His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes off the left is 0.69. In the 120 minutes he has played on the opposite flank it is 0.2. That is slightly down on the figure when we include his performances in 2020-21, where it reaches 0.28, but the gap between Sane on one wing and the other is vast.

Sane’s left wing wizardry

Per 90 stats from 2020-21 and 2021-22 Bundesliga and Champions League fixtures

Left wing

Right wing

Games

10

35

Minutes

570

2200

Chances created

2.21

1.76

Assists

0.63

0.37

Goals

0.47

0.33

xG

0.5

0.28

Shots

3

2.82

Take on success rate

46.9%

57.2%

He may, on occasion, be needed on the right flank but even then it seems clear Nagelsmann will not punt him out on the furthest reaches of the pitch. After a 7-0 win over VfL Bochum the Bayern manager described Same as someone he wanted to use “between being a number 8 and a number 10, in the half spaces where he can utilize his unbelievable qualities and with his pace”. In the following win over Greuter Furth he drifted further into those half spaces with Alphonso Davies on his outside and looked no less effective than when he was out wide. This is a bad moment indeed for Dynamo Kyiv to find themselves pitted against Bayern and Sane in particular.

Wolfsburg vs. Sevilla: Goals few and far between

It seems churlish to criticize a team who have been objectively effective both last season and early in this. Wolfsburg, a surprise German entrant to the Champions League after they usurped the likes of Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach in last season’s Bundesliga, are undeniably effective at what they do. Prior to this weekend’s 3-1 loss to Hoffenheim they were sitting pretty in the league and even now they sit in third with a welcome early advantage on many of the teams they are likely to be vying with come the end of the season.

But they certainly do not make for entertaining fare for the neutrals. While under Oliver Glasner they had been relatively attack- minded — fourth in the 2020-21 Bundesliga for shots and fifth for scoring, albeit ninth in the xG for table with 10.7 more goals than their underlying metrics suggest they ought to have managed on average — his successor Mark van Bommel looks to be instituting something of a grit and grind culture to the Volkswagen Arena. This season only Mainz have allowed their opponents shots worth a lower cumulative xG than Wolfsburg’s 5.31. However there are nine teams with more xG to their name at the other end.

A top tier defense and league average offense takes you a long way indeed. Only Bayern Munich and Mainz have a better xG differential than Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. In the Champions League Van Bommel probably would not be wrong to assume that keeping it tight is a recipe for success in a group where several of Lille, Red Bull Salzburg and Sevilla are extremely capable of self inflicted wounds.

Still it did not quite work in the opening game, where Wolfsburg created two shots and allowed Lille, arguably the worst team in Group G, to take 17 of them. Unsurprisingly they lost the xG battle 0.07 to 1.65 but most of that did come when down a man after John Brooks red card just after the hour. When numbers are even it would appear that Van Bommel’s men are quite the hard nut to crack. Alejandro Gomez should give this defense a good test but don’t be surprised if they fall short.





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