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In the Zone: Copenhagen 1-3 Man City performance analysis

UEFA Technical Observer Ole Gunnar Solskjær analyses how Manchester City overcame Copenhagen 3-1 on Tuesday, countering the zonal press, pulling the Danish side out of shape and rotating their attacking options.

Phil Foden played a key role in stretching the home defence
Phil Foden played a key role in stretching the home defence

Manchester City made it 20 Champions League games unbeaten with Tuesday's 3-1 victory at Copenhagen in the first leg of their round of 16 tie.

In this article brought to you by FedEx, UEFA technical observer Ole Gunnar Solskjær explains three key tactical features from the holders' success in Denmark in conjunction with UEFA's performance analysis team.

Team formations

City find answers to zonal press (both 4-3-3 and 5-3-2)

How Man City exploited space

Copenhagen played with a back four in the first half, with their full-backs pressing City's wide players. Yet City started well and they stretched the home defence using a variety of techniques.

Pep Guardiola's men used the full width of the pitch and played around Copenhagen's shape when they reverted to a 4-3-3. And they produced the killer balls, usually to Kevin De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva, who, with perfect timing, were able to run into spaces between the full-back and the centre-half. It was Phil Foden who put the ball through into space for De Bruyne to put City ahead and the De Bruyne/Bernardo Silva connection which produced City's second.

Zonal pressing was a feature that UEFA's observers and analysts explored after the group stage and Guardiola spoke in his post-match press conference about how City had looked to counter it: "You don't see their players come to press, they defend the space and that is why we had to be so patient and [pick] the right moments – left, right, move them and in the right moment attack them, to not concede the transitions."

Copenhagen warrant praise for their change to a back five at half-time and the way they successfully contained City for large parts thereafter. Guardiola himself acknowledged: "In the second half they played five at the back and the space was not there." The home centre-backs managed to stop some of the runs, though with City's quality they still managed to play around the 5-3-2 defensive shape. And eventually they broke into the decisive areas between the centre-backs. Foden was crucial, as seen in the final goal when he combined with Erling Haaland to get behind the centre-backs and into space right in front of goal to score.

Overall, City looked so well automated, their moves straight from the training ground. When the ball goes wide, the midfielder runs into the box to hopefully receive the ball and then cut it back for Haaland or another arriving player. As an opponent, you know it's coming, but they're so good at it and they do it so often that they create chances and goals.

If you strip out the noisy atmosphere and Copenhagen's efforts, City had control the majority of the time thanks to the excellent timing of the runs and knowing just when to go in behind defenders and when to play the ball. Foden's pass for De Bruyne's goal is the perfect example. That's why Guardiola described this 3-1 away win as "perfect".

City escaping the pressure

Man City escaping pressure

Copenhagen put Guardiola's side under serious direct pressure – yet City were also very good at inviting that pressure to pull the home players out of their positions. And such is their technical ability, they were able to keep the ball and move it into the spaces and progress their attacks.

City always have a player in support behind. If it's too tight, you can pass it back once more. They play with just one or two touches. And, once in a while, they use their individual brilliance to beat a man – but only when it's safe to do so.

As Jacob Neestrup, the Copenhagen coach, said of City: "They know exactly what to do in every situation." While Neestrup wanted his players to "disrupt their rhythm", instead they "started running after them and that made it very difficult for us."

As we can see in the video, City's players are so good at receiving the ball on the back foot, even moving backwards in tight spaces with players around them, so aware are they of the positions of others. Further forward, Jack Grealish and Foden are prepared to receive the ball on the wrong foot and then drive forward and play the pass. Rodri's awareness, concentration and movement is exceptional. As I said, it's one and two touches all the time.

Guardiola himself explained afterwards that he had demanded lots of touches ("1,000 passes") from his players to ensure City played the game at the pace they wanted and quieten the home crowd. "In this type of game they make a transition and you suffer a lot so we wanted to make the right tempo – not slow, not fast," he said.

Rotation and progression

Man City's rotation and progression

City's players drift, they operate in and among the opposition shape, always probing. Copenhagen started with a zonal 4-5-1 defence where they focused on defending space rather than City's players as can be seen in the first of the videos above.

"They're a difficult team that doesn't come to take the ball – they defend the space," said Guardiola, and City answered by rotating their players. It was not easy for the home midfielders with Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne managing to get into the spaces on the other side and City stretching the hosts' defensive line. That's where the visitors hurt them most.

To return to Guardiola's request to his players to "make 1,000 passes", the City manager elaborated: "We wanted to play a lot with Phil and Jack and in the right moment make the runs and switch of play." It was very hard for Copenhagen to contain those runs, with players like De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Foden, John Stones and Rodri constantly swapping positions and popping up in new positions in the final third. They rotate, they progress, they combine under pressure, they regain.

To further highlight this, we saw Stones stepping up throughout the game to create a numerical superiority in midfield. They were able to sustain possession and push Copenhagen back deep in their own half. The two No10s – Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne – roamed and scanned for spaces and their team-mates were constantly searching for them.

Copenhagen did manage to get City out of their rhythm. They could be aggressive and were able to disrupt them after Grealish went off after 21 minutes. They managed to get an equaliser but then City upped their tempo. City wait and wait for the right moment, for a mistake or a lapse in concentration. They progress, they rotate. Then they hit you.

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