Manchester City nearly succumbed to a second straight Champions League loss on Tuesday, falling behind within the first minute in their group game against Hoffenheim before a Sergio Aguero equaliser and a late winner from David Silva made sure they escaped with a 2-1 win.
Despite the result, the performance raised more questions about City’s ability to adapt in Europe even as they continue to dominate in the Premier League.
Here are three things learned from the game.
GUARDIOLA MAYBE UNABLE TO CHANGE
There was talk ahead of City’s loss to Lyon that Pep Guardiola was coming up with some tactical tweaks to help his team avoid the hiccups of the previous two European campaigns. Two games into the group stage, it’s hard to see what those were.
While Guardiola switched to a back three for this game – an option he’s always been willing to use when needed – there’s been no tactical shift on the pitch. City are still playing the same way any Guardiola side has ever played, and, if anything, despite Tuesday’s win they’ve looked more vulnerable in these two games against Lyon and Hoffenheim than they did at any point in last season’s competition before they came up against Liverpool.
The weakness against a high-pressing, fast-breaking team remains, and the only true change to guard against that is to cede some control of the possession and sit a little deeper when required – concepts that are anathema to the Spanish manager.
While City remain capable of swarming teams with their passing and attacking talent, by now it’s hard to put Guardiola’s refusal to change down to anything other than naivety. Nobody’s suggesting he goes full Mourinho, but his stubbornness could cost City. Tuesday was a lucky escape.
IS KOMPANY’S DECLINE BEGINNING?
The other problem for City and Guardiola is that their defenders haven’t been able to cut out the mistakes. Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi were both guilty of errors, and with the latter, that’s been a consistent criticism of his game. Playing in a side that dominates the ball like City do can hide the Argentine’s error-prone ways, and, like on Tuesday, the attack is capable of bailing him out all the time.
What’s more worrying, however, is that none of Otamendi, Laporte, or John Stones, who came on for Otamendi in the second half, was City’s worst centre-back. That dubious honour belonged to Vincent Kompany.
The club captain looked a step off the pace, understandable considering the only other game he’s played in the past month came against Oxford United in the Carabao Cup. On defensive ability he remains the best centre-back City have – a damning indictment of their recruitment in that area of the pitch – but at 32, and with his injury history, there is cause for concern.
He was at fault for Hoffenheim’s goal, stepping up a fraction too late to pull off the off-side trap, and Hoffenheim’s attackers were running rings around him at times. Was this one bad game or indication that a decline has begun?
VAR CAN’T COME SOON ENOUGH
Though Hoffenheim would have been good value for a draw or even a win, given the way they played and the chances they created, City also should have scored their go-ahead goal much earlier than they did.
For all the arguments against VAR, that it slows down the game, leaves fans in the stadiums perplexed as decisions are reviewed, and, at times, ruins the spectacle, moments like what happened to Leroy Sane make the most persuasive case for the use of technology.
The German was clearly brought down in the box by compatriot Oliver Baumann, the Hoffenheim goalkeeper who had such a good game otherwise. It was a stonewall penalty.
It wasn’t given, a decision that was made even more perplexing by the fact that Sane wasn’t booked for diving – though, if he had been, that would have been an even greater howler. The match referee, plus the assistant behind the goal – an innovation that only people within UEFA’s walls can understand – couldn’t spot the foul. Mistakes happen. But the technology is there to correct those mistakes in real-time.
Once the technology was deemed good enough for the World Cup – admittedly, there were controversies in the summer – delaying its introduction in UEFA competition for another year made no sense. Next season can’t come soon enough.
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