Man City Exploit Shakhtar’s Aggression to Claim Hard-Fought 2-0 Victory

cityManchester City were strong against Shakhtar Donetsk. They secured a 2-0 win in their Champions League fixture against the Ukrainian side, and while many would’ve predicted that at the outset, especially given the game was played at Etihad Stadium, it was a tricky one for Pep Guardiola’s men. “Tonight, we beat an amazing team,” the Spanish manager asserted. “It was an extraordinary performance. They have fantastic players, are well organised and defended really well. A lot of credit to my players because we had to work hard to beat them. It was big result for us and they deserved our respect.”

Going into the match, Guardiola would’ve wondered just how difficult Shakhtar would make it for his players. They have a gifted line-up, packed with plenty of Brazilian talent. Names like Taison, Bernard and Fred fill the starting spots, and despite the fact that their technical qualities in the final third tend to take centre-stage, it’s also worth noting that Shakhtar also defend with impressive organisation. Against City, the Miners were on form on both sides of the ball.

In defence, they operated in a tight, compact 4-4-2 structure. They sat in a medium block, allowing some room in behind their defence but also restricting City’s space between the lines. That meant City tended to shift the ball out wide, as they couldn’t often find the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne filtering into pockets of space in the attacking midfield zone. Yet even in the wider positions, Shakhtar were quick to shuffle over to snuff out City’s options. They closed down City’s fullbacks, Fabian Delph on the right and Kyle Walker on the left, with speed and tenacity, so it wasn’t easy for the Citizens to then hit balls back towards the centre or carve out opportunities from the wings.

In attack, too, Shakhtar played with bravery. They weren’t about to be overawed by playing against an expensively assembled Manchester City side, and instead of hitting hopeful long balls into attack or waiting for promising moments on the counter-attack, they played out from the back whenever possible. Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov kicked things off, distributing the ball short with a kind of calm composure, and when City’s pressing hemmed him and his teammates in, he would then sensibly send the ball further afield. In that sense, Shakhtar played with intelligence near their own goal, initially trying to impose their passing game before, if the situation called for it, going longer to remove the threat of danger.

In one of these instances, Shakhtar worked the ball out from defence seamlessly, and after Taison stormed forward, created the chance to cross. Bogdan Butko hit it sharply into goalmouth, its speed such that Ederson, City’s goalkeeper, could do little but palm it back into the space directly in front of goal. The rebound could’ve gone anywhere, but in the end, City managed to clear it through Silva. This was the kind of threat Shahktar posed. They mixed slower sequences of build-up play with lightning quick transitions, and when you factor in the excellent left-sided combination of winger Bernard and fullback Ismaily, the Ukrainian side were causing City problems.

Of course, when you’re playing against a team as talented as City, an aggressive approach is bound to leave openings going the other way. At one point, early in the first half, Fred dawdled on the ball. He then had to play a hurried pass, and as City’s players converged upon him, Gabriel Jesus proved to be the one to nip in and pinch possession. The Brazilian flyer then surged into the final third, assessing his options along the way, before sliding a ball in behind for De Bruyne. The Belgian had the chance to finish the swift counter-attack, but after taking a couple of touches to steady himself, he dragged his shot wide of the near post.

Shakhtar were aware that their possession game carried risks along with it, especially against a high-pressing outfit like City, but they persisted. They continued to generate the odd chance on goal, and by way of pouring forward in attack, their fullbacks, and especially Ismaily, gave Pep’s men plenty to ponder. In fact, they had four first-half shots to City’s five, so it’s safe to say that their strategy was paying dividends. Eventually, however, this aggressive, forward-thinking approach would prove to be their undoing, as they attempted to break 48 minutes into the game.

Maybe it was a slight lack of sharpness following the half-time interval, or maybe it was just a sloppy touch, but when Marlos received a pass from Fred in the central midfield zone, he failed to find a teammate. He tried to give it back to Fred, but he overhit the pass. De Bruyne latched on and quickly found Silva. The Spaniard then brought the ball forward, rode a tackle from Fred and looked up. He saw De Bruyne filtering into a pocket on the edge of the area, and with Shakhtar desperately out of position after the turnover, Silva had no trouble finding his wide-open teammate. De Bruyne took a single touch, allowing the ball to trickle across onto his favoured right foot, before belting a swerving shot at goal. It powered into the right-hand corner of the net, and Pyatov could do little but look on as it did so.

In a lot of ways, this moment encapsulated the way the game went. City had plenty of the ball and plenty of players in attack up until then, but due to Shakhtar’s combination of organisation and tenacity in defence, they struggled to penetrate Paulo Fonseca’s side in slower periods of build-up play. Instead, they had to use Shakhtar’s aggression against them, waiting for the Miners to come out of their defensive positions before pouncing against an unset defence.

Of course, it’s important to note that, as the match continued, City managed to do a bit more in attack. They started to take advantage of their right-hand side, and with attackers running in behind Shakhtar’s highish line, they got into the space behind the defence a couple of times. De Bruyne, who hit a huge number of unsuccessful through balls, had his brightest passing play in the 69th minute, when he charged in behind the Shakhtar defence to latch onto a Walker through ball. He then slid a cross back inside for substitute Raheem Sterling, who missed a sitter. A bit later on, though, City would score from a near-identical move, as another replacement, Bernardo Silva, sprinted in behind to pounce upon a killer pass from Sterling. The Englishmen then made a run of his own to surge into the area, and once Bernardo noticed that effort, he cut the ball back into the goalmouth to allow Sterling to score.

That move polished the result for City, and at 2-0 in the 90th minute, they had scored the sealer. To get to that point, though, they needed to work hard. They weren’t overly proficient at creating opportunities in open play, and they had to make the most of their chances in transition. This dynamic had as much to do with Shakhtar’s quality as it had to do with anything else, but City were nonetheless impressive against tough, or, as Guardiola put it, “amazing” opposition. They may have had to wait until the 90th minute in order to score a second, but with guys like Fernandinho producing strong showings to go with the bits of exceptional quality higher up the pitch, this was a solid night for the English team.

In a high-octane game of ebb-and-flow, City did enough to get their win. It certainly didn’t mirror their free-scoring Premier League performances, but that ability to get the job done against strong opposition will have been just as satisfying for Guardiola and his players. In some ways, maybe it would’ve been even more so.