As the 2018/19 season comes to a close, the season Manchester City have had must be looked at with the utmost respect and admiration for what they have achieved on the pitch. Completing the domestic treble is no small feat, especially when you consider they are the first men’s team in England to do so. They retained the Carabao Cup after a 4-3 victory on penalties against Chelsea. They then followed up with winning the Premier League. They secured it after a thrilling title race against Liverpool, ending the season with 98 points. Finally, a 6-0 win against Watford at Wembley secured them their FA Cup trophy. It’s safe to say that they have been one of the best teams domestically these past few years. So what makes Manchester City struggle in Europe?
Since returning to the Champions League in the 2011/12 season, their highest finish has been a semi-final appearance in 2015/16. They haven’t made it past the quarter-finals since. In a way, it is almost laughable to say that consistently reaching the knockout stages of the competition is coming up short; these are the best teams in the world. However, it is clear that Manchester City want to take it one step further and at least reach the final.
Why Manchester City Struggle to Replicate Domestic Dominance in Europe
When talking about football, the discussion almost always revolves around what happens on the pitch. The tactics, the players, the goals, the refereeing decisions. When previewing an upcoming match, the expression ‘on paper’ comes up often. ‘On paper Team X should win’ or ‘On paper Team Y have the better players.’ Everyone knows football isn’t played on paper, though. The fans have a massive impact on the happenings of the pitch.
Manchester City’s history with UEFA has not been great and the fans are not afraid to vocalize their contempt with the organization. In fact, because of recent events, the fans often boo the UEFA Champions League anthem that is played before all of their matches.
Back in the 2011/12 season, while Manchester City were competing in the Europa League, they played FC Porto in the knockout stages. At the Estádio do Dragão, Mario Balotelli was subject to racist abuse by some Porto fans. They were fined a mere €20,000. A month later, Manchester City were charged €30,000 for being 30 seconds late in a match against Sporting Lisbon.
A few years later UEFA decided that Manchester City’s match against CSKA Moscow would be played behind closed doors because of issues with the Russian fans. This was announced long after many Manchester City fans had bought tickets to the match, as well as flight and hotel accommodations. To make matters worse, a few hundred CSKA Moscow fans made it into the ground and nothing was done to remove them.
The booing and jeering of the anthem is not the only aspect that makes the fans relevant in Manchester City’s quest for their first Champions League Trophy. The Citizens’ first game of the Champions League this season was a 2-1 home defeat to the French side Lyon and approximately 15, 000 seats were empty at the Etihad Stadium.
Kevin Parker, the general secretary of the club’s official supporters group, spoke to The Times to give the reasoning as to why attendance was so low. He claimed that because Manchester City “were in Pot One this year [they] ended up with Lyon, Shakhtar [Donetsk] and Hoffenheim.” He continued by stating, “No disrespect to them, but none of them really are a game that you think ‘wow, that is going to be a cracker.’” Of course, Parker is not a representative for all Manchester City fans, but his words, along with the lack of fans at Champions League matches, do seem to show that the fans seem much more interested in other competitions.
Does all of this, the booing, and the failure to see the importance of the Champions League, affect the players and their performances? Only they know the answer to that question. However, it is not out of the realms of possibility to think that the fans’ lack of interest in the competition is part of the reason that Manchester City have not been as successful as they would have liked.
Pep Guardiola is considered one of the best managers in the world, bringing success to every club he has managed. However, some of his tactical choices in Manchester City’s quest for the European Cup have been questionable at times.
Guardiola has a very distinct style. He likes his teams to have lots of possession, the reason being that the less the opposition have the ball, the fewer chances they have to score. Furthermore, opposition teams who spend time constantly chasing the ball tire out much faster. The rare occasions that Manchester City do not have possession, they press. The pressing is an attempt to win the ball back before the other team can start their attacking play.
This way of play is almost perfect for the league. Most of the opposing teams attempt to sit back and defend deep against Manchester City. This allows them to have the possession they like and pass the ball until they find spaces.
However, in the Champions League, this set-up does not always work. Opposition teams will try and match Manchester City possession-wise, and attack them head-on. This either causes them to press with a high line, which leaves them susceptible to counter-attacks, or they defend deep, a formation they are not used to playing in the league.
In the 2016/17 season, Manchester City faced Monaco in the Round of 16. They went into the second leg with a two-goal advantage, having won the first leg 5-3. However, two early goals conceded in Monaco were a result of Manchester City having to defend deep. This was something they were not used to, and they ended up making silly mistakes. They were able to regroup somewhat, but at that point, it was too late.
The 2017/18 saw Manchester City struggle again as they faced Liverpool in the quarter-finals. At Anfield, Guardiola strayed from his usual formation. He played İlkay Gündoğan out of position with the idea to flood Liverpool’s midfield. This played into the Reds’ hands; they allowed Manchester City possession, forced them to make mistakes and used their pacey wingers to counter-attack. Manchester City found themselves 3-0 down after half an hour.
This season against Tottenham Hotspur, Guardiola again decided to change his tactics and use two defensive midfielders instead of one. This hindered Manchester City as they failed to create chances to score. They eventually lost the match 1-0, having no away goal to take into the second leg. In the second leg, they were forced to defend deep at times, and defensive errors led to them conceding goals.
Guardiola is one of the world’s best, but that doesn’t mean he is immune from criticism when it comes to his decisions in the Champions League.
Unlike some other clubs, Manchester City have been eliminated in the competition on some fine margins. They found themselves drawn against, and eliminated by, Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid three seasons in a row. Both clubs are considered European royalty and, in two of the three seasons, one of the Spanish clubs that Manchester City faced became eventual European champions.
When Manchester City faced Monaco, the tie ended 6-6 with Monaco advancing because of the away goal rule. The first leg became controversial because of the referee’s decision to not give a blatant penalty to the Sky Blues. Instead, Sergio Agüero was booked for diving. Obviously, with a 6-6 scoreline, decisions like this become very significant.
Against Liverpool, City were severely outclassed in the first leg, losing 3-0 at Anfield. Again, though, got unlucky with refereeing decisions. They had brought one back early in the second leg and scored another just before half-time, yet the referee deemed it offside when it clearly was not. The tie ended 5-1 in Liverpool’s favour but had the second goal stood, it could have easily been a different story.
This season, Manchester City faced Tottenham in the quarter-finals. They were eliminated after a 4-4 scoreline, with Tottenham advancing on away goals. Again, they score a goal that was called offside after a VAR check. While the right decision was made this time, it does seem terribly unlucky; Agüero was marginally offside and the decision could’ve happened to any team.
All sports have elements of luck and football isn’t an exception; cup competitions more so than the league. There are fewer games and teams can get lucky with draws, facing weaker teams in the competition. All the teams that Manchester City were knocked out by deservedly went through, but no one can shy away from the fact that they have been unfortunate in the Champions League.
The Manchester City Struggle Will End
What makes the Champions League so exceptional is that the quality of football that is on display for the fans. The best teams that have the best players, who are coached by the best managers, and they go-head-to head to determine a winner.
Are Manchester City just not good enough?
They have an incredible squad, with one of the best managers in the world in Guardiola. Yet, like any team, they have weaknesses, ones on the pitch that opposition managers exploit, and weaknesses off the pitch with fan interest. However, they are, relatively speaking, a new team to the competition. Teams grow and evolve together over the years. It’s hard to say for sure, but it is likely that we will not see Manchester City struggle in this competition for much longer.