Manchester City played a game of two very contrasting halves against RB Leipzig, but they still seem to have issues with killing games off.
Two steps forward one step back seems to have been something of a motif for Manchester City this season, and particularly over the last three months or so. They haven’t won more than three straight league games since the start of November, and every time it’s felt as though they’re just about to start moving up through the gears they do something fundamentally ridiculous like drawing at home to Everton or losing to Spurs.
Just the weekend before their Champions League round of 16 first leg match away to RB Leipzig, this tendency was on evidence on the banks of the River Trent. If Manchester City did ‘send out a message’ away to Nottingham Forest, that message seemed to be ‘we are struggling a bit to take our chances and kill games off when he have the opportunity’.
Leipzig certainly didn’t arrive for this game in their best form of the season, either. They’d won their previous league game 3-0 at Wolfsburg, but prior to this they’d only taken a point from their previous two games, a goalless draw at Köln and a 2-1 home defeat against one of this season’s Bundesliga surprise packages, Union Berlin.
That doesn’t sound like much, but there’s a six-team chase on for this year’s German title, with only five points between top-of-the-table Bayern Munich and sixth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt. Had Leipzig won those two games, they’d be a point clear at the top of the table. As things stand, they’re fifth.
And even though they won their last game, they didn’t seem to come into this one with a great deal of confidence on show, attempting a low block which worked until it didn’t any more, which in this case was precisely 27 minutes before Riyad Mahrez scored with a shot that left the Leipzig goalkeeper Blaswich looking like he’d fallen off an invisible toadstool.
It was a surprisingly timid-looking first half performance from Leipzig which Manchester City seemed happy to exploit, dominating midfield with a familiar-looking press. Every counter-attack was cut off when Leipzig did get possession, and that didn’t happen very often.
Pep Guardiola’s team initially seemed to have the right balance of incision and smothering press, with Jack Grealish an animated presence on their left, rubbery-limbed as ever and carrying a schoolboy-esque cut on his knee. But for all that possession, they didn’t create a great deal. Erling Haaland was apparently on the pitch, a familiar state of play until he inevitably pops up to score twice. Of course when this doesn’t happen, he just looks close to invisible. There just doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.
That his team had only managed two shots on target may have given Pep Guardiola food for thought at half-time, considering the Forest game. They’d flattered to deceive in this way before, this season, and in the early stages of the second half, it did start to feel again as though they were starting to lose the vice-like grip they’d held over the pace of the game throughout the first.
Ten minutes in, substitute Benjamin Henrichs was put through on the right with the Manchester City defence having a bit of a walkabout but dragged his shot across and wide. Barely a minute later, Ederson had to sprawl to clear a low cross. Five minutes after this, Andre Silva wriggled through on the left but had his shot blocked by the goalkeeper.
After an anaemic first 45 minutes, RB Leipzig had come to life, and the effect it had was profound. The crowd, which had been largely quietened throughout the first half, were audibly lifted. The team’s confidence seemed to visibly come to life as the second half proceeded. RB Leipzig were all sleek, flowing movement, leaving City looking a little leaden-footed.
From out of nowhere, Manchester City were chasing the ball and playing on the break, with a chance finally presenting itself for Haaland, who dragged a shot across the face of goal and well wide after being fed in the right hand channel, while not for the first time this season gaps in their defence were to be found upon the application of pressure.
With just over twenty minutes to play, this vastly improved second half performance was rewarded with a goal, a header from close range from Josko Gvardiol. It certainly looked a little as though Gvardiol’s hands may have been pressing down on Kyle Walker’s shoulders with his hands as he jumped, and in the current climate it wasn’t difficult to see how the all-seeing eye might have resulted in play being called back. But the referee seemed unmoved by City protests, and the goal stood.
Three minutes into stoppage time, City claimed a handball when Henrichs swatted at the ball like it was a troublesome wasp inside the penalty area. It was a moment that defied rational explanation. Leipzig cleared and the full-time whistle blew ten seconds later, but it was somewhat surprising that the whistle blew so quickly after such a contentious moment. A UEFA conspiracy? Doubtful. Some pretty poor officiating? Definitely. And again; what exactly is the point of VAR if it misses calls like this?
But of course, Manchester City wouldn’t have been relying on penalty kicks for inexplicable handballs two minutes into stoppage time had their overall second half performance not been so sluggish. For the second game in a row, they took the lead but were unable to build upon it and put the result beyond their opponents’ reach before being pegged back to draw. No substitutions either were made by Pep Guardiola, a surprising flex in a season that may end up being determined at least in part by fatigue.
In the Champions League this may still not be too much of a problem. A draw away from home in the knockout stages of this particular competition is always going to be a good result, and Manchester City will go into the second leg as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals. But for the second game in a row they didn’t have that killer instinct and that still looks somewhat jarring, considering so much of the last five or ten years.