Pep Guardiola has a plan to stop Kylian Mbappe and Neymar but will it be enough?

PSG forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe (AFP via Getty Images)

Contrôler le ball,” said a strangely relaxed, happy-go-lucky Pep Guardiola. “My French is super! Extraordinaire! Contrôler le ball.

It was the final answer of a long press conference, one that was oddly laidback for the eve of a Champions League semi-final, but it was also key to understanding part of Manchester City’s plans of quelling Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and thereby overcoming Paris Saint-Germain.

Starting with tonight’s first leg at the Parc des Princes, City must do what the reigning European champions failed to do by imposing themselves on Mauricio Pochettino’s side while denying two of the three best players in the world the space they need to destroy them.

For a side with a chequered history defending counter-attacks, and painful memories of being caught out on the break in this very competition, PSG’s smash-and-grab quarter final win against Bayern Munich will have made for squeamish viewing.

Guardiola saw it and has been losing sleep. Never mind the prospect of Neymar and Mbappé running past his broken press, they have been running through his head as it lays on the pillow. “I tried to sleep well last night and I slept well when I was not thinking of them,” he admitted.

“We are going to concede counter-attacks. They have the quality with Mbappé, Neymar, [Angel] Di Maria, [Marco] Verratti, [Leandro] Paredes, the physicality and the personality they have, with Marquinhos and the ‘keeper too. They have a lot of weapons.”

Such is that quality, Guardiola went as far as to suggest that there is no strategy to combat Neymar and Mbappé’s individual abilities in transition. “They are too good,” he insisted.

And yet, he was relaxed. Perhaps that is because if anyone has demonstrated this season that they are capable of containing Neymar and Mbappé, Guardiola has.

Possession – or in Pep’s French, “contrôler le ball” – will be paramount. “The best balance is to have the ball,” he explained, when asked about finding the right equilibrium between defence and attack for tonight’s first leg.

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Possession football is as much a defensive tactic as it is an attacking one. Spain’s World Cup and European Championship winners demonstrated as much, more so than Guardiola’s Barcelona of the same era. If you have the ball, the opposition cannot score.

“It’s not because you are more physical or defend more or defend deeper, this is not true,” Guardiola said. “The way you play with the ball creates stability in the team. That is what we are going to try to do tomorrow.”

City’s defensive record has been excellent since the mid-winter adjustments which Guardiola made to his side’s style in possession, encouraging slower, more patient and more considered play. These changes have led them to concede only a goal every two games on average.

Possession is only part of the equation, though. It has to be, because at the very same time, City’s average possession is currently the lowest it has been since Guardiola’s first year in Manchester, falling from a high of 71% in the Centurions season to 64%.

To use possession defensively, as well as having the ball, you also have to be in a position to win it back.

“When you have the ball and use it in the right moments in the right positions, the team is balanced,” Guardiola said. Those ‘right positions’ that his players occupy have changed quite considerably from the start of the season, most notably with an extra body moving out from defence into midfield.

Joao Cancelo’s playmaking abilities while coming inside from either the left or right-back position have caught many an eye and been widely lauded, but the work out of possession that he, Oleksandr Zinchenko and others do as auxiliary midfielders has been equally important when it comes to conceding fewer goals and snuffing out counter-attacks.

These subtle, fluid in-game movements have given Guardiola greater defensive coverage over the pitch than in previous years. As a result, City have become an intimidatingly solid team as well as one capable of sparkling attacking play.

A fascinating, collaborative analysis of City’s change of system since December was published last month by Spielverlagerung and is all the more enlightening for contributions from Rene Maric, one of the site’s founders but also the assistant coach of the Borussia Monchengladbach side who succumbed to City in the last-16.

No team can account for every threat. City have lost some of their defensive lustre in recent weeks, losing three of their last 12 games and keeping one clean sheet in their last six. They have sometimes even succumbed to goals conceded on the break, but several of those can be explained by weakened, unfamiliar line-ups.

And though it has become fashionable to say that the greatest threat to Guardiola’s Champions League aspirations is Guardiola himself, even he seemed conscious yesterday of not succumbing to the ‘overthinking’ narrative. If anything, he was the image of a manager confident that he was on the right track.

“They have everything,” he said of PSG. “The only way to minimise these kinds of things is to impose your game like we built since five years ago.

“We will try to impose our game,” he insisted. “I learn from my experience in this competition that as much as you are close in the latter stages to who you are, the more chance you have to go through.”

The blueprint to combat Neymar and Mbappé – possession and positioning – is already in place. It has been since before Christmas. It is yet to come up against such a formidable counter-attacking threat, but City have never been in a better place to control, cope and to come out the other side. Will it be enough?

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