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Phil Foden impresses as Man City fight back to beat RB Leipzig in Champions League

RB Leipzig 1-3 Manchester City (Openda 48′ | Foden 25′, Alvarez 84′, Doku 92′)

RED BULL ARENA — So you thought you knew football? Manchester City‘s serene procession, without defeat in a match that mattered since Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League in February, has tumbled over its own feet over the last week. City arrived in Leipzig not with irresistible attack or immovable defence, but trying to avoid three consecutive defeats for the first time in more than half a decade. These were strange times indeed.

The solution, at least from a tactical point of view, was to remove Julian Alvarez and Jeremy Doku from his starting XI. The basic theory was that City do not feel sufficient attacking advantages for the inclusion of three forwards but do lose control against counter-attacking opponents. Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva may make you suffer for pace and support for Erling Haaland, but they should guarantee extra control.

City had more than three-quarters of the ball and all but one of the shots during a first half during which they repeatedly threatened before and after Phil Foden scored, unusually, with his right foot. Cue that celebration that City do, all low-key embraces and handshakes as if so used to the repetition. They have also picked up an inglorious habit of looking they will never concede a goal until roughly five seconds before they actually do.

This team is always better entertainment when it has a reason to fight rather than simply coast. There are times when City simply find it too easy, an endless ocean of passing and moving like a Liverpool rap with a scratch on the record. They score sooner or later and then they manage you into despair. But ask them to re-prove their brilliance, though and you usually get a show.

It is more fun to watch too when it is flawed. For all the control of the first half, City are still prone to being caught out on the break. Guardiola took out the direct attackers and it kept happening. Rodri came back into the side and exactly the same. Lois Openda scored on one attack, released and through. Emil Forsberg messed up two more chances through picking the wrong option or messing up the right one.

One theory for this odd frailty is that City are simply not masking it like before. Haaland is reaching a little for form just now. The runs aren’t being met with the right pass, the snapshots wanting for accuracy or power or both. After he slid at one cross, only diverting it wide, Haaland slammed both arms against the floor in disgust. Ten minutes later, he shanked a shot 15 yards over the bar. This just isn’t him.

Is it possible that this provides the both cause and effect? When Haaland is playing at the level of an elite striker rather than a superhuman, he can be treated as such by defenders. The extra man or two who plays with Haaland in his eyeline can concentrate on others. City are forced to get midfielders closer to their striker, leaving them more vulnerable in behind.

Either way, the solution is for somebody else – or some others – to step into Haaland’s breach as a temporary fill-in. Last season, Foden and Alvarez scored 20 league goals between them; they were the ballast around Haaland’s bullying brilliance. They were always the most likely supporting actors.

Don’t you love it when an inadvertent plan comes together. Five minutes before the end, Alvarez finished what Foden started, a gorgeous curled shot at the end of the Red Bull Arena in which City blue jumped and danced and, for the first time in an age, sighed with relief. Several minutes on, only joy at Doku’s quality.

Imaginary panic over. City are too good to not win for long and few of their rivals for any competition had stopped to consider that they might be creaking. Haaland is not at his heights, but his team will adjust. Soon he’ll come good again, and you’ll go back to forgetting when he ever wasn’t haunting the dreams of every opponent.

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