Before Manchester City took on Borussia Monchengladbach in their Champions League last-16 first-leg match at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, Gladbach manager Marco Rose was asked in an interview with the Guardian to describe how he wants the side he coaches to play.

His team, he said, is “always active in a game, against the ball and with the ball. It tries to win balls in a high position on the pitch. If we have the chance to score quickly we should use it, if not we should keep possession… Moving the ball fast, moving the opponents; winning it back in the shortest possible time if we lose it. Playing clever, playing hard, not just for the gallery.”

The question was asked in a general sense, not specifically with the City game in mind – but the same principles would apply against the current Premier League
leaders. Yet anyone watching his team for the very first time on Wednesday night would have had a hard time squaring that statement with reality. Always active? Moving the opponents? Playing hard? Really?

Though it may sound like one, that is not a dig at Rose – he has done wonders to get Gladbach into the last 16 of Europe’s top soccer competition, and it is not by chance he has been given the Borussia Dortmund job. Over the past 18 months, the 44-year-old’s team have often looked every bit as incisive and potent as that description would suggest.

Instead, it is a credit to Manchester City; Pep Guardiola’s boa constrictor, a footballing predator that for the last three months has suffocated the resistance out of any team unfortunate enough to be standing in its way.

City had nine shots to Gladbach’s three on the night, and 61% of possession of the ball. Yet the story wasn’t in the numbers, but in how the game looked and felt. City were relentless.

In possession their passing was stunningly crisp, balls pinged into feet at warp speed and quickly moved on again before a Gladbach player could get close. On the odd occasion they lost it, the pressure was so quick and intense that you almost felt sorry for the Gladbach player with the ball at his feet.

In the first half particularly, City controlled territory and action, not letting Rose’s side have a sniff. And when left-back João Cancelo – whose dual role as left-sided defender and central creator has been so crucial to City’s run of 19 games unbeaten – conjured up a chance, they took it.

Against Arsenal in the previous game the level of control they had exerted was similar for long periods. Arteta, you imagine would use many of the same buzz words as Rose to explain what he wants to see from his charges, but again, Pep’s men did not allow them to get anywhere near their top level.

Yet the game against Arsenal also showed another, slightly different side to their playing style. As well as pressing and suffocating their opposition in the final third, City demonstrated they were capable of dropping back after the initial press, getting into a solid 4-4-2 shape and holding the Gunners at bay.

Playing a full 90 minutes defending a 1-0 lead against a Premier League team should not be easy, but they made it appear so. And that is the key this season.

There has been much discussion about whether this is Guardiola’s best version of City, even better than the one that achieved 100 points in the 2017-18 Premier League. But to think of the discussion in terms of better and worse is facile. This team is different.

It is likely now that they will go on to win the Premier League, though with nowhere near 100 points. They are also favourites for the League Cup and FA Cup. But what will most interest Guardiola is another European crown, and that difference between this side and his previous ones in Manchester stands his team in better stead to win it.

As well as the high line and high press that has always been Guardiola teams’ forte – but had its pitfalls, most notably the space left behind the defence – he has added another way to win, another way to frustrate opponents. In the tight, knockout games in Europe that will be especially important.

Whether Guardiola was spurred to innovate when losing out on the title and Champions League last year, or whether he has devised this slight strategic tweak as a reaction to the odd conditions and packed calendar imposed by the coronavirus pandemic is difficult to say. What is certain, though, is that his team is more rounded, more versatile.

There will be tougher tests to come than Arsenal in the Premier League and tougher tests to come than Borussia Monchengladbach in Europe, but City look ready for them in a way they have not before.

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