Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City’s ailing Kyle Walker and the Champions League’s impact-makers


The Champions League quarterfinals conclude this week with all four ties delicately poised (as always you can catch coverage of all the action across CBS, Paramount+, CBS Sports Golazo Network, and CBS Sports Network) . On Tuesday two of La Liga’s representatives have one goal margins to hold on to, but neither Barcelona nor Atletico Madrid would argue that they are overwhelming favorites against Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. Twenty four hours later it is the turn of the English sides to try to find daylight over their illustrious opposition. Both Arsenal and Manchester City drew in their first legs, can they overcome Bayern Munich and Real Madrid? Here are the men who could swing the tie in either direction:

1. Barcelona vs. PSG: Luis Enrique

When his pre-match press conference was defined by a debate over whether he or Xavi better represented the Barcelona way — though sidetracking a game preview with philosophical treatises suggests more Parisian values — it seemed certain Luis Enrique was going to flex his coaching muscles. That he did… and it might well have cost PSG a real shot at their first Champions League title. 

There was logic to using Marco Asensio as a false nine; if the hosts were going to win a midfield battle against Ilkay Gundogan and Frenkie De Jong they would probably need greater numbers (though why Warren Zaire-Emery was not entrusted to be part of that clash is hard to comprehend). There is dropping back, however, and then there is registering only five of your 17 touches in the attacking third, where you complete only two touches before being hauled off at half time. If a false nine is to be truly effective he has to take a center back with him, Asensio only did that once, creating one of the best openings Kylian Mbappe had in the first half. Those were altogether too rare though in a team whose raison d’être even now, as he stands by the exit door, needs to be getting Mbappe as many shots as possible.

Given that this is not the first time Luis Enrique’s adjustments to the PSG XI have backfired — take the trashing at Newcastle’s hands in the group stages — it might be easy to paint the former Barcelona man as the problem. That would not entirely be the case. Plan A might have backfired, but the adjustments improved the situation. Further back, Lucas Hernandez was pushed out to the right side of defense so Marquinhos could come infield and anchor the back three in possession. Zaire-Emery’s introduction brought high grade ball carrying too; had the defense not lost Andreas Christensen at a corner then PSG might be travelling to Barcelona in a much better position.

Meanwhile, Bradley Barcola’s introduction moved Ousmane Dembele closer to Mbappe, PSG’s two deadliest forwards theoretically empowered to create merry chaos together. It worked extremely effectively for the former, but the latter was held to just one shot from range, Barcelona throwing as many bodies as they could at the right corner of the box to force the danger man into giving the ball up.

None of the difficulties faced by PSG are unfixable for a coach of Luis Enrique’s qualities. The challenge will be threading the needle between experimentation and purposeless noodling. 

2. Dortmund vs. Atletico: Niclas Fullkrug

At the final whistle of the first leg of this tie, you could have pencilled in Sebastien Haller as the game changer who might swing this tie in Dortmund’s direction. He might have already done so, his ghosting run into the penalty area and smart volley halving the deficit in the Metropolitano and giving his side a real chance of doing the business in front of the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday. The 29-year-old, however, limped out 10 minutes into the win over Borussia Monchengladbach at the weekend and is now reportedly a doubt for the remainder of the season.

The task will instead fall to Niclas Fullkrug, the veteran striker acquired to plug a gap in the Dortmund frontline over the summer. For much of the season he did so reasonably effectively with 13 goals in 39 games. Crucially, however, none of those have come in his last nine games, Edin Terzic compelled to praise the 31-year-old’s work rate after he drew blanks against Atletico Madrid. For much of that game Fullkrug struggled to get involved, not even completing a pass in the opposition half until the first minute of first-half added time.

However, something was beginning to click for Dortmund and their center forwards after the interval, particularly for Haller after his introduction, but also for Fullkrug earlier on. This is not the Atletico of old, the duel-winning defensive monsters who gave center forwards no opportunities to impose themselves on the game. There is space between the lines if you are prepared to exploit it, and if a striker drops deep then the center backs may feel compelled to follow. On more than one occasion that brought threatening moments for Dortmund, this Fullkrug flick on slipping just out of reach for Julian Brandt before he could bear down on goal.

Fullkrug wins the duel off a goal kick and flicks into Brandt’s path
Wyscout/UEFA

On plenty of other occasions Fullkrug dropped into that space between the lines to find more time. Had he flicked Emre Can’s pass round the corner to either Marcel Sabitzer or Karim Adeyemi, rather than the gap between them, and Dortmund would have had a two on one down their right to attack.

Fullkrug splits the gap between his team mates with a first time pass
Wyscout/UEFA

What changed with Haller’s introduction was subtle but impactful. The Ivory Coast forward began his attacks by dropping deep as the man he replaced had had, but used that to spin in behind, functioning as something of a third man runner, profiting from an Atletico midfield that did not have anyone whose first instinct was to follow him. If Fullkrug can repeat that trick then he should get the chances he needs to break his goal drought and swing the tie in Dortmund’s direction.

3. Man City vs. Real Madrid: Kyle Walker

It only took 21 seconds for Madrid’s tactics to become apparent in the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday. The ball was cycled to Vinicius Junior and he was flying down the left, leaving Manuel Akanji in his rearview mirror.  Come the final whistle there were altogether too many of those long blue arrows below or, even worse, the ones where Vinicius manages to carry the ball into the penalty area.

Vinicius Junior’s ball carries against Manchester City in the 2023-24 Champions League quarter final first leg
TruMedia

No matter how much steady control City exert, Madrid are going to manufacture opportunities to spring Vinicius. Pep Guardiola can’t stop it at source but what he will hope he is able to do is deploy one of the very best weapons in the sport for slowing the best wingers and wide forwards. Kyle Walker has done it against Mbappe, he has done it against Sadio Mane and he has done it against Vinicius, whose best opening on his last trip to the Etihad was snuffed out by the England international.


Wyscout/UEFA

All the more worrying then that Guardiola could offer no assurances that Walker would be ready to go from the off on Wednesday having returned from a hamstring injury to be part of the matchday squad against Luton on Saturday. “He feels much better but he was injured, so now we will see in the next days,” said Guardiola after the Luton match. “But he is good, he feels good.

“Maybe he can help with minutes because it is a ‘final’ but I don’t want to lose him for a long time if he gets injured. He will train a bit more now and we will decide. I know how important Kyle is against the players from Real Madrid. But he was not in Madrid and Manu [Akanji], Josko [Gvardiol], John [Stones], Ruben [Dias] played incredibly well. We will see.”

As Guardiola himself insisted, City can still win without Walker. After all, curious though it might be to say given they conceded three goals, his side did an impressive job of getting into their slow it down, control the game mode. Events just happened. Then again, it really helps no end to have someone with the afterburners to catch every loose ball or breakaway in the nick of time.

4. Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal: Gabriel Jesus

When every game has the tumultuous win or bust status that Arsenal’s have at the moment, the value of players seems to be set by nothing more than what they did the last time out. Memories of Gabriel Jesus’ game-changing cameo against Bayern Munich are already gone, replaced by the sense of a player and team running on fumes after a bright start against Aston Villa. Certainly Mikel Arteta might wish for more consistency from his marquee No. 9, but this is an injury struck forward who fears he might need another operation on his knee come the summer. You take what you get.

What you get from Jesus might be just what is required in the Allianz Arena. Against Villa it looked like the 27 year old did not have the pace to get away from their high line, possibly a cause of concern for the long term, but perhaps nothing more than the tell tale sign of a player who has not fixed an underlying fitness issue. Thomas Tuchel did not, and likely will not, advance as far up the pitch a Bayern Munich defense anchored by Matthijs De Ligt and Eric Dier. If his side play anything like they did in the first leg — and there has been no great fitness or form boost to suggest Bayern might change it up — the defensive line will be deep, the focus in build up being feeding quick ball to Harry Kane and Jamal Musiala or Thomas Muller, who can then spring the wide forwards in behind.

Bayern Munich’s pass map against Arsenal, reflecting the depth they were forced to play at
TruMedia

If Bayern’s line is deep then someone is going to have to prise it apart. Enter Jesus, who has never seen a blind alley that he has not been tempted to dribble down. While that might drive Arsenal fans to distraction on occasion it could prove extremely effective against an opponent who are not blessed with top tier one-on-one defenders. That much was certainly the case in the first leg, where Jesus drew defenders to him with quick feet and laid the ball off for Trossard to score the equalizer.  The defensive deficiencies that convinced Tuchel that Joshua Kimmich is not a holding midfielder are hardly going to be masked at right back if Arsenal can get overloads on that flank. Nor does whoever comes in for the suspended Alphonso Davies profile as a more effective one on one defender.

The challenge for Arteta is how best to deploy Jesus’ skills. Much will depend on whether Martin Odegaard shakes off the nebulous issue which forced his withdrawal in defeat to Villa. Take him out and Arsenal will be forced into the sort of adjustments in relation to their captain that they have not been forced to make since Odegaard’s arrival. If the Norwegian is fit, however, there is a case to be made for starting Jesus from the off but that could well mean sacrificing either Kai Havertz, in rich scoring form of late, or the control that Jorginho may afford. If not them then perhaps Jesus could start wide on the left, a role where he has put in an almighty shift for the team in the past but where Gabriel Martinelli might also prove effective.

These are mostly good problems for Arteta to have — far preferable to Tuchel trying to find pace on the flanks without Davies, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman — and at the forefront of his mind will surely be those moments when Jesus took the game to Bayern. If the Brazilian is able to do so again then Arsenal might find themselves bound for the semifinals.



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