CITY’S FOOTBALL HAS BEE N AMONG THE BEST THE PREMIER LEAGUE HAS EVER SEE
Pep Guardiola has masterminded a tactical revolution at Manchester City – now he’s set to challenge traditional notions of what it takes to win a title in English football
When Manchester City confirmed the appointment of Pep Guardiola as head coach in February 2016, the expectation outside the club was that his side would click into gear straight away and play the free-flowing attacking football his Barcelona and Bayern teams had displayed so often. Last season proved to be more frustrating than fantastical, so the Citizens’ excellent start to his second Premier League campaign has prompted questions asking precisely what’s changed? In truth, however, the Catalan has merely stuck to his guns and gone back to his Plan A for the Blues. “We are almost the same guys as last season, but now we have the feeling we are going to score a goal,” Pep said after watching his side dismantle Crystal Palace 5-0 in October. “Don’t ask me why, because the principles, as I have repeated many times, are the same. We have to increase all the little details, to do things quick and simple. With that rhythm, we create more chances and goals.” It’s worth remembering that City also came flying out of the traps in 2016-17: winning their first six matches of the campaign with a 4-3-3 system. Outright wingers stretched the play on both flanks, while the midfield was a tremendously technical trio of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Those three started the first four league games of last term together, but played as a trinity only once in the remaining 34 Premier League outings as City eventually slipped to a third-place finish, 15 points behind title-winners Chelsea. Fernandinho’s suspensions didn’t help but City’s decline was partly caused by Guardiola’s meddling: using a three-man defence or 4-2-3-1 formation, and in general moving away from his original masterplan. Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva were reinstalled as Pep’s midfield three at the start of this season, but in a different formation – 3-5-2. Guardiola was seemingly determined to showcase the supreme energy of his new full-backs: Kyle Walker (signed from Tottenham), Benjamin Mendy (Monaco) and Danilo (Real Madrid) were a significant upgrade on last season’s veterans, who lacked the dynamism to sprint up and down the touchlines relentlessly. The problem with the 3-5-2 setup, though, was it meant no place for Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sané in Pep’s starting line-up. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus combined effectively as an old-fashioned front two, but City missed the width provided by two rapid wingers. Time for another rethink, then, and the Blues’ evolution into a truly devastating attacking force came when Guardiola reverted to 4-3-3 – and incorporated Sterling and Sané. Now City essentially play with a front five. De Bruyne, Sterling, Silva, Sané and Aguero form an attacking quintet reminiscent of something from Herbert Chapman’s famous W-M formation some 90 years ago. When the wingers hold the width, Guardiola’s frontline can occupy the five attacking channels on either side of an opposition’s four defenders. They are dragged apart by the positioning of the wingers, which then creates the space for Silva and De Bruyne to penetrate using classic through-balls or quick bursts in behind. But the most interesting aspect of City’s system so far this season is the difference between left and right. On the left side, Mendy’s serious knee injury means the team lacks a recognised left-back, resulting in Fabian Delph playing in that position. Returning to another Guardiola tactic used at the beginning of 2016-17, Delph has often drifted inside into central midfield positions and, consequently, Sané’s the only true left-sided player and always takes up a spot on the outside. On the right wing, things are different. Full-back Walker will naturally overlap and look to reach the byline, while De Bruyne is an outstanding crosser and likes drifting towards the touchline before sending David Beckham-esque balls into the box. Therefore, Sterling no longer needs to maintain the width as strictly as Sané and has a lot more freedom to charge infield. “He has been massive for me, especially with basics and the simple stuff,” Sterling has said of his manager. “He always tries to get you to do the simple stuff at a really top level. That’s the genius thing about him, and it works.” The England wideman has probably been the biggest beneficiary of City’s preference to play what often appears like an ‘extra’ pass having broken the opposition’s backline. When you might expect players from either side to shoot, Guardiola’s men play square balls to an unmarked team-mate in a better goalscoring position. Of all 20 Premier League sides, City have attempted the highest proportion of their shots from inside the penalty area, and are eternally trying to work the ball closer to goal before pulling the trigger. It’s peak Pep. It remains to be seen how long the Blues can keep their form going. It’ll be tough to maintain this level of football throughout the winter – when the games come thick and fast and injuries pile up – but their football so far has been among the very best the Premier League has ever seen. Guardiola will seek to rotate and incorporate the likes of Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan at some stage, but this all-star front five of De Bruyne, Sterling, Silva, Sané and Aguero seems to be unstoppable. Pep is starting to leave his mark.