Guardi­ola: City’s lethal for­mula

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

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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.

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