A Little Seasonal History
The date is September 27 2020 and Manchester City is ready to host Leicester City in an English Premier League game. Confidence is high as City had dispatched their famous foes Wolverhampton Wanderers in the opening day fixture of the 20/21 season only 6 days ago.
Manchester City would lose 5-2 at home to the foxes on that fateful day.
Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring with a right-footed (yes right-footed) volley before Kyle Walker brought down Jamie Vardy and the Leicester City striker converted with aplomb. Vardy would expertly finish a low cross to make it 2-1 and he was down again for another penalty which he scored to complete his hattrick, 3-1. James Maddison curled in a brilliant effort from the edge of the box for 4-1 before City got one back through Nathan Ake. Another penalty for a Benjamin Mendy foul on Maddison and Youri Tielemans scored the final goal. 5-2. It would kickstart a goal drought for Pep and his Citizens. A fiery 1-1 with Leeds, a 1-0 win over Arsenal, a 1-1 draw with high-flying West Ham, a 1-0 win over Sheffield United, a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, and a 2-0 loss to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham.
They were finding it hard to score more than anything. Pep Guardiola needed a solution.
The Genius Mind & Reinvention
City would win big over usual customers Burnley 5-0 and then dispatch Fulham before another 3 game spell in which they scored only twice. But then something changed. The genius of Pep Guardiola’s mind had figured something out. He started using a false 9 system implemented in different ways against different teams. Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres, Phil Foden, etc. have spent time occupying the most forward central position.
Against Chelsea, it was Kevin De Bruyne who started in front and scored against his former side in the 3-1 win. 10 days later in the fixture against Brighton, it was Bernardo Silva in the center-forward position. As they completed their double against Wolves yesterday, they used Gabriel Jesus who we should remember played a lot on the wings for Palmeiras before coming to join Manchester City in England. But this sort of sharp tactical adaptation is not new to Guardiola. He has shown it before.
It was the genius mind that masterminded the change that took Manchester City from 4th to 1st between the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons. Pep’s discovery of the use of the half-spaces in England along with some kick-ass transfer dealings brought City’s dominance in 17/18 and 18/19. Pep was still using the touchline-hugging winger system but he was now using his midfielders to occupy the half-spaces, form combinations in dangerous zones, and for wicked deliveries into the box. He had 2 midfielders built for this half wing, half midfield position. Kevin De Bruyne on the right and David Silva on the left. Rotations between Leroy Sane and David Silva on the left, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling on the right allowed Pep’s boys to arrive in the box primed for short quick crosses in the box for teammates to score.
As with all plans, there is a period for re-strategizing and reinvention. Pep knew this when he left Barcelona, took a sabbatical saying he was tired and could not “reinvent” the team. “I left Barcelona because I was worn out. I explained how I felt to the president in October 2011. There was no change of heart after that. So it would have made no sense at all for me to start changing the squad. I knew I was leaving!”, he said to Independent reporter Tom Peck. Xavi and Iniesta were not used in occupying half-spaces the way De Bruyne and David Silva have. Neither were Bastian Schweisteiger, nor Thiago Alcantara, nor Mario Gotze during his Bayern days.
The Brilliant Marriage of Joao Cancelo and Pep Guardiola
Images from Breakingthelines.com
As denoted by the images above. Joao Cancelo’s tactical flexibility allows him to move into a midfield position and create a box shape for Manchester City during the first phase. His ability to do this on the left and right is very important too. Cancelo struggled last season after Juventus exchanged him for Danilo (who authorized that deal?) but he has been incredible so far. He occupies positions not traditional for a full-back in the first phase and helps them to proceed to the next phase. Cancelo is also decisive in the final phase. A modest 1 goal and 2 assists but he has created 6 big chances in the league. He also has 1 goal and 1 assist in the UEFA Champions League.
Images From Skysports
Such versatility, such tactical flexibility is the sort that Pep Guardiola needs to flex his tactical brains. It worked at Bayern with Philipp Lahm slotting into midfield beside Xabi Alonso or alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger. It allowed Bayern to exert more control and inject more stamina in midfield. Guardiola has called Lahm “the most intelligent player I’ve ever coached” but Joao Cancelo’s understanding of this hybrid position will put him right up there with the legendary German Champion.
The Current State of Things
Manchester City top the English Premier League table. They have won 15 straight Premier League games since that 1-1 draw against West Brom. The goals that were scarce at the beginning of the season now run at will. Pep Guardiola’s combination of the False 9 system and the conventional use of Gabriel Jesus as the striker has borne great results. Ilkay Gundogan in particular has put on his scoring boots, netting 11 goals so far. The German midfielder is on course to win the Premier League player of the year award if niggles and injuries let him be. City have gone from struggling to score goals to lead the scoring charts. They lead with 56 goals scored while Manchester United have scored 53. City have made United the noisy neighbors as they lead Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side with 15 points although United have a game in hand.
Money? Players ? or Tactical Genius?
All the above. Defensive solidity has been at the heart of Manchester City’s incredible rush towards the title and that is because City could spend 50 million Pounds to buy John Stones and only last Summer, another 65 million to sign Ruben Dias. There are hefty deals for defenders in between too like the 58 million Pounds spent to sign Aymeric Laporte and the 38 million spent on Nathan Ake. Money has played a huge part in constantly refreshing his Manchester City squad with very good players. Money to buy very good players.
He even alluded to it after he was asked what the secret behind their 19-match winning run in all competitions. Pep Guardiola responded, “we have a lot of money to buy a lot of incredible players”. True, but so do Manchester United and Chelsea and you do not see them experiencing such consistency across the past 5 seasons. Pep Guardiola’s ability to reinvent his team to solve tactical problems his side faces and management of the squad is as important.
Pep Guardiola’s 17/18 Manchester City team set several Premier League records during the season. Most points (100), most away points (50), most points ahead of second (19), most wins (32), most away wins (16), most goals (106), best goal difference (+79), and most consecutive victories (18). The team also equalled the record for the earliest Premier League title win (5 games to spare), beating every other team in the league throughout the season, and recording the most consecutive away wins (11). They also won the EFL Cup now Carabao Cup. Centurions, the world crowned them. During the 18/19 season, City won a domestic treble (EPL, EFL, and FA Cup). Apart from winning all three of the major English football tournaments, they also won the Community Shield, the first time any team has ever held all four of England’s primary football trophies.
Last season, as Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool raced to the title, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City got their grubby hands on the Carabao Cup for consolation.
Guardiola deserves more respect for his time in England, no hogwash about the money spent can override the intelligence of his workings and ability to bring it all together. This table from Transfermarkt shows that while Manchester City have indeed spent the most over the last 5 years, Manchester United is only about 100 million behind. A lot of teams have spent healthily but none have been able to put together the kind of run that City have been on. The dismissal of his time at City due to their inability to win the UEFA Champions League is nonsensical considering their domestic dominance. Guardiola deserves praise for keeping his team sharp and quick-witted on the pitch.
Revered by across the world, England Rugby coach Eddie Jones spoke of feeling embarrassed after watching a Pep Guardiola training session. The speed, sharpness, and inventiveness of the training sessions marvelled the Six Nations League Champion. His close friend, former assistant, and now Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta brands him a genius and a tireless worker. Guardiola deserves your “respect, respect, respect” to borrow the words of his arch-nemesis Jose Mourinho.