Does buying the most expensive ingredients make you a better meal?
Much of the talk of the summer transfer window has been about City’s big spending. Whilst comical comparisons have been made between City’s spending and some countries’ annual defence budget, these are fruitless when looking at Premier League revenue. The money is there to be spent, and it has been.
A Tactical Analysis
Guardiola took to the realm this time last season. His ideas, derived from a combination of Michels, Cryuff and Bielsa to name a few, focus on positional play (Juego de Posición). Identifying key areas on a pitch where his team have the ball and developing numerical superiority in these areas.
City won their first 10 games in all competitions, playing exhilarating, aggressive and attacking football using the rules of positional play. The full backs came inside to receive in the half spaces, the ‘free 8’s’ played higher up the pitch and the wingers stayed wide to favour 1v1’s. It was a fluid 4-1-4-1 shape, capable of transitioning into W-M and W-W shapes on the ball.
At its fluent best, the system behaved similarly to that of the famous Barcelona side many consider to be one of the greatest of the modern era. The two pass maps by @11tegen11 express the symmetry between the two teams well.
City’s front 5 were vibrant, De Bruyne and Silva played in the ‘free 8’ roles. Both highly creative and intelligent, the former specialised in assists while Silva controlled matches. The 1v1 ability of Sane and Sterling combined with the proven goalscoring ability of Agüero resulted in 123 goals scored in all competitions. Not just going forward did the five excel: Guardiola’s demands of high pressing were easily matched by the youthful bodies of Sane, Sterling and De Bruyne but more impressively, Guardiola was able to convince both Agüero and Silva to increase their work rate with great aplomb.
Whilst the 4-1-4-1 shape was flexible and adaptive to the opposition, it was not considered to be the be all and end all. When challenged with high-level opposition, the focus – as always – was on central midfield domination. Whilst Agüero offers far more than a classic poacher, his ability to drop into midfield to control wasn’t on the level of Messi during Pep’s spell with Barca.
Guardiola’s wish to exert further control came through a switch to a 3-4-2-1 shape in which he could play lkay Gündoğan alongside fellow midfielders De Bruyne, Silva and Fernandinho. A switch that brought about mixed success; City’s domination at home to Everton wasn’t reflected in the 1-1 scoreline. Another tactical switch brought about by the same logic shifted the shape to a 4-1-2-1-2 narrow diamond. A thumping defeat of West Ham 5-0 in the FA Cup was followed by a dreary 4-0 loss away at Everton.
If City were thrilling, assured and confident going forward, they were everything but at the back. In the same way Guardiola’s forwards are expected to defend, his defenders must attack. They must bring the ball out from the back whilst still being capable of defending large spaces upon defensive transition. Against non-pressing sides, both tasks were achieved adequately. The first real pressing threat came from a young and energetic Spurs team at White Hart Lane. City’s tactical setup was the same, except for the inclusion of Fernando in the heart of midfield. His inability to pass through the press in the ‘6’ role alongside the rest of the City backline meant possession was often lost deep in City’s own half. A 2-0 loss was the result and marks one of very few times in the season City were outperformed in expected goals – a measure of chance quality.
The build-up became the most important aspect of City’s play throughout the 16/17 season. Get it right and the magical five would tear into any defence in the World; get it wrong and an ageing City backline would be exposed to stereotypical Premier League counter attacks. Owning the League’s worst keeper at saving shots directed at his goal meant there was no get out of jail free card available.
The inability to pass through an aggressive press became a theme throughout the season. Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea, Southampton and even Burnley all prevented an effective City build-up.
Putting that aside, it was a lack of genuine good defending that became City’s major downfall. City’s lethargic nature at the back was exposed heavily during trips to Leicester and Everton. The lack of dynamism in the full back areas mixed with a shortage of quality organisation and leadership at centre-back became significant in Kompany’s absence.
The Monaco tie, with a swish of his wand, was like a magician revealing all his secrets. As appears to be the case with Champions League knockout matches, any player hiding flaws would have them ruthlessly exposed at such a level. The home-tie was a success on paper; a 5-3 win including a clever tactical switch from Pep to switch the build up shape from a 2-3 to a 3-2 to achieve superiority over Monaco’s 2 strikers to help progression. However, the goals at the other overshadowed the real problems, with City unable to deal with the pace of Mbappe and the physicality of his partner Falcao. The return leg displayed City’s worst half of football all season. Ripped apart and unable to progress through the thirds and past a midfield duet of Babayoko and Fabinho; Bernardo Silva and Lemar dominated in the half-spaces and Mendy terrorised with his crossing ability. City were ran all over and lost 3-1, exiting the worlds most coveted club competition.
Changes had to be made.
The Guardiola Response: Pre-Season
It was less than a week after the season had finished before City had their first acquisition. Talented playmaker Bernardo Silva came from City’s Champions League conquerors. A short while later, the Brazilian Ederson Moares joined from Benfica; a goalkeeper talented with his feet but more importantly, known for his shot-stopping. A cat and mouse procedure followed before City could announce their new full-backs Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and the versatile Danilo. With interest in Alexis Sanchez and Kylian Mbappe rife, City’s powerful spending may continue.
A Tactical Preview
The first pre-season match of City’s USA tour saw them face off against United. A 4-1-4-1 formation was chosen with flexible interchange in the wide positions. Walker was often seen playing central when City were in possession as the system mirrored that of the previous season honouring the positional play principles previously described.
The next game saw City face the imperious Real Madrid, fresh off the back of their Champions League defence. City played with a 3-1-4-2, 3 centre-backs, with the central one given most creative freedom. A midfield trio had the same profile as the 4-1-4-1, a ‘6’ with two more modern ‘8’s’. Two Wing-Backs and 2 strikers, one of which played deeper than the other. This was a shape intrinsically more aggressive than the 4-1-4-1 with a defender ditched for an extra striker.
It was such a tactical setup that dominated Real, Spurs and West Ham with a 10-1 aggregate. The signing of Walker and Mendy may have given us a clue. Trying to emulate the technical prowess of Alaba and Lahm and their ability to play in the half-spaces only ended in failure. Having incapable bodies uncomfortable on the ball only halted the team’s progression through the thirds rather than improving it. Cutting his losses: Guardiola, in Mendy and Walker, has two players known for their ability on the outside and to motor up and down the flanks for 90 mins. Natural selections it would seem for the Wing-Back roles of the 3-1-4-2, with Walker himself experienced at playing in 3 at the back systems at Spurs. At first glance it may seem surprising to use such an attacking formation when defence was the greatest concern the season before. Using natural full backs in the wide positions enables the flexible shape to mould into 5 at the back, adding solidarity in more difficult games. Playing wingers in these positions will add extra potency in games where City are expected to win.
Further positives include giving John Stones more license on the ball when playing in the centre of a back 3 whilst offering him extra protection in an extra centre-back. A trait Conte so expertly used with David Luiz last season. Stones regularly advanced the ball into De Bruyne and Silva’s feet in the West Ham game, shown in the passmap above. Alongside Stones was a rejuvenated Otamendi who looked assured when placed left of a central 3. To Stones’ right was captain Vincent Kompany: A key figure for City who, when fit, instils leadership and a winning mentality to the side. All 3 looked sharp, perhaps another City centre-back isn’t required.
Gabriel Jesus may now be able to partner Agüero to devastating effect. Such a partnership was very unlikely to occur in a 4-1-4-1. All this can be done without the expense of dethroning either Silva or De Bruyne from their dangerous ‘free 8’ roles.
The reality is that the 3-1-4-2 like all formations has its positives and its drawbacks. Football tactics concern where the space is on a football pitch. The recent trend towards 3 at the back is simply a fix to tactics that had been successful against 4 at the back. Inverted Wingers and electing for extra midfielders over strikers favours central domination. With more top teams adopting such an approach, the natural solution is to remove a defender in place of an extra midfielder. The space that was once available against 4 defenders is no longer there when facing 3. Hence controlling the space is the priority for any manager.
With the vast majority of elite football teams each better at exploiting some spaces more than others, it will be the most tactically flexible teams that will come out on top. At times Guardiola and his colleagues must oscillate between 3 and 4 at the back, or at least have ways of covering different spaces, to be successful long term. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli has already explored using a 2 at the back system.
Guardiola will have no excuses if he is unable to seriously challenge in every competition City are in this season. He has fixed the problems in player profile and squad depth and his players have had a season adapting to his specialist approach in positional play. He has shown signs in his own tactical flexibility in adapting to the Premier League. Rather than emulating his Bayern side with inside based full backs, he has picked quicker more advanced ones that prefer to play on the outside rather than the half-spaces.
It remains to be seen whether Guardiola can deliver huge success domestically and in the Champions League at City, but if pre-season is anything to go by, it certainly seems so.
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Alex is on Twitter @alexsdodgshon.