In the summer, Manchester City added Erling Haaland to an already star studded side. Since the phasing out of the legendary Sergio Aguero, Pep Guardiola had utilised a false nine to devastating effect in the Premier League; winning consecutive titles with this approach. It was considered a tactic that Guardiola would continue to utilise – why fix something that isn’t broken after all – but it is not in the Spaniard’s nature to stand still.
Over his managerial career, Guardiola has demonstrated a constant desire and ability to evolve, often before anyone externally would even begin to suggest he should. It must be exhausting being one of his coaching staff, with his closest aides constantly being bombarded with new ideas and tactics. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the thought process of the great manager, but there is always method to the madness.
In his incredibly successful career, Guardiola has overseen one of the greatest Barcelona sides of all time. His Tika-Taka football – executed perfectly – was an adaptation on all that had come before at Barcelona, but it could be argued that it had never been demonstrated quite as masterfully as by the likes of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi et al.
Then came the Bayern Munich team who were so dominant in the Bundesliga. The fact that the Bavarian side have ruled the roost in Germany for over a decade domestically takes the shine off of this achievement somewhat, especially given the lack of success in Europe in this period, but Guardiola still revolutionised a historic side. This can be identified as the period in which Guardiola began using inverted full-backs as we have seen with increasing regularity in his Manchester City side in the past 18 months. Phillip Lahm was absolutely key to this and it was something of a masterstroke to allow him to move into midfield during the game.
When you consider that Lahm was in the twilight of a career that had been spent in its entirety at full-back, to trust him to step into midfield and become arguably the key cog in the Bayern machine was further evidence of Guardiola’s brilliance. As well as making him an important player in possession, this tactic also had a defensive reason. With the majority of Bayern’s opponents seeing themselves as inferior to Bayern, a lot of teams would look to counter-attack to create chances. The inverted full-backs were a ploy to halt these attacks and give Bayern more reinforcements centrally when turnovers occurred and the opponents looked to break quickly.
David Alaba would also be given this responsibility at times and this allowed Bayern to establish control and squeeze the game. Unlike his possession-intensive approach at Barcelona, at Bayern Guardiola shifted his focus to a more transition-focused approach. That is not to say his Bayern side did not have the bulk of possession in the majority of their games – particularly domestically – but that they were more focussed on being effective and looking to create chances when they had the ball.
When Guardiola became Bayern manager in the summer of 2013 he was taking on a team that had just celebrated a historic treble. Outgoing manager Jupp Heynckes had secured the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal titles on home soil, before beating compatriots Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley. Regardless of who the incoming manager would be, off the back of the most successful campaign in the club’s history, this was a role that came with pressure. How do you make your mark on a side that has just won it all with a beloved manager retiring with the team at the top of European football?
Perhaps this troubled Guardiola somewhat. He tried a number of things tactically in his three years in Germany and won the Bundesliga on all three occasions. Ultimately though, more was expected. In each season he navigated the Champions League to the semi-final stage before losing to Spanish opposition. The false nine role that Messi had performed so expertly at Barcelona was not such a factor in Bayern’s tactics due to the fact that they had Robert Lewandowski, but the role of Thomas Muller was perhaps the most similar to that of Messi previously; the German allowed the most freedom in the side regardless of system.
Since joining Manchester City in 2016, Guardiola’s tactics have evolved more than ever before. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the six-and-a-half years that the Spaniard has spent managing City is longer than he spent at either Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
There was a lot of snobbery from English football fans when Guardiola arrived. There was an acceptance that he was a very good manager but “you can’t play that style of football in England” was possibly the most-used phrase in the summer of his arrival. Well, four Premier League titles, four consecutive EFL Cups, and one FA Cup later and that myth has been well and truly expelled. In fact, Guardiola initiated a cultural overhaul in England. Now the majority of goal kicks in the English top flight do not leave the box, with the goalkeeper playing a five-yard pass to either centre-back. The rule was even changed to allow this as a result of this desire to play short from goal kicks.
For the majority of Guardiola’s time at Manchester City he has deployed a 433 formation; at least on the face of it. In the early years, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane were key. The two wide players stretched the opposition with their runs in behind and their ability to get to the byline and play a low cut-back. Both scored a hatful of goals simply by arriving at the back post to tap in a ball rolled across the face of goal by the other. In Sterling and Sane, Guardiola had two of the best attackers of space in world football at the time.
This tactic achieved so much success that it is surprising that, over time, Guardiola has phased out wingers of this profile so that now none remain at the club. Instead his current preferred wingers are Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez; two wingers who very much want the ball to feet and do not look to make runs in behind very often. This change of approach represents Guardiola’s latest obsession – not giving the opposition a chance to counter them.
To prevent being countered, Guardiola’s quest for control is evident. With their dominance in the Premier League, the only explanation for this that makes any real sense is that City have been stung too many times by teams countering in the Champions League. The competition that is made up of the best teams in the world means that opponents are the most efficient at making City pay for conceding chances, however rarely they may come.
This obsession with not being counter-attacked has made City less threatening in attack. Grealish and Mahrez constantly look to receive the ball high and wide, before all too often turning back and playing a pass to the full-back or a midfielder. They keep the ball and therefore the control, but it makes opponents fear them much less. Their attack can look blunt at times as a result and low blocks become far more effective. The fact that City have been dropped points to Nottingham Forest, Everton and Newcastle United in the league this season is evidence of that.
This is not to say that when everything falls into place they are not still extraordinary. The principles of overloading to isolate remain and nothing demonstrated this better than the first half of their 6-3 win. City relentlessly targeted Manchester United’s right-hand side, with João Canelo, Bernardo Silva and Grealish wreaking havoc in their frequent targeting of Diogo Dalot. Dalot was booked after just two minutes and had a torrid time. It almost seemed unfair the way that the City trio played almost exclusively in Dalot’s area of the pitch, teasing and tormenting him as City took a 4-0 lead into half time.
Whilst wingers who look for the ball to feet and protect possession are a key element of Guardiola’s shift in approach, the other noticeable tactic is full-backs stepping into central midfield areas. This is the tactic that he used with Lahm and Alaba in Germany and the likes of Cancelo, Kyle Walker and Rico Lewis have all been asked to perform this role this campaign. By shifting from a back four without the ball to a back three in possession, one of the full-backs steps into the central midfield area to create a double pivot – usually alongside Rodri. This provides City with more options in possession but also means that if possession is lost then the centre of the pitch is very congested and counter-attacks are, in theory, more preventable.
At times, fans find Guardiola’s tactics and the personnel he picks mystifying, but it is far more likely that this latest approach is part of a plan to conquer Europe rather than simply a genius’ boredom. After trialling Bernardo Silva at left-back in the recent 3-1 victory over title rivals Arsenal, Guardiola said that he had tried something new and “it was horrible”. He does not always get it right and City fans fear Champions League knockout games due to Guardiola’s perceived overthinking – see the inexplicable change to a back three for the 3-1 home defeat to Lyon in the 2020 quarter-final as exhibit A. They have also seemingly been in control of games in the competition for the trophy they so desperately crave only for the tie to turn on its head with a flurry of goals. Against Real Madrid in the semi-final last season, City were 5-3 up on aggregate in the 90th minute of the second leg only to concede two Rodrygo goals after the 90th minute and then lose in extra-time.
With the crazy nature of that defeat to Madrid, perhaps Guardiola can be forgiven for scratching his head and coming into the new season with a different approach. This quest for total control is the latest feature of the ex-Barcelona midfielder’s managerial evolution. One thing for sure though, is that Guardiola demands the highest of standards from his players and as a result he almost invariably takes their game to new levels.
Speaking about Guardiola, Thierry Henry is quoted as saying: “He makes you understand how important it is to stay in your position, understand space, understand that the ball travels faster than anybody else, understand that you need to enjoy the game simply to win the game”.
It may not always be as simple to those on the outside as it is to Guardiola, but it is always intriguing. Football is a far better spectacle with Guardiola involved.
What will be next in Guardiola’s constant desire to improve and evolve?