17th August 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Having played their first Premier League game of the season, a narrow 2-1 victory over David Moyes's Sunderland at the Etihad, the Pep Guardiola era is well and truly underway at Manchester City.
The Catalan coach is renowned not only for the level of success he has achieved in his managerial career to date, but also for the tactical innovations he has implemented. Guardiola takes a unique approach to solving the myriad problems that present themselves within a football match. Rather than rely on the tried and tested formations and strategies, Guardiola is unafraid to try something a little different -- to think outside the box.
At FC Barcelona, his major calling card was the use of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi as a "false nine" -- a positionally unrestricted centre-forward. Up until the point of Guardiola's brainwave, Messi had been a left-footed right-winger, starting out on the touchline and moving inside with his unparalleled dribbling skills.
In this role, Messi was already the best player in the world in many people's eyes, but Guardiola wanted more from him. By placing him at the centre of his attacking trident in a 4-3-3 formation, Guardiola instructed Messi to roam from his position, to come deep to collect the ball and start attacking moves, then arrive in the penalty area unmarked to sweep home the low centres from the wingers and full-backs who had pushed forward on the outside of him.
This new approach transformed Messi into an unstoppable 70-goals-a-season forward. Messi's otherworldly natural talents, coupled with the fluidity and freedom this new position afforded him, made the diminutive attacker virtually unplayable, while also helping BarÃ§a secure three league titles and two Champions Leagues during Guardiola's time in charge at the Camp Nou.
And at Bayern Munich, one of the most eye catching and talked about tactical shifts Guardiola implemented was his use of David Alaba. The Austrian was already regarded as probably the finest left-back in the world when Guardiola arrived at the Allianz Arena in 2013, but, again, the new coach saw the potential for more.
Through extensive and exhaustive training ground exercises, Guardiola drilled his instructions into Alaba. The player's new role would see him play a key part in all of Bayern's attacking play, while still nominally a full-back.
Alaba's starting position remained at left-back, but when the German side had possession, he would move forward to join the attack. Yet rather than look to overlap the left-winger and fire crosses into the box, as is the standard procedure for a left-back moving forward, Guardiola instructed Alaba to move inside into a central attacking midfield position. Alaba's dual role of left-back-cum-number 10, was what Guardiola envisioned as the best way to utilise the Austrian's full range of skills, in both the attacking and defending phases of play.
These are just two examples of the many ways Guardiola has sought to stray from the norm, in order to maximise the potential of his players and teams. So what kind of nuanced and unusual tactical mastery can City fans expect to see while Guardiola is at the helm of their club?
Well, after the Sunderland game, the full-backs were all anyone could seem to talk about.
Two former Arsenal players, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna, were started at left- and right-back respectively. However, whenever City had the ball, both men would push up and inside, into the central midfield zone.
The two Frenchman were not moving forward into the same kind of attacking positions that Alaba had been taking up for Bayern, but rather they were acting in a similar role to that which Philip Lahm was utilised in for much of last season under Guardiola.
In MartÃ Perarnau's excellent book Pep Confidential, in which the author chronicles Guardiola's first season in Munich in astounding detail, Guardiola's admiration of Lahm is clearly evident. The Catalan tactician hatched a plan to reinvent the full-back as a deep-lying playmaker, or pivote as it would be known in Barcelona the very role in which Guardiola excelled during his playing days. The idea behind the move was that Lahm's footballing intelligence and short-passing ability would be perfectly suited to the role of midfield conductor.
But last season, Lahm's starting position was often his much more familiar right-back berth. However, when Bayern gained possession, with Alaba flying forward on the left, Lahm would slot into the right side of central midfield, with Thiago AlcÃ¢ntara on the left, and Xabi Alonso dropping back between the two centre-backs.
And that kind of positional fluidity is another thing City fans can expect to become a hallmark of their side's play this season.
When the team sheets were released for the Sunderland game, many were shocked to see David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne named among the midfielders, either side of Fernandinho, in what appeared to be a 4-3-3.
But the 4-3-3 soon morphed into a 3-2-4-1 when City began to attack, as the aforementioned full-backs moved into midfield, Fernandinho tucked in between John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov, and Ã‘olito, Silva, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling attacking behind Sergio Aguero.
It is not uncommon for coaches to set up their teams to transition between shapes depending on the phase of play, but few do it in quite such an elaborate way as Guardiola.
Similar shifting was a staple of his Barcelona and Bayern sides: Sergio Busquets would slip in between the centre-backs as the full-backs pushed on, transforming Barca's 4-3-3 into a 3-4-3; and the German champions would line up in a 4-3-3 shape without the ball, then re-shuffle into a 3-2-4-1 when in possession.
Much has also been made of Joe Hart's omission from the team, with Guardiola apparently in the market for a new goalkeeper. Most observers have put this down to Hart's distribution skills not being up to scratch to play in a system which calls for the goalkeeper to pass the ball well and often.
But there is more to Guardiola's mistrust of Hart than simply his passing ability. The England international has been in poor form of late, but the key factor behind his being deemed surplus to requirements by Guardiola is his tendency to become over-emotional, and his inability to nip opposition attacks in the bud by coming out of his penalty area to intercept and clear through-balls.
Guardiola's team's always defend with a high line, meaning there is space in behind the defence for the opposition to exploit with an accurate through-ball to a pacey on-rushing striker. To combat this threat, Guardiola likes his goalkeepers to take up a high position to squeeze the space behind the back-line, and rush out to sweep up any balls that threaten to expose the high line.
Victor Valdes did this brilliantly for Barcelona, but there is no better example of the sweeper-keeper than Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer.
This also requires a level-headedness that Hart has not really exhibited too often. His habit of getting over-hyped before a game can lead to him misjudging and mistiming his rushes from goal the way he came out of his area for England against Sweden in November 2012, only to head the ball directly to Zlatan Ibrahimovi? who dispatched a fine bicycle kick to score, stands out as a glaring example.
Now, Guardiola will not expect his City goalkeeper to play with the same level of comfort in possession as Neuer who can often be seen taking up a position as high as the half-way line while Bayern are attacking but he will want someone who is able to do a similar job.
Barca's 24-year-old Germany international Marc-AndrÃ© ter Stegen was believed to be City's first choice as a goalkeeping transfer target, but Barca will not sell as they intend to make the former Borussia Monchengladbach stopper their number one this season. However, the Blaugrana's veteran Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo, who is set to be behind ter Stegen in the pecking order once the German returns from injury, is a more realistic target for City.
The Sunderland game showed that the City players have got a long way to go before they are able to fully grasp what Guardiola is demanding of them. But, despite having to rely on a penalty and an own goal to scrape a narrow win, the early signs were good.
Pep Guardiola pretty much guarantees two things for whichever club he is in charge of, one of which is his fascinating array of tactical innovations; the other: unprecedented success. Exciting times ahead for Manchester City.
The Pep Guardiola Era is Underway at Manchester City
17th August 2016. By Ryan Baldi.