Manchester City under Pep Guardiola has been regarded as ‘tactical example’ by not only many football fans but also coaches around the world. One of the reasons would be that he always tries something new at the beginning of the season such as extremely narrow fullbacks or double pivots. However, the shape or tactics have kept changing throughout the season and at the end, he finds the best solution to maximise the ability of the squad. This season, he started to reuse the 2-3-5 in possession with narrow fullbacks, however, the shape itself is a 3-2-5 in possession right now. This was mainly achieved by the development of the ability of Nathan Aké or Manuel Akanji to play as a fullback especially in possession. Let’s having a look at the detail of Pep’s current tactics.
These days, Manchester City plays out from the back with a back three by pushing one of the defenders next to Rodri. This job has been done by a fullback, Rico Lewis, Bernardo Silva or John Stones, but as Stones has become reliable in the midfield, he can step up to the midfield from the position of the centre back while the right fullback, recently Akanji stays at the back. To be fair, this kind of role, sometimes called a false centre back had been used a few years ago by Fernandinho doing Stones’ job. However, the biggest difference and strength of this tweak is the ability of defending. Now, City can fill up the back four with four players having the ability to defend as centre backs. Playing with fullbacks or centre backs who usually play as midfielders or even wingers can be beneficial in possession, but it can be a weakness out of possession. Especially, João Cancelo had an excellent ability to play as a midfielder or winger, but he was a clear weakness in the back four when defending. However, as they did against Bayern München in the 1st leg of the quarter final in the Champions League, they can now defend the box quite comfortably. In this chapter, let’s focus on the tactics of building up and talk about defending later.
When playing out from the goalkeeper, Ederson, the back three absorbs him into the back line. This also means both wide centre backs become fullbacks, and this is one of the most important features of City’s back three. Thanks to Rúben Dias’s ability to step in with the ball, the right fullback (or right centre back being a right fullback) moves forward and receives the ball beyond the opposition winger or wide midfielder.
In this case, playing Dias as the right centre back and Akanji as the right fullback makes it possible to use the strength of the back four, which is a split pass from a centre back to a fullback can easily break the opposition first or even second line. When they are building up from the deeper area, they can use Ederson as the extra player at the back. However, this strategy also can be seen in the midfield.
It was Ederson around the 18-yard box, but it will be Rodri or Stones in the midfield where Ederson realistically cannot join the back line.
When Dias has the ball in the middle and both wide centre backs are too wide, either Rodri or Stones drops into between centre backs to receive the ball. As soon as Dias plays to him, he makes a few steps to move away from the ball to make it a back four. It helps him to come closer to Aké in this scenario to create 2v1 against the opposition wide midfielder. This is especially important when the opposition 1st line is a striker (or three attackers up front). In the illustration above, it looks like two attackers, but they are a striker and a 10. If keeping the back three against these types of the opposition 1st line, Dias would be pressed by the opposition striker from his front, having no space for him to step in. However, thanks to adjusting the shape to the opposition pressing structure, it is possible to make the most of Dias’s ability to step in the space next to the opposition 1st line.
So far, the patterns which City breaks the opposition 1st line by split passes from Dias to one of the wide centre backs were examined. However, if the opposition team tries to press high with man marking against City’s back three, it is difficult for one of the wide centre backs to step higher. In this case, they position themselves deeper to drag the opposition wide players out to increase the space between lines.
Against high pressing with man marking, playing over to Erling Haaland is one of the effective ways to progress the ball. However, even it is Haaland, it is not the best way to control and dominate the game. Therefore, Pep prefers to play on the ground as much as possible, and qualities of wingers makes it possible. Especially Jack Grealish, who will be forever underrated by most of all football fans until proper metrics to make it possible to measure his performance are created, is the most vital player for Pep Guardiola. Even though everyone is marked by the opposition player, an attacker up front can receive and hold the ball up. And if he lays the ball off to one of the teammates overlapping or underlapping him, it is possible to beat the man marking pressing. However, Grealish and other wingers can solve the situation by themselves.
Not only just holding the ball up and shielding, but also he can receive the ball by his right foot and dribbling towards the middle to drag one of the opposition player out. This ability of carrying the ball is exceptional, but it is difficult to be measured. This carry can not only beat the opposition pressing but also giving time and space for teammates, which is one of the most important principles in Pep’s football.
Additionally, it is not necessarily wingers to use the space in wide areas. If the wide centre back can drag the opposition winger out and the winger can pin the opposition fullback, there will be a space for the attacking midfielder to receive the ball.
City’s attacking midfielders often move to wide areas to receive a split pass to break the opposition midfield line. This is a difficult situation for the opposition defensive midfielder who needs to mark the attacking midfielder if the opposition team is pressing high with man marking. This is because if the defensive midfielder moves wide to mark City’s attacking midfielder drifting outside, there will be a passing lane to the middle of the pitch where City’s striker can drop to receive the ball. Julián Álvarez is excel at doing it, but recently Haaland became able to recognises the situation correctly to drop into the middle area.
Overall, City’s build up is as excellent as it has been for recent years with some new patterns at the back can be utilised this season.
Final Third Attacking
As most of all team focus on defending the middle area, City’s final third attack often begins from the pass into the winger. Additionally, Pep does not like to increase the speed of attacks unless the situation is obviously exploitable. In other words, it is acceptable for City to wait for the opposition team to come back because teammates can also progress to keep the compactness of the team. For those reasons, City’s final third attack starts from the wingers.
Recently, opposite-footed wingers were selected in most of games. Riyad Mahrez, Silva or Grealish are the main choices,but they can only play in each side. Phil Foden can play in both sides but Mahrez, Silva and Grealish were too brilliant and it is hard to send them to the bench. As they love to have the ball on the opposite-foot on each side, they often cut in towards the middle. And this suits the pattern to let the attacking midfielders run into the channels.
This attacking midfielders’ movement into the channels is one of the most famous attacking patterns which is often seen in City’s game. This can also leave a space in the opposition defensive block, so the winger on the ball can find a space to cut in. However, against a low block, this combination is sometimes not enough to break the defensive block down. In this case, it is required to create another option, and it is one of the new things this season.
Until Cancelo left City, it was the job for the fullbacks. Now, however, there are no fullbacks on the pitch. Therefore, this season, it became a job for the defensive midfielders, Rodri and Stones.
By the attacking midfielder running into the channel, there is a space vacated in the opposition block. It can be exploited by the winger cutting in, but he is sometimes 1v2 and it is difficult to do so. Thus, it is important for Rodri or Stones to pop up there to give an option to change the way to attack. That Rodri’s stunning goal against Bayern München was one of the greatest examples from this pattern.
So far, there were nothing about Haaland. At the moment when this article is being written, Haaland just matched the number of goals of the top scorer of Premier League, so obviously his presence must be vital for City. To be fair, without him, City would be as good as it is. Actually they beat Liverpool 4-1 with Álvarez as a striker. However, Haaland makes it possible for City to score goals from everywhere. In the final third, his ability to lose his marker when crosses are delivered is excellent or he can score solo goals from playing over. And also, he hardly misses penalties which City had suffered for few years. Without Haaland, City would create as many chances as they do with Haaland, but he can turn those chances into goals. He is the last one who City needed.
Pep is not the manager of possession. His focus on pressing is as detail as possession. He often tweaks the shape of pressing (and making lots of mistakes), but his 4-2-4 pressing is often utilised in important games. Additionally, when City set the defensive block in the midfield or own half, it is often a 4-4-2 (same as 4-2-4). Thus, in this chapter, the 4-2-4 high pressing will be examined.
One of the biggest differences between City’s 4-2-4 and usual 4-4-2 is the first player to press on the ball. In this shape, it is a winger to apply pressure on the ball and central forwards focus on screening the passing lanes into the opposition defensive midfielders. One of the strengths of this is that thanks to central forwards shielding the middle, City’s defensive midfielders do not need to move higher and are able to concentrate on staying deeper and keeping the compactness between lines in the middle. This can help to prevent them from playing through to the attackers or recovering the second balls after they play long.
On the other hand, as the winger presses to the opposition centre back, the opposition fullback can be a spare player and receive the ball clipped over the winger’s head. In this scenario, the fullback will step up to keep applying pressure on the ball. However, as the fullback needs to sprint longer distance, this can be late and be a weakness. Therefore, this pressing requires wingers to constantly keep eyes on the positions of the fullbacks and screening the passing lanes to them. Additionally, the timing of pressing is also crucial. If the centre back can receive the ball and open his body, he can create an angle to play to the fullback. Thus, it is important for the wingers to close the centre backs down before they open the angle of the body after controlling the ball. And also, if the winger is too close to the opposition centre back, the opposition goalkeeper can play the ball over the winger’s head to the fullback. Consequently, this pressing requires the excellent ability of wingers.
When City is dominating the game, they must be good at pressing. Even though their biggest strength is in possession, they need to have the ball, so they must win it. Therefore, Pep always tries what he thinks the best in order to win the most important thing on the pitch.
Final Third Defending
In the final third, City tries to create an overload in wide areas and keep the line quite high. As soon as the opposition team plays to their winger or wide player, City’s fullback and winger close down the player on the ball and the defensive midfielder covers the space between the fullback and centre back.
Their focus is preventing the opposition winger from beating the fullback and trying to force the opponent on the ball to play back. Then, one of City’s midfielders or centre backs can jump to close down the player on the ball in the middle thanks to the high line.
However, this can be a weakness. In the community shield, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold exploited the space in front of City’s defensive block by his accurate middle range shots or crosses.
In other words, however, without shots or crosses which are as accurate as Alexander-Arnold, it is difficult to break down City’s defensive block.
In this article, Manchester City’s tactics under Pep Guardiola in 22-23 was analysed. I hope you enjoyed this. Thanks for reading.