Manchester City have started the season very strongly, winning all three of their league games and dismantling FC Steaua București on their way to the group stages of the Champions League. For all the followers of Pep Guardiola, there is already an familiar look & feel to how City play. From the false-fullbacks to the lone holding midfielder, Manchester City have already shown us a glimpse of what the Pep Guardiola project might look like.
There were no surprises in this department as City have used the 4-3-3 formation in all of their games so far this season. Fernandinho is the lone holding midfielder with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne ahead of him. John Stones has been a constant in all the games and it looks like that the former Everton player has finally put last season’s bad form to bed. Aguero has been playing as the lone forward along with Nolito and Sterling on the wings. It will be interesting to see what Pep makes of Aguero’s absence, for the Manchester Derby.
The Lone Pivot
Sergio Busquets, Philip Lahm and Xabi Alonso have all played the most important role in Pep’s system, the lone holding midfielder. Fernandinho might not be cut from the same cloth, but so far has taken to the role like a fish to water. John Stones and his defensive partner (Otamendi until Kompany returns) are free to move up the pitch(one at a time) as Fernandinho covers their movement by dropping deep. At Barcelona, Sergio Busquets used to move in between the two central defenders to effectively make it a back three which allowed the fullbacks to effectively play as wingers.
This movement between the central defenders and Fernandinho allows City numerous options to move the ball from the back effectively. The opposition midfield is always under pressure with City’s movement allowing them to penetrate with ease. Generally, Stones has been the one stepping up from the back and he has been excellent so far in circulating the ball to the more offensive players.
The Full Backs
The biggest change from Pep’s time at Barcelona and at Munich is the role of the full back in his teams. The intelligence of Lahm and the ability of Alaba possibly brought about this change in Pep. At Barcelona, Dani Alves essentially owned the right wing. He had the full freedom to motor up and down the right wing with limited defensive responsibility when Barcelona were in possession. But at Bayern Munich, the fullbacks were more involved in the build up play rather than being an attacking outlet. Against Sunderland, in City’s first game of the season, Clichy and Sagna, City’s fullbacks occupied narrow positions close to Fernandinho. City were highly effective on the left hand side that day, with Silva’s intelligent positioning giving Stones/Fernandinho multiple options to pass the ball as seen below.
Still, City’s fullbacks are not involved in the attacking phase as much as the Bayern fullbacks were. It remains to be seen whether this is the case through out the season or whether Pep is simply biding his time until all his players are used to the system. Unlike other leagues, teams in England are more direct,pacy and generally have good wingplay. This might be one of the reasons that Pep is still cautious about allowing his fullbacks to venture forward.
David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne
Both De Bruyne and Silva have started as central midfielders in City’s 4-3-3 formation. While Silva has adapted to his role quickly, the Belgian has struggled a bit. Like mentioned above, Silva has taken up intelligent positions allowing various options for City’s build up play on the left while De Bruyne has not been very dynamic/mobile on the right. For the first goal against West Ham, notice how Sterling starts in a wide position and ends up scoring the goal from inside the penalty box where as De Bruyne starts to move to a slightly wide position.
Pep Guardiola’s ultimate aim,although impossible in modern football,remains total football. At Barcelona, this was epitomised by Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets moving across zones and occupying positions unnatural to their roles, at Bayern, it was Lahm and Alaba. In De Bruyne and Silva, Guardiola has two players who can play across the midfield four with ease and the roles of these two players might just be Pep’s next tactical evolution.