Five games into Pep Guardiola’s reign at Manchester City, Jonathan Wilson charts the tactical changes he has made and traces them back to a 1960s staple.
Pep Guardiola has a clearly defined mode of play. He was a player given his debut by Johan Cruyff and the influence of Cruyff is clear: he demands his teams press high up the pitch and believes fundamentally in the value of possession. His is a pro-active, attacking style based on short sharp passes and intermovement. But the real fascination of Guardiola is his capacity to change shape and style within that philosophy. The full scope of his inventiveness will only become apparent in time, but already certain variations are apparent.
The most obvious statement of Guardiola’s approach has been his decision to replace Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo. To say Hart’s passing isn’t good enough is only part of the story. What persuaded Guardiola he had to make a change was reportedly a training drill in pre-season in which the ball was played to the goalkeeper’s weaker foot and he had to switch it to his stronger foot and then hit the ball out to the wing. Hart’s passing wasn’t too bad, but such was his clumsiness in moving the ball from one foot to the other that Guardiola felt he couldn’t rely on him to operate as a de facto sweeper.
With Guardiola’s pressing game, there can be 50 or 60 yards of space between the back line and the goal they are defending. That, potentially, represents a significant weakness: even if an opponent who has the ball is rapidly put under pressure, it requires no accuracy to chip a ball into the unoccupied area for a forward to run onto. That’s why it’s necessary for the goalkeeper to advance, sweeping up speculative balls over the top. That means the through-ball behind the defensive line has to be more precisely weighted, which is difficult enough to pull off even without the hard press denying the player with the ball time to measure his pass. “If everybody moves forward,” Cruyff explained, “you need an extra defender, so the goalkeeper has to be able to play as well.”
That’s part of it, but the goalkeeper also has to be able to distribute. Rapid transitions are vital to Guardiola’s conception of the game and that means there will be times when the goalkeeper, like any other player, has to be able to play a quick accurate ball to initiate a counter-attack.
The importance of the full-backs
The other striking feature of Guardiola’s first Premier League game as manager was the behaviour of the full-backs. When City had the ball, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy moved into central positions with Fernandinho dropping back almost as a third central defender.
Guardiola had done that at times at Bayern, but there his full-backs were Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, both of whom are rather better on the ball than Sagna and Clichy. The suspicion at Bayern was that the ploy was designed to get two intelligent passers more involved in heart of the game rather than merely shuttling back and forth, but the use of Sagna and Clichy in that role suggested the issue was structural.
Playing with that block of five gives freedom to the front five. The roles of the centre-forward Sergio Aguero and the two wingers, Raheem Sterling and Nolito, is fairly conventional, but David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne played as what the Belgian described as “free eights”, which is to say they were creators with some responsibility to shuttle back.
Using two playmakers, of course, gives a greater diversity of attack and, as Liverpool found with Brendan Rodgers’s brief fling with 3-4-2-1, having the creators operate essentially as inside-forwards means they operate in those pockets of space that exist in a 4-2-3-1 wide of the holding midfielders and in front of the full-backs. The danger is leaving a defensive shortfall, which is where the use of the full-backs as holding players is valuable in offering solidity.
Seeing City in that opening game, with the shape resembling an old-fashioned W-M, one obvious thought occurred. Given W-M offers such a range of passing options, given it allows five men to be committed to the attack while still providing an apparently solid base, why did the formation fall out of fashion?
“With three defenders it was different,” Dave Bowen, the Wales manager between 1964 and 1974, explained, discussing the success of Alf Ramsey’s development of 4-4-2. “The back on the far side was covering behind the centre-half so the winger always had space from the cross-field pass. With four defenders the backs can play tight on the winger and he’s lost his acceleration space. Without that, the winger’s finished.” Or, to extrapolate, if that space is restored, Guardiola’s repurposed W-M could become vulnerable to wide forwards, particularly if they can be picked out by rapid cross-field balls.
Of course, Guardiola’s system is not that that was prevalent in Britain in the early sixties. It is not the same as the system Ramsey reformed. His W-M is specifically a shape to be adopted when in possession. Out of possession, there is a reversion to a back four with Fernandinho sitting just in front of it and one or both of the free eights dropping in alongside him. But still, there is a moment after possession is lost before the back four can be re-formed. How would the shape cope against a side that broke quickly down the flanks or that kept wide men high up the pitch?
The answer came in City’s following two league games. Stoke played a 4-1-4-1 with Bojan and Marko Arnautovic playing wide and high up the pitch, while West Ham operated a 5-4-1 with Enner Valencia and Gokhan Tore at least notionally offering attacking width. In both games the full-backs played more traditionally, which in turn gave John Stones licence to advance from the centre – something that was key in the opening goal.
That suggests a basic policy to retain that 3-2, or M, shape at the back, but that its make-up may change game by game. Sometimes Stones will step up to join Fernandinho and sometimes Fernandinho (or Ilkay Gundogan when he’s fit) will drop back with the two full-backs moving up. But the first real test of Guardiola’s imagination is what comes next and how he deals with the Manchester derby on September 10.