Other than a rocky performance against Norwich City, things have been business as usual for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City so far this season. The 2019-20 season has gotten off to a great start for the man and team who seem to never settle for anything shy of perfection. All the key players are firing on all cylinders and City look well on their way to breaking more records. Here is The Mastermind‘s Tactical Analysis for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City so far in 2019-20.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-1-4-1
Pep Guardiola experimented frequently with a 4-2-3-1 system last year, primarily in the absence of star attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. However, his trusted 4-1-4-1 formation remains his preferred system of play in 2019-20 – as it has been since his first season at Bayern Munich in 2013 and first season at Manchester City in 2016. Key to the principles of play that have been established over the years particularly at Manchester City, have been Guardiola’s use of inverted fullbacks, and a lone defensive midfielder tasked with covering much ground in defensive phases and kick-starting attacks in build-up phases. Guardiola’s preferred eleven of last season remains relatively similar. However, there has been more of a role this year for the skillful trickster Riyad Mahrez and the now back to full fitness Kevin de Bruyne, who currently leads the league in assists. The two men have been two of City’s most integral attackers this season and have formed a formidable partnership on the right-hand side.Embed from Getty Images
The other major change has been the quick phasing out of Brazilian defensive midfielder Fernandinho, who has been replaced by Rodrigo – a Spanish midfielder who dominated La Liga last season at Atletico Madrid. Fernandinho’s exile from the side was inevitable…he is after all 34-years old. But even just last season we declared Fernandinho the most important Manchester City player. Rodrigo has made the ‘Fernandinho role’ look just as easy as Fernandinho did himself since Guardiola’s arrival. But anyone who has played as a lone defensive midfielder can attest to the fact that this position and role is far from easy, even in a possession-based Guardiola side. The only other major change in the lineup this year has been an increased importance on the only fit centre-back in the team, Nicholas Otamendi, who still, as demonstrated by his performance against Norwich, is very much not a typical Guardiola player…to say the least. John Stones has been injured, while Aymeric Laporte – the only centre-back in the league capable of playing to a similar level of Virgil Van Dijk – will be out until February at the earliest. Vincent Kompany’s departure to his boyhood club Anderlecht also means that Otamendi has been virtually the only reliable option at centre back, and he’s far from reliable. Fernandinho has even stepped in recently to fill the void and being the tactical genius that Fernandinho is, he’s actually played very well from that deeper position.Embed from Getty Images
Now to go through the formation from back to front, Ederson Moraes has retained his place in goal, while the inverted fullbacks have primarily been Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker. The triangle most integral to playing out from the back has been based around Nicholas Otamendi, Rodrigo and the final centre back slot fulfilled by a combination of Aymeric Laporte, John Stones and Fernandinho. Aymeric Laporte is the obvious favourite in that position, and just how much he will be missed remains relatively unseen. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been Guardiola’s preferred attacking midfielders, although German international Ilkay Gundogan has played a massive role this season and will certainly ease David Silva out of the side in the next year or two. Further forward Leroy Sane’s pre-season injury has forced Raheem Sterling to continue in a position he became relatively accustomed to last season – left wing, while the right has been occupied by the super industrious Bernardo Silva or ever-evolving Riyad Mahrez. Sergio Aguero has been one of the most reliable goal-scorers in the league this season, but Gabriel Jesus continues to push him for a place in the side.
The 4-1-4-1 formation does not just work because it’s a formation Guardiola knows well. It works because the Spanish manager has the talent in the side to pull the formation off and it can get everything he wants out of his principles of play.
PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACKEmbed from Getty Images
One of the key principles of play under any Pep Guardiola team throughout time has been an emphasis on playing out from the back. With the defenders now allowed in the box on goal kicks, Guardiola’s team have taken full advantage of this. Both centre-backs will come inside of the box on goal-kicks and the ‘number 6’ in Rodrgio will drop in toward the top of the box, creating a diamond. Walker and Zinchenko usually remain as options higher up the field, but usually from a more central (inverted) position. The width then comes from the two wingers, who will frequently come deeper to pick up the ball before playing one-two’s with one of the central midfielders and exploding up the field for the return.
City’s desire to play out from the back is perhaps unfortunate given that Ederson Moraes probably could have broken a record by now for the longest goal kick. It has also been a bit unfortunate for Nicholas Otamendi, who is much more of a bruiser than an elegant John-Stones-esque pass-master. Otamendi is prone to impulsivity and rash decisions without the ball, which seemingly goes the opposite way into a zen-like patience that he can’t zap out of with the ball at his feet. Norwich’s ability to put Otamendi under pressure last month was a key reason as to why they were able to snatch an unlikely 3-2 victory. The Argentinean simply does not have the same foundations of playing out from the back as John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, which has been a serious bone of contention in the 2019-20 version of Manchester City.
Otamendi’s lack of quality in this regard aside, City’s build-up play does generally follow an interesting set of patterns. Ederson almost always plays first into the centre-backs, who will swap the ball around with the inverted Kyle Walker and centrally-positioned Rodrigo until they are able to progressively break lines. As already mentioned, this sometimes culminates in Bernardo Silva (or even Mahrez) coming deep to pick up the ball in a wide area, filling the gap left by the inverted Kyle Walker. Oleksandr Zinchenko on the other hand usually remains wide, allowing Sterling to also remain high.
On the occasion that Walker and Zinchenko both remain wide, Manchester City look to create 2v1 situations in wide areas, which Ederson and Laporte are usually adept at picking out. When they come inside, an opposition winger is usually drawn inside with them and the space out wide opens up for a skillful City winger to pick up the ball.
A final key element to Guardiola’s build-up is the creation of free players in between lines (also known as half-spaces). Rodrigo will often position himself in between the lines of opposition forwards and midfielders, while Sergio Aguero or an attacking midfielder often make runs into the space between the opposition’s midfield and defense.
INVERTED FULLBACKSEmbed from Getty Images
One of the best examples of Guardiola’s use of inverted fullbacks to break down the opposition came in the early days of last season with a 2-0 win over Arsenal. At that time, Benjamin Mendy was in the form of his life and was showing promise that 2018-19 would be his year to shine at Manchester City. With more injury trouble it didn’t quite work out that way and Oleksandr Zinchenko has been an untouchable figure in the side ever since. Zincheko really isn’t your typical fullback and by the look of him, you’d associate his style of play to being more of a central midfielder. The good thing for the Ukranian in that sense has been that he has practically played as a central midfielder in this Pep Guardiola team.Embed from Getty Images
In build-up phases in particular, Zinchenko and to an even greater extent Kyle Walker, can be found in central areas. The centre backs actively look for their fullbacks in central areas and Kyle Walker can often be seen ushering his right winger to create more space lower down on the field and occupy the void that he has left open. The basic premise of this is to overload central areas, thus forcing the opposition to play narrow. By doing this, space is left out wide where Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling occupy in the wide areas, and essentially hug the touchline. The attacking midfielders like Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan are also often found in these wide areas, contributing to their numerical superiority in this regard. But the ability of the attacking midfielders to be able to occupy wide areas is only made possible from the fullbacks coming inside and occupying central areas. This as some people call it represents the positional fluidity and positional rotation of Pep Guardiola’s players. The opposition become unbalanced as they don’t know who to mark and Manchester City are always able to find an open player, usually in between the lines.
Usually Zinchenko and Walker don’t do this at the same time. As one comes toward the middle, the other creates space out wide in a more traditional fullback position. If they can switch play to that side, space is usually there to exploit. Manchester City’s positional fluidity and rotation through the use of inverted fullbacks is something that has truly revolutionized the game and something that opposing teams still haven’t quite figured out how to counter. It is one of the essential elements to this Manchester City side and that looks set to continue for the rest of the Spaniard’s tenure in charge at the Etihad.
OVERLoaDS IN WIDE AREASEmbed from Getty Images
Essential to the Sky Blues’ build-up play is their ability to create numerical superiority in wide areas. This is often done through the inversion of Kyle Walker and/or Oleksandr Zinchenko and the stretching of the field by the two wingers and two attacking midfielders. With the increase in playing time for former Leicester City man Riyad Mahrez, Belgian midfielder Kevin de Bruyne has found a new perfect match. Mahrez and De Bruyne have combined excellently well on the right side. The skill and pace of Riyad Mahrez has been coupled with the running power, on-the-ball presence and passing range of De Bruyne, who looks back to being one of the best footballers on the planet again. Both players have caused havoc down the right side for City this season and through their combination play, opposition players simply don’t know who to mark or when a ball is going to be fizzed into the box. When Kyle Walker gets involved, it becomes even more complicated for the opposition and it’s no wonder why City are so heavily feared. They can simply hurt you from any direction.
Between the two of them, Mahrez and De Bruyne have contributed to 4 goals and 11 assists this season in City’s opening 7 fixtures. The Belgian has created a total of 29 chances in that time, while the Algerian has created 20. De Bruyne also leads the league in assists, and most assists to a single player – linking up with Sergio Aguero three times this season. Mahrez on the other hand isn’t far behind, having linked up with Raheem Sterling twice this season from crosses into the box.
On the other side, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan have formed a great partnership with Raheem Sterling, who seems to be full of goals right now. The left-side has actually been City’s favourite side to use, with 42% of their time on the ball coming down the left, and 33% coming down the right. Unsurprisingly, they spend very little time with the ball in “central areas”, primarily due to the fact that they usually only have 3 players in true central areas at a time – Ederson, Rodrigo and Aguero. Even the inverted fullbacks are usually more over to one side than the middle and the centre backs are often pushed wide in possession. This emphasis on the overloads in wide areas is not necessarily an indication however that City are taking shots from wide areas. Instead, they look to overlaod wide areas and draw opposition players over, before creating space in the middle of the pitch or delivering balls into the box. We’ve already seen players like Kevin de Bruyne and Rodrigo score from distance this season, while the vast majority of their other goals have come from crosses and through-balls that have been met by late-runs into the box.
LATE RUNS INTO THE BOXEmbed from Getty Images
Despite Guardiola’s emphasis on playing out from the back, Man City usually make quick work of their build-up phases and break into the opposition’s half with ease. In fact, 37% of their time on the ball this season has been spent in the opposition’s third, compared to just 20% in their own third. Amazingly yet unsurprisingly, they’ve kept 60% of the ball this season, more than any other team in the league. Evidently, much of that possession is either in the opposition’s third (37%) or the middle third (43%). With this comes a complete and utter domination of possession in dangerous areas and a multitude of different opportunities to create chances. Usually, City will look to create chances in wide areas and utilize crosses into the box, met by timely runs of a number of different players into the box. When the ball goes out wide, the attacking midfielders, far-sided winger and increasingly tactically aware Sergio Aguero will all find their way into the box, again creating a numerical superiority. Despite the fact that much is often made about City not being a particularly “tall” side, they’ve scored several headed goals this season and often rely on early crosses into the box before the opposition is able to properly set up to defend against them. Bernardo Silva is a genius at timing his runs into the box (see Bernardo Silva Tactical Analysis) but so to is the non-stop goal-scoring machine Raheem Sterling and elegant central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan. Together with Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, they are able to create chaos inside of the opposition’s box and as we know, when Riyad Mahrez or Kevin de Bruyne deliver a ball into the box, it usually gives the opposition something to think about…to say the least.Embed from Getty Images
At this point in the article we have barely even mentioned David Silva, who is perhaps a key reason why City have favoured their left-side for attacks this season. While De Bruyne is the type of player who can switch play in an instance, David Silva is someone who enjoys to have the ball at his feet and is a bit more unlikely to switch it back over. David Silva is constantly preoccupied with thoughts of playing the ball forward. Accompanied by his tremendous understanding with Raheem Sterling, Silva will often find the perfect pass at exactly the right moment – highlighted by his 4 assists so far.
With the way they overlaod the box, it is unsprising that 61% of City’s shots have been inside of the eighteen yard box this season. It is also unsurprising that Kevin de Bruyne, a master of a good ball into the box, leads the league in assists. Simultaneously, the always on the move Sergio Aguero has found the back of the net eight times, also leading the league. City’s ability to put several players in the box at any given time is significantly associated with their system and style of play, which Guardiola undoubtedly drills into his players every single day on the training ground.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Manchester City might not be top of the table at the moment, but they have had a fantastic start to the 2019-20 season. A hiccup at Norwich and a VAR-enforced draw at Tottenham aside, City have been firing on all cylinders this season and could easily catch up to Liverpool in the same manner as last season. Guardiola and his tactically astute players have kept up their usual business and habits this season, including predominantly their emphasis on playing out from the back, numerical superiority in wide areas and inverted fullbacks. Players like Rodrigo and Mahrez have entered into the fold seamlessly, while Kevin de Bruyne has been back to his usual self and could find his way toward another PFA Player of the Year nomination. Pep Guardiola is one of the most brilliant managers of the modern era and he continues to revolutionize the game with this current Manchester City team that he will now look to take to the top of the Premier League table for the third successive season.
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