Pep Guardiola – Manchester City – Tactical Analysis (2021-22 Edition)

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The start of the 2021-22 Premier League season hasn’t been perfect for Manchester City, but they are still playing fantastic football, en route to putting up a mighty title challenge for another season. Throughout the start of the 2021-22 season, Pep Guardiola has continued to innovate his Manchester City team, deploying new tactics never seen before during his five year spell at the club. Here is a brand new Pep Guardiola – Manchester City – Tactical Analysis, for the 2021-22 season.

system of play: 4-3-3

Manchester City have continued to operate in the 4-3-3 system that brought them so much success over the past few seasons, which continues to operate very little like a 4-3-3 in practice. Guardiola’s system is not only highly functional, but also highly fluid, allowing for much in the way of positional rotation and well…fluidity.

While City theoretically have one of the strongest sides in the league and the ability to chop and change personnel as they please, Guardiola has consistently fielded the same eleven this season. Aymeric Laporte has earned a recall into the team after losing his spot to John Stones last year, forming what is one of the best defensive lines in the league with Ruben Dias, Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo. That leaves little room for Oleksandr Zinchenko, who came to life at the end of last season, even earning himself a start in the Champions League final. Riyad Mahrez and one of the undeniable best in the business – Kevin de Bruyne – have also had to make way, as Pep continues to innovate his style of play and find the set of personnel that gel best for what he wants to accomplish right now. That’s meant Bernardo Silva’s career has taken off to new heights this season as the right-sided central-midfielder in the team, linking up with Rodri through the middle and Ilkay Gundogan pushing on from the left. With so much fluctuation and fluidity in midfield areas, Silva and Gundogan often rotate around with various others, most frequently the false nine in the team – lately the young gun Phil Foden. Ferran Torres has also fulfilled that striker role from time to time to great effect, while Raheem Sterling has found minutes difficult to come by in 2021-22, despite performing remarkably well for England at the Euros. Jack Grealish meanwhile has seamlessly fit into the mix as the left winger in the side, as Gabriel Jesus has seamlessly changed positions – now one of City’s key members off the right.

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Jesus’s transformation has perhaps been the most impressive this season (although Bernardo might have something to say about that). The Brazilian wing wizard has taken all of his pace and dynamism to new levels this season, becoming an out-and-out winger down the City right, and one of the key chance creators in a de Bruyne-less team.

Before moving on from this discussion about shape and personnel, it’s also worth noting how many different shapes and structures City may form in the course of a single match. Their defensive silhouette can look anything from 4-3-3 or its neighbour 4-1-4-1, to a mix of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2 shapes. In attack, it’s never truly 4-3-3, and much more about positional play than anything else. So that is exactly where we begin the tactics part of this tactical analysis.

POSITIONAL PLAY & ROTATION

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While Pep might be one of the most innovative coaches to ever grace the game, some things always stay the same. As already mentioned, Pep’s tactics always involve a high degree of positional rotation and fluidity, which manifests as a direct result of positional play. Players are constantly scanning the field and have become hyper-aware of their surroundings through rehearsed movements in training, learning exactly how to adjust their positioning based on the movement of those around them – particularly the space and their teammates, but also the ball and the opposition. When you divide the field up vertically into different zones, more than two players never occupy the same corridor of space at a time. So in layman’s terms, when Joao Cancelo (the left back) drifts inside, you’ll usually find Ilkay Gundogan (the actual left sided central midfielder) high and central. You’ll also likely find Jack Grealish (the left winger) holding a true wide position, and Aymeric Laporte offering support in behind, but diagonally, to either his left or right. City are absolute masters at this art, to the extent where you rarely even find more than one player occupying the same vertical corridor as another.

This is where City’s inverted fullbacks were born years ago, but the Sky Blues have used this tactic less and less this season. Instead, they’ve had greater positional rotation and fluctuation for their wingers – one of whom is known for magician-like cutting-inside behaviours, and the other a former striker who’s operated throughout his career in central areas. In turn, Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker are lower and wider in the build-up than previous years, with City’s dominance and control coming slightly more in the wide areas as opposed to the central overloads they’ve favoured in the past. They’ve been quicker to switch play or go direct into their wingers, often even bypassing the fullbacks in the build-up completely. With Jack Grealish now firmly one of City’s most important (and impressive) stars, the team have channeled greater attention and energy into his glue like feet to work their magic. 41% of their attacks have come down the left this season, as opposed to 39% last season, when they had the most vertical attack in the league (28%). That number’s gone down to 26%, with their use of the right side staying exactly the same at 33%.

What this means all the more is that City’s lack of a centre forward has continued to be a non-issue. They prioritize working the wide areas first in their longer spells of possession, with verticality and striker-like link-up play more likely to manifest on the counter. City’s false nine will still drop off and look to engage in the build-up, creating another number in central areas, and Ilkay Gundogan will still float high to take up that position instead. But Pep’s men don’t need a focal point by which all of their play is directed toward. They are far too good at creating chances in their many other schemes, particularly through their silky smooth wingers. City’s use of positional rotation only plays into this, creating havoc for the opposition in their quest to stop the likes of Foden, Bernardo, Grealish and Jesus from combining out to in, with the four of them constantly in rotation.

In terms of the most common rotations from a City perspective, this elaborate tactic is actually clear-cut. Bernardo Silva is more likely to drift wide right and rotate with Gabriel Jesus, than Ilkay Gundogan with his wing pairing on the other side. The German rotates more often with the false nine, who will also usually rotate in and out with Gabriel Jesus, likely due to the Brazilian’s former days as a forward and Jack’s desire to attract himself to the ball like a magnet on the other side. You can also find a fullback wide when the winger or central midfielder on their side has drifted in-field, or the exact opposite can hold true, as they invert and look to get on the ball higher up the pitch. Rodri generally holds a steady, constant position, as do the two centre-backs and the goalkeeper. This means that City always have a defensive spine in-tact any time they lose the ball, which in itself is a rarity. Only Dortmund, PSG, and Barcelona have accumulated more possession than Guardiola’s team this season in Europe’s top five leagues, but each have generated fewer shots and chances created through their possession than the Citizens. This showcases not only that City are dominant when they have the ball, but that their positional rotation has the potential to confuse their opposition into complete and utter misery.

PRESSING

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Manchester City press diligently in the wide areas, with a high degree of intensity. They don’t allow their opposition any room to breathe, and opposition teams are often forced to go long, or out of bounds due to the pressure. In those wide areas, Pep’s men look to create diamonds in stopping their opposition from playing out, usually with a mix of the winger, central midfielder, striker and fullback. But Rodri too is almost always active in coming across to the side of the ball and often takes part, even if only by situating himself close by. With this narrow diamond shape and the intensity deployed within it, opposition teams only really have the option of switching play to the other side if they want to escape. If they succeed in doing so, City are quick to come across and then pressure on the other side, with Rodri often one of the quickest across.

Beyond the intensity in which they press, it’s also worth talking about the over-arching shapes the Sky Blues look to create. That is however a difficult task, as their defensive structures frequently change depending on the situation. A 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1 are three of City’s common shapes when the opposition have the ball in their own half. One reason why these shapes are so fluid is that they are more often reactive to the positioning of the opposition and the ball, rather than remaining compact in stagnant shape that never changes (see West Ham for a great example). Instead, City often stagger their players in different lines of play, limiting the opposition’s ability to play through the thirds and forcing them wide instead. That means you may see Bernardo Silva pushing up ahead of Gundogan and Rodri to react to the positioning of the opposition’s defensive midfielder. You may also see Gundogan doing the same as Bernardo sits back and holds a defensive position alongside Rodrigo. Everything is situated between the four keys of the game: space, teammates, the ball, and the opposition. Manchester City’s players are simply experts at reading the space, their teammates, the ball and the opposition to correctly assess what actions to take in the moment. That allows for the sort of flexibility that we talk about when discussing City. For example, Bernardo isn’t just going to sit compactly in a 4-3-3 defensive shape, if there is no right sided player to watch, and the defensive midfielder for the opposition is simply more dangerous.

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One thing that does however stay constant is the shape of the back-four, particularly when City defend in their own half. They are almost always in a perfect line, holding together as a unit. The Citizens usually then have at least two holding midfielders in front of their back-four, with the other midfielder pushing up to either press the opposition’s defensive midfielder, remain in a dangerous position for inevitable counter attacks that come their way, or both. But again, opposition teams are rarely ever able to progress into City’s half and usually when they do it’s through hopeful long balls that are easily recovered by the likes of Ruben Dias and Kyle Walker. That’s because City deploy a press and possess mentality, in which they look to keep the ball and then press diligently to win it back immediately after losing it.

playing out from the back

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Manchester City’s build-up is truly one of the best in the world. They rarely ever make mistakes out from the back, and their movements are coordinated and timed to perfection, constantly opening up space for other players. It goes far beyond just having quality players who have loads of quality in possession. It’s all about their movement, their rotations and the speed at which they carve their opposition open. Often times you see teams like Nuno’s Tottenham or Ole’s United passing the ball around the back with a high degree of patience and simplicity. They don’t want to rush it forward and lose possession, so they overcompensate by keeping all of the ball in their own half and failing to adequately progress forward when opportunities present themselves. Manchester City take the exact opposite approach. The quickness of their movement and passing is often unstoppable, and it’s always about progressing forward and looking to find routes closest to goal, without just lumping it forward and hoping for the best (à la Burnley).

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Beyond the speed and intelligence in which they play out from the back, the most important quality that Manchester City possess, is exceptional movement to open up space for other players. When the centre-backs have the ball in particular, central midfielders will often dart this way ->, so that other players can then sprint this way <-. It’s so simplistic, yet highly effective. Good pressing teams want to stop City from playing, so they will often closely follow the players running this way ->. That completely then opens up space for the players running this way <- to easily move into, before the opposition can react.

What makes City all the more impossible to stop, is that every single player has an attacking role. Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte can often be found high in the opposition’s half, helping to keep possession ticking. Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo will also pick their moments to get forward – inverting, overlapping and underlapping whenever appropriate. Last year, John Stones even broke a record after he carried the ball over 1,000 metres in the opposition’s half in a match against Leeds…and he’s a centre-back. Even Rodri, whose role is so much about his work-rate off the ball and his exceptional ability to switch play left to right, will time movements forward, creating an extra number in central areas for a shot.

Speaking of switching play, that has been one of City’s key principles in many matches this season. Ruben Dias and Rodri in particular are constantly looking for moments to switch from right to left, over to Jack Grealish – who holds his width exceptionally well. Kyle Walker also has fantastic range on his passing, and so he too can be a useful weapon in this regard. Meanwhile, Aymeric Laporte may be used alongside Rodri to switch play over to the other side for someone like Gabriel Jesus. John Stones is more of a progressive ball carrier or vertical passer when he’s in the team, and perhaps this is one more reason why Laporte has been favoured under the current regime.

When it comes to shapes, it’s also important to note again just how fluid and flexible City are out from the back. Last year, we nailed them down to a 2-3-5 shape, with fullbacks inverted in central areas. This year the back-four are much more in line. If the fullbacks situate themselves distinctly in front of the back-four it’s usually high and wide, as other players float in and out of central areas. So if anything, City are most commonly building up in a 2+2 structure, using one of the two central midfielders, Rodri and the two centre-backs to then find space wide and forward. That space further forward is then often available through the use of a false nine, who drifts in deep and allows others to run in behind. With 63% possession this season a near 89% pass accuracy, Manchester City truly are impossible to stop when in full flow.

conclusion

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Manchester City have started the 2021-22 magnificently well, even if they remain two points off the top. They’ve quickly recovered from their opening day loss to Nuno’s Tottenham, revolutionizing and innovating their principles of play to find new ways of hurting their opposition this season. City’s emphasis on positional play, rotation and flexibility have all been taken to new heights, making them one of the most systematic of all unsystematic teams to ever exist. If they are to win the Premier League title this season, they will need to continue this incredible run of form, and stop Chelsea from getting one over on them again, as they did in the UEFA Champions League Final last year.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. If you liked this article, also be sure to check out our Premier League Tactics Ebook, where we covered all twenty teams and their tactics over the course of the 2020-21 season. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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