Pep Guardiola – Manchester City – Tactical Analysis (2022-23)

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For much of the 2022-23 season, Arsenal looked like genuine title favourites, with the Gunners in full flow under a former Pep Guardiola mentee, Mikel Arteta. But in the past few months, the Gunners have slowly started to slip away, and tip the scale back in favour of the team that have won four of the last five seasons. Pep Guardiola’s team have been absolutely immaculate as the season has come to a close, under much in the way of new, evolving tactics. We break down the tactical undertones of Guardiola’s team in 2022-23, and how they’ve evolved their approach in the quest for another league title.


While the saying “formations don’t exist in football anymore” is a massive oversimplification, when it comes to Guardiola, you can rarely ever nail his team down to one specific formation. When the teams roll out on the broadcast, they often have Guardiola’s team shaping up in what has become their most common in-possession shape – 3-2-4-1.

We’ve often settled for the out-of-possession shape when it comes to defining possession-based teams like City, which has historically shifted between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. This season it appears however that Kevin de Bruyne is firmly ahead of the double midfield pivot with immense regularity, and that a 4-2-3-1 is likely the best way to describe the underpinnings behind Guardiola’s principles of play.

We will break down the various permutations of their shifting shapes in the following sections, but for now, we highlight the players that have been most prominently involved in their title conquest, and the relative role they’ve fulfilled in that journey.

At the back, Ederson Moraes remains a stalwart, and is often used in possession to recycle play, go long, and simply keep the team ticking along. Rúben Dias has an immensely similar role as the ‘Sweeper’ in front of him, although he also happens to be one of the best 1v1 battlers in the world.

Dias has most often been paired with Manuel Akanji, who’s come in for just €17.5million, to be one of the top defenders of the season. When it’s Akanji’s time to shine, he’ll often play as one of the outside centre-backs out of possession, where Nathan Aké has often been the other man to slot in and keep that three at the back balance.

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John Stones has been the man to most often stake his claim at right-back in recent times, where he’ll shift into central midfield in possession. That role was prominently held by the young Rico Lewis after Joao Cancelo fell out with Guardiola and moved to Bayern Munich. Kyle Walker has also historically completed that responsibility, but usually alongside another full-back making the same movements in a 2+3 shape. What City are now doing with Stones is completely novel, keeping a 3+2 shape instead, and disregarding his initial starting position.

That has meant that even with Walker as a right-back and Stones as a centre-half, it’s still been Stones shifting into midfield, with Walker maintaining the balance instead.

I wish I had properly captured the moment in time that City first adopted this shape in a 1-0 win over Potter’s Chelsea, all the way back in January.

On that day, it was Rodri playing the role of a centre-back alongside Stones, and then jumping into midfield in possession to play alongside Bernardo Silva. At the time, I thought it was just one of those off-hand one-time Pep Guardiola peculiarities, and didn’t bother to include the tactic in my weekend ‘Game of Numbers’ series. But since then, it’s become a regularity for the Citizens, with a host of players coming inside to play alongside Rodri himself.

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This takes some of the burden off Rodri to do all the excellent switching of play, central compaction, and subsequent ball-winning when the ball changes hands. But it’s often more complicated than saying that City’s shape must then be a 3-2-4-1. İlkay Gündoğan and Bernardo Silva will both hang relatively low in initial builds to aid with further central overloads, and then become more expansive once the Sky Blues break into the opposition’s half.

Kevin de Bruyne on the other hand will hang up high, and position himself closer to Erling Haaland than his midfield friends. This has allowed City’s two star men to combine in close proximity with some wonderful combinations throughout the season, allowing City to easily break through the centre of any team.

But that’s only further made possible by the wonderful work of standout 1v1 dribblers like Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish, maintaining the width on both sides of the field. Grealish in particular has evolved this season, utilizing his phenomenal 1v1 ability to finally get on the assist charts again. Phil Foden has then had to bide more time from the bench, with Bernardo Silva also ahead of the British wizard in the pecking order down the wing. Julián Álvarez meanwhile can play as either a ’10’, ‘9’, or on either wing, further complicating Foden’s quest to get into the team.

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It all culminates up top with Erling Haaland, who has just broken the Premier League’s single-season goal record. The Norwegian forward has been a massive part of City’s evolution this season, with the Sky Blues now having a natural ‘Target’ that they can play into, and then finish off chances in the final third.

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It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for City and they haven’t led much of the way, but you could argue that this is one of their most complete sides in history. The additions of former Dortmund teammates Erling Haaland and Manuel Akanji have allowed Guardiola to evolve his tactics for another season, and build an immensely powerful unit that simply cannot be stopped.


For most team analyses, we’ve started to now separate only between attacking principles and defensive ones, but Guardiola’s build-up remains one of the most fascinating elements to watch.

In fact, it’s where the Citizens still spend a bulk of their time playing the game, keeping possession at the back and waiting for the right moments to play forward. It’s no coincidence that the one trait that Pep Guardiola said would revolutionize Phil Foden’s game (the ability to slow the play down, to pause on the ball, and then speed back up), is one of their hallmark approaches to building out this season.

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Manuel Akanji, Ruben Dias and Ederson can all be seen in any match pausing on the ball, delaying the moment, waiting for movement ahead, and then playing forward. Brighton adopt this form of ‘La Pausa’ in their build-up to entice opposition players to become more aggressive with their press.

When it comes to City, just about every team understands not to press them, and to instead hold a compact shape. But as the Citizens pause on the ball and slowly scan their options ahead, something funny happens. The opposition switch off. Not only that, but they focus more attention on the ball, when they should instead do the exact opposite. It’s so abnormal, that this magical voodoo power of City’s just seems to completely shut off brains, and brainwash opposition players into thinking that nothing behind them matters. That’s exactly where movement ahead is likely to take form, and City are able to find the pathways to progress.

Now again, within that 3-2-4-1 shape, the goal is to overload central channels to then play wide, where they can isolate their wingers in 1v1 situations. As their wingers progress, those centrally-focused players then burst toward the box at differing speeds and spaces, bringing the ball back to those central channels to score.

In conquering the central channels, you’ll often see the likes of Stones-Rodri, and Haaland-De Bruyne forming something of a midfield quartet. As Haaland often focuses his attention centrally, you might see one of the central midfielders (like Gündoğan, de Bruyne or Silva) shifting wide to prepare for a wide overload. But again, you may also see that player (particularly Gündoğan or B. Silva) coming closer to the play.

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For example, low on the field, none of the defenders will invert into that central channel. Instead, they form a typical diamond shape with Ederson and Rodri, as the full-backs remain higher. That then allows space for someone like Gundogan to ghost back toward the ball, play a bounce pass, and then advance the play.

In fact, within these combinations through the middle of the pitch, City often prefer fancy pants bounce passes. Erling Haaland is a master of the art as he holds off defenders and plays passes back to the likes of Kevin de Bruyne. But midfielders like Gündoğan and Silva are also excellent at combining on the one-touch and then spinning around to prepare themselves to combine again with others.

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But one of the major differences between this season and last is that they have a natural outlet up top that they can use any time they please. Whenever they want to break pressure or take advantage of a great opportunity to go long, they now have Erling Haaland to hold off any unwanted attention and win the physical battles.

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Haaland is not only one of the greatest goalscorers, but one of the strongest, physically imposing centre-forwards around. He’s bullied defenders like Dayot Upamecano into oblivion in the past, and not a single Premier League defender has been able to get a grip of his physicality this campaign.

But the Norwegian also has the quality to play these deft combinations with the Belgian behind him, allowing the team to use that strength for evil, and immediately go on the hunt.

As the commentator says in this clip – “That’s top quality from Kevin de Bruyne!”. Stones’ awareness of how to release the pressure by perfectly playing the ball into his striker is also fantastic. But Haaland’s touch to control the ball out of the air is outstanding. He shifts it away from the defender holding him off, breaks free, and then plays de Bruyne into the empty space. Grealish on the other side maintains all the width required, ensuring that space only becomes greater for the Belgian to burst into for the finish.

This is exactly how City have been able to use their big man up top to such great effect. It goes beyond Haaland’s individual brilliance, but the supporting cast and crew around him to allow the Norwegian to thrive.

At the same time, it’s one more reason why you don’t want to press City when they’re building out from the back. When you over-exude numbers forward, you leave massive gaps to then be made up when Haaland and De Bruyne break the opposition apart from just one swift long pass.


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Even if City and Arsenal get into another famous situation where they’re tied on points, the title remains in City’s hands due to their formidable attack. The Sky Blues have scored 87 goals in the 33 matches so far, firmly on track to break 100 goals for another campaign under Guardiola. Haaland has already surpassed the Premier League goal record with his 35 goals, while Kevin de Bruyne may very well break his own assist record, currently posting up 16 assists.

Then you have a cast and crew of players like Grealish, Álvarez, Mahrez, Gündoğan and Bernardo Silva who can score at any moment. In fact, Haaland has been the perfect distraction for all of those players to shine.

Once City break into the opposition half, they’re then looking to create wide overloads involving underlapping and overlapping runs from central midfielders in and around the wingers. The wingers themselves are often looking to isolate a full-back 1v1, where the rest of the opposition’s defensive unit will often pay all of their attention to Haaland.

As the Norwegian captivates the attention, it then becomes easier for someone like Gundogan or Bernardo to ghost toward the top of the box and receive cut-back-crosses. But as demonstrated against Liverpool, Guardiola’s men can even accomplish this same feat without their star striker.

When in that ‘False 9’ shape, others can run into space at different moments, often pulling opposition players with them, and opening up space for late arrivals. Ilkay Gündoğan is a master at playing both roles, either the foil or the finisher.

Another key principle to the Guardiolan style is the art of what we call ‘close proximal combinations’. They love to form diamonds in tight spaces to combine, but also to pull the opposition into a narrow shape. In doing so, they are more likely to have success then playing down the wings and getting their dynamic dribblers on the ball.

Opposition teams are often great at compacting space against City. So much so that it ends up being completely to their detriment. They’ll shift quickly across to the wide area and try to double or triple team a winger like Mahrez or Grealish. As we’ve often spoken about this season, that’s never been a good idea, as it simply leaves too many other players available to receive unmarked in dangerous positions. That’s even more of an issue when you think about just who you might be leaving open in central channels – the likes of Kevin de Bruyne.

If not opening up space for others, the likes of Grealish are also phenomenal at drawing fouls and sucking the opposition into silly mistakes. That’s where someone like Kevin de Bruyne can again steal the show, either through a perfectly whipped in delivery, or a magnetic strike from distance.

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City can hurt you from any direction, and the caveat of “but they don’t have a striker to finish off chances” is simply no longer there. They might even be on track to score more goals this season under Guardiola than ever before, and to finally seal the deal on a UEFA Champions League crown from that formidable attack.


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One of the arguments that’s often gone against City in their quest to win the Champions League has been the need to sure up their defense and ensure they don’t allow any silly mistakes to pass them by. Under the current principles of play, that is looking like a thing of the past. One of their best transitional defenders in Kyle Walker is now firmly holding a reserved stance in the defensive phase rather than inverting or flowing forward into the attack. Additionally, with that two-man connection in central channels, City’s rest-defense is already outstanding.

But one element we cannot under-emphasize is again the level of physicality and speed that each of their back four possess. They are so quick to get back in transition to stop attacks. Before you know it, they completely outnumber the opposition. Manuel Akanji has played a massive part in that defensive dominance, as someone who has been absolutely on fire with his 1v1 battles since Edin Terzic’s first spell at Dortmund.

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But as we’ve eluded to already, you also have the defensive quality of Rúben Dias and Kyle Walker, who also happen to be two of the best 1v1 defenders in the world. Dias has immaculate timing of challenges and perfectly uses his physical strength to push strikers off the ball. Walker on the other hand has remarkable recovery pace, and will often now lure the opposition into thinking that left-hand-channel is available, before anticipating the move and racing to intercept the pass.

In Rodri, they then have one of the most mobile screeners in the world, making any team’s quest to break through the centre completely impossible.

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But on a grander scale, they also boast one of the most efficient and aggressive pressing units around.

If you remember those close proximal combinations in attack, City also adopt the same philosophy when it comes to their defense. The diamond shapes take form as City narrow the width of the pitch, and defend with vigour and force.

You can see here how Grealish (far side) remains ready to push up if the ball switches to the other side of the field. But he’s also gambling by not covering any opposition player, remaining ready to go on the hunt if the ball changes hands.

The wingers are quite key to the entire process of how City defend, as they often look to push the opposition into wide areas where they can compact the field and use the touchline as another defender. As City win the ball, they will often then be immediate outlets to go toe-to-toe at the defense.

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The most common shape that City will adopt from the very front end is closer to a 4-2-3-1, which then swaps in between more of a 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2, as Kevin de Bruyne joins the striker up top. But it’s also not uncommon to see the aggressive Rodri push up all the way forward, as the likes of Bernardo and Gündoğan hold reserved roles instead.

If their press is somehow broken, the team will shift gears quickly to reduce space and maintain their balance between the lines.

Then as they fall back into their shape, they will condense not only horizontally but vertically between their lines. This limits the amount of space that the opposition have to play through the Citizens, and often forces opposition defenders to play long.

If a team can accurately assess space in behind or through those tiny gaps between defenders, they can often cause City issues.

But the majority of the time, City have both the aerial presence and panache to handle passes over the top and contend those situations. That might be through Ederson jumping up to help, through the physicality of Dias, the speed of Walker, or the expert timing of Manuel Akanji.

The excitement of having the ball against City also seems to get the best of them, as players make silly mistakes in their haste to get the ball forward, and then allow City to go again.

Even with a not so natural left-back fulfilling the void for the entire second half of this season, opposition teams haven’t been able to really make that matter. Aké handles his own in 1v1 duels, but Jack Grealish has also been excellent at coming all the way back this season to create a 2v1 and stop dynamic dribblers from breaking free.

This has been an essential reason why he’s firmly nailed down the starting birth on the left, from that energetic defensive presence.

Just like their build-up and attack, City have evolved their defensive tactics to meet the demands of the players they currently have at their disposal. From the sheer act of sometimes playing four centre-backs across the back-line, they now have sturdier principles in place from that defensive reassurance.

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You never want to play against Guardiola’s team because of how they can hurt you in attack, but you also shutter into silly errors every time you have the ball yourself, making it nearly impossible to play against the Sky Blues all ends up.


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Manchester City have evolved their tactics once more this season to fit their personnel, introducing new ways of playing within much of the same ideologies. One of those new introductions has been the directness they can now exude through Erling Haaland, and an increased emphasis on central overloads that work to find the big man up top and simultaneously stretch the width through the wings.

They’ve also innovated the ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ tactic that they’ve used over the years, with John Stones now stepping into midfield whether he be at centre-back or full-back, and turning that 2+3 into more of a 3+2 for greater defensive security.

Erling Haaland has helped to revolutionize City as expected, but Guardiola has clearly made the most out of the big man’s talents. Kevin de Bruyne has thrived under the bounce passes and close combinations in tandem with the Norwegian, as others like Jack Grealish have also taken their game to new heights. City now look likely to win their fifth title in six seasons, as their dominant dynasty in the Premier League looms large.

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So there it is! Our analysis of Manchester City in 2022-23 and how they’ve changed their tactical approach this season. Be sure to check out more of our Team Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!


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