Champions League England Opinion

In Pep We Trust – How tactical tweaks turned around Man City’s season

Pep Guardiola’s men are approaching what could be a mesmerizing end to their season. Manchester City, cruising to their 5th Premier League title with 11 points clear on the top of the table, in the semi finals of the Champions league and the finals of the EFL Cup are in cruise control. However it was not this rosy from the start; fragilities in the back line and imbalance in attack led to a shambolic 5-2 home defeat to Leicester in only the second game of the season which was then followed by some cagey draws and less than convincing 1-0 wins. It wasn’t until after the 1-1 draw at the Etihad against West Brom on 15th December, that they turned things around and went on a sensational 21 games winning streak in all competitions that put themselves back in a position to contest for all four titles (EPL, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League). Their quadruple dreams may have broken by Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final but they still have a lot to play for.

Credit where its due goes to the players, namely a reborn John Stones, possible signing of the year, Ruben Dias, unlikely goal scoring hero Ilkay Gundogan, the creative forces of Kevin De Bruyne and Joao Cancelo to name a few. But, of course, the man most responsible for the remarkable season turnaround is Pep Guardiola. In an interview with BT Sports in March, Guardiola explained the changes that brought around this tranaformation in his team:

“It was the day after West Brom at home when we drew 1-1. We could have won but I went to myself, my staff and friends and said I don’t like the team, I don’t like the way we play. We ran too much, we were not in the position. We ran too much without knowing exactly what we have to do with the ball. Our strength is when we have the ball. And we just came back to the principles, that’s all. So the wingers high and wide, a lot of players in the middle and come back without the ball, run like animals and with the ball, be more calm, play more passes,”

Ilkay Gundogan has been in rich goalscoring form for Manchester City this season

One of the main tactical tweak Guardiola made was to have one of his full-backs play in a midfield position – either Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko. In the build up play, the full-back forms a double pivot with the holding midfielder; this gives defensive solidarity in the midfield and allowed Gundogan to operate higher up and make runs in the box. Once City are in the attacking third, the inverted full-back gets in advance positions to create chances by playing passes through the lines, over the defence and linking up play. It is mostly Joao Cancelo that was used in this role as he has exceptional quality with the ball at his feet. This change also helped City to press with more numbers higher up the pitch.

Early on in the season it looked like De Bruyne was given the whole responsibility of creating openings and opponents were able to deal with that, but later, a better balance was found which still allows him to be the most creative outlet. The benefits of the season defining change can also be seen in player stats; Gundogan is City’s highest goal scorer this season with 16 goals in all competition and Cancelo ranks no. 8 in the Premier League for key passes. Added into this, City has scored the most goals in the Premier League (69) to date but has done so without a recognized goalscorer like Spurs have with Harry Kane or Liverpool has in Mo Salah. Instead the goals are more evenly distributed throughout the team, more so than any other team in the league – Gundogan (12), Sterling (9), Mahrez (9), Jesus (8), Phil Foden (6), De Bruyne (5).

One factor affecting that is Guardiola deploying a false 9 on many occasions, especially against higher quality opponents. Mostly De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva have been used in that position but even then the attacking four operates very fluidly and interchange positions through the game. This causes havoc in the opposition defence and the City players score different types of goals from different positions.

Deploying a false 9 with Bernardo Silva in the role allows space to develop between the centre backs who are stuck between following Silva as he retreats back into midfield or tracking one of the four runners (Mahrez, Sterling, De Bruyne, Gundogan).

One more eye-catching stat is that Man City has only scored one goal from counter attack this season in EPL. Guardiola has regularly talked about his team being more calm and playing more passes which is the likely reason behind this stat. It’s true that most teams sit back deep when playing against City and avoid being caught on the break. But still there have been many instances where City could have hurt a team on the counter but they rather choose to wear the opposition down by playing more passes and dominating the position. Playing more passes is not just their way to attack but defend too. “We control and be organized through the passes, because what makes the team balanced is the ball,” said Guardiola in the post match conference after the UCL 2nd leg against Dortmund.

“It’s not three incredibly huge holding midfielders or physicality, what makes the team have good balance, compact, is what we do. With. The. Ball. Extra passes help everyone be in the right position and when you lose the ball always you are organized, and that is what we have done since day one we arrived but sometimes you need more time to get it.”

In defence, with one full back advancing to midfield, the other one stays back and the two centre backs spread to form a wide back three. This allowed City to play passes from the back, rotate sides and control the tempo of the game. The inverted full back and the defensive midfielder gave more passing options and also protected the back line. This compact organization has made City way less vulnerable to counter-attacks, which was the way to get at them earlier in the season and also large parts of last season. It has worked wonders as they possess the best defence in Europe this season;  City has conceded the least number of goals in EPL (24) and the Champions League (3), level with Chelsea.

The centre back partnership of Dias and Stones has been a revelation for City this season

The resurgence of John Stones and the new signing, Ruben Dias have been crucial for City’s defence, keeping the previously impressive Laporte restricted to only a handful of appearances. The centre back pairing of Stones and Dias have been Pep’s go to for the important games and even when the two players have been paired with someone else, they have performed brilliantly due to the way that they are set up.

One distinctive factor about City has been the heavy rotation. Pep Guardiola has made over 100 changes to his starting lineup in the league this season, well more than any other team. No places, other than Ederson’s and Rodri’s, can be taken for granted. In a press conference in December Pep said:

“It’s not about rest here,” It is about rest when a big clash like a UCL tie is looming but mostly it’s not. Every game I put in the best players, sometimes for the benefit of the team, sometimes because of injuries, but especially the players who play well. It’s not about the players who believe, ‘I deserve to start because I have been here for three or four years’.”

Sterling and Laporte have been the biggest victims of the regular overhauling, but that shows the performance and consistency Pep demands of his players. Rotation has sometimes not worked with the recent loss against Leeds attributed to too many changes. But rotation was necessary ahead of the Champions League 2nd leg game against Borussia Dortmund, the most important game of the season until now. For most of the season, changing the starting 11 has helped in coping with a hectic season and has not been a hindrance on getting the results needed, which is remarkable. It can be said that City possess a deep squad but it’s never easy to change half the starting 11 from the last fixture and keep the performance level high.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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