Manchester City’s formation and application on a murky Wednesday night in Rotterdam and a breezy afternoon at Vicarage Road in front of Elton John saw the team reach what could well be seen as ‘Peak Pep’ (writes Tom Evans)
Although if you counted the number of players per position on the pitch in both games you would see a rather classic English 4-4-2 formation. However, the one below shows the shape City move into when on the ball. It is accurately represented as a 3-5-2, with Fernandinho roaming between the lines of defence without the ball and midfield with it, almost like a number 10 would in an attacking sense, but at the opposite end of the field.
The big switch in tactical formation which has enabled the change in playing style from last season to this is the commitment to a front-footed pressing style, along with the addition of Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker, who both have the ability to boss their flanks single-handedly.
This has facilitated Pep’s choice to focus more of the play centrally, and most importantly, have two of the best strikers in the league on the pitch together, bouncing off each other.
Clubs make formational shifts for a multitude of reasons; sometimes to mirror opponents, to fit in different players, to add more defensive stability, etc. In the case of City, it’s certainly the latter, although it’s not as straight forward as chucking another big centre back in the back line and hoping it’ll result in more tackles, blocks and clearances through a sheer increase in man power.
Some would have you believe that Pep Guardiola doesn’t teach defensive football; he certainly is not drilling a team to sit two banks of four behind the ball in an old school English fashion.
However, defending is a core staple of the Guardiola/Cruyff philosophy, only in this case, you defend by having control of the game in midfield, having attacking options to keep the opponents guessing and on the back foot, and most importantly, by operating an aggressive early press from the front to the back of the side to exert dominance on an opponent.
Furthermore, it’s the three aforementioned principles that a Guardiola positional play system lives or dies by, and the switch to three at the back is in place to enhance it. By operating with two strikers that are supported by a five-man midfield behind them, it allows Aguero and Jesus to both press a defender at a time relentlessly, making it much harder for the opposition to create build-up play.
The five-man midfield also step forward onto their opponents, adding pressure to force a loose touch and win the ball back swiftly. This happened time and again during the 15-0 aggregate victories over Liverpool, Feyenoord and Watford over an eight day period.
This quick dispossession of the ball from the opposition allows Pep’s side to smother the opponent into submission. When City have the ball – with technicians such as David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva on the pitch – they can retain possession in attacking areas and wear down opposition sides.
This echelon of ‘Peak Pep’ can be displayed in the passing and possession stats, as well as the dominant score lines. Over the three games, City completed an average of 694 passes and possession figures of 68.5%, levels of controls rarely seen in away performances in Europe and the hectic Premier League, especially within a two-day turnaround. The statistics from the game against Feyenoord were the highest of this round of Champions League games.
As well as giving City a numerical presence up top when most major sides play with only one recognised striker, this change in shape has facilitated an increased responsibility and maturity from two particular players: Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones.
The pair are charged with being the metronomes of the side, dictating the play from deep. These two players, at the ages of 26 and 23 respectively, are going to be key to City winning silverware over the coming seasons.
For City to dominate the league and match the potential they’re displaying, they need this generation to take a leading role, as the side steps out of the shadows of the former glories of the old guard, such as Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure.
There was a period last year where City tried and failed to effectively implement a 3-5-2 system using wingers in Sterling and San instead of natural full backs. This came to a head in a calamitous 4-2 away defeat at a Leicester side who were then in freefall.
Manchester City’s fullbacks have assisted 4 goals (in all comp) this season.
Danilo: 1 pic.twitter.com/j1FtHCi2Tu
— City Chief ️ (@City_Chief) September 13, 2017
The defensive frailties shown in that period have not been seen so far, with City now employing top quality wing backs in Mendy and Walker. The use of these two players could be seen as a move of pragmatism from Guardiola after twelve months of getting his fingers burnt by trying to go too gung-ho against Premier League opposition.
Of course, these are early days in the season, and there will be much tougher tests to come from real quality opposition, but the signs of life from City so far are showing green shoots of real Guardiola football, which should be a joy to watch from a footballing perspective.
Whether that can be turned into trophies? We will have to wait and see.