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Tactics: Previewing Pep Guardiola’s First Season at City

After what was a disappointing end to Manuel Pellegrini’s reign, Pep Guardiola’s introduction is the most highly-anticipated managerial appointment despite changes at other major clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester United. The Catalan coach has made it clear of his intentions to introduce his juego de posición playing philosophy to the Etihad and he has already made visible changes seen in the pre-season friendlies.

Build-up Play

Addressed with detail in his inaugural training session at the Etihad Complex, Pep was quick to improve his team’s build-up play. He instructed the off-the-ball movements and the positioning of his players at goal-kicks in order to create the connections which would allow a better progression of the ball.

“Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.”

– Juan Manuel Lillo

As Lillo, another key figure in the development of positional play and a mentor to Pep, states, the first progression of the ball from the build-up is crucial. If the midfielder receives the ball in space and in a central position, he is going to more easily advance the ball as opposed to if receives the ball marked and facing away from goal. With Guardiola looking to emphasise his intricate passing game, it’s no surprise to see him prioritise the build-up phase in his first few weeks at the club.

On the training ground, Pep focused moreso on building possession in wide areas, with triangular structures created down either flank. The centre-backs dropped and split to either side of the penalty area, the full-backs maintained a higher position on the flank whilst the ball-near midfielder would offer their support too, as shown below.

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They would then look to build through these small wing-structures and progress the ball to the half-way line, at which they would pass the ball to the opposing keeper and the other set of players would do the same.

From an attacking perspective, Guardiola put the emphasis on creating strong connections and using short interplay to move the ball through the thirds. The defending team would be focused on staying compact by shifting close to the ball, maintaining coverage of the ball-local players and overall applying pressure deep into the opposition third.

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We saw virtually the identical structure during build-up in City’s pre-season matches, as the midfielders, centre-backs and full-backs made the same movements to create these wing shapes. Although it was executed inconsistently (as is expected at this stage of the development), it was clear evidence that the players are already applying Pep’s ideas directly onto the pitch.

Switches of Play

Building possession through one side of the pitch to then attack down the opposite is a key principle of Pep’s attacking ideology. The idea is to draw the opposition in whilst you’re building up possession and then switching to the other side where there is little-to-no defensive coverage. It allowed him to get the most out of players such as Pedro at Barcelona and (an albeit aging and unfit) Robben at Bayern.

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In order to be effective in this attacking mechanism, the switches need to be fast and efficient. If the ball is too-slowly transferred from one side to the other, then the defence have time to shift over, readjust and close out the space around the receiving winger. Guardiola teams are some of the best at switching the ball with pace whether it be an Alonso or Xavi cross-field ball or an intricate combination between a number of players.

However, the same cannot be said for Manchester City under Pellegrini. Their attacking tempo was alongside their Manchester rivals in the two slowest of the league, as they circulated the ball with little urgency. When looking to make these switches of play, this becomes highly problematic as by the time the ball has reached the opposite flank, the defence is ready to challenge the attack. The ball would move along in a lethargic manner as the likes of Toure and Fernando passed without the required intensity.

Yet in the pre-season friendlies, this attacking play was used much faster by City’s midfield, as they would make sharper one-touch passes before releasing the opposite wide-man with a long switch. As a result of these better-executed moves, Pep’s team were able to create isolations much more easily than we have seen in previous years. The winger would be up against his opposition full-back alone whilst the rest of the defence were still busy shifting over from the opposite side.

Since his move from Liverpool, Raheem Sterling has been criticised by many for indifferent performances. However, when he was receiving the ball in these wide positions, he often had to beat 2 or even 3 defenders because the opposition defensive block was settled and ready. Under Guardiola, we may see him (as well as new signings Sané and Nolito) prosper as they receive the ball in more dangerous situations. By coming into the play for an isolation situation whilst the defence is unsettled, the winger’s ability to beat their man is much greater and thus the potential of the attack is increased.

Defensive Play

Pressing the opposition build-up has been somewhat of an issue for Manchester City in recent times. Sergio Agüero often has the responsibility of pressuring the entire opposition back-line as he receives little support from teammates. Although the Argentine is particularly hard-working, it’s an impossible task. As a result, teams such as Tottenham are able to build-up without great challenge from City’s defence.

Furthermore, when they did look to press, it was often too uncompact to maintain a level of defensive stability. The space between the lines was often open for opposition midfielders to take advantage of whilst it made maintaining pressure an even more difficult task. Upon moving the ball into the midfield following the lethargic pressing, teams would then have large gaps to work with where they could advance the ball further and create dangerous situations.

One of the only reasons why this wasn’t exploited to a great extent in the Premier League is the lack of cohesive attacking strategies. Despite having star attackers such as Mesut Özil, Wayne Rooney and Willian, the top teams of the Premier League couldn’t form effective attacks as a team, often showing a lack of a plan or simply a lack of synergy between players. Now, with Antonio Conte, Jürgen Klopp and Guardiola himself starting their first (full) seasons in England, this is due to change. Open defences will be put to the sword on a much more regular basis this year and Pep will need to amend these issues soon in the season.

In their pre-season friendlies, some improvements have been made. Although man-marking perhaps isn’t the best way to approach stopping your opponents, Guardiola has had his team press with a distinct man-to-man focus so far. By covering each individual player closely, it allows City to apply a higher level of pressure on their opponents by covering each possible pass recipient.

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The motivational aspect of new manager must be taken into consideration too. When it becomes known that a manager will be leaving shortly, it’s common for the players to relax their work rate. Contrastingly, the introduction of a new manager usually sparks a great spike in motivation and not least a world class one such as Guardiola who has worked with and nurtured the world’s best. A noted disciple of the somewhat insane Marcelo Bielsa, Pep demands a (more realistic, yet still) high work ethic from his players – particularly when out of possession.

After the pressing phase and against more settled possession, City are instead defending with much more of a zonal scheme. Players more consistently use their teammates as a reference point for their positioning as they collectively sit in a more structured block. Although of course it’s early days, it seems to have improved their spatial control significantly. They defended with an improved compactness whilst the gaps which teams such as Leicester and Tottenham exploited last year were not to be seen.

Looking Ahead

Guardiola’s arrival on English soil is the most highly-anticipated managerial appointment for many years. The former Barcelona and Bayern coach has made it clear that he intends to introduce his attractive football in his quest to prove his worth in what is much-questionably said to be ‘a more competitive league’.

Standing in his way are other top-quality managers such as Conte, Klopp and Mourinho but additionally, he’ll have to overcome the issues existing at City. Despite the quite severe nature of some of these tactical deficiencies, the team has already made steps to amend them over pre-season under Pep. Whilst still early in their developmental stage, this City teams shows much promise ahead of the inaugural season for one of the best coaches in the world.

Tom Payne is a 19-year-old football analyst working as an opposition scout at Huddersfield Town. He writes for the tactics website Spielverlagerung, where you can find an in-depth preview of Guardiola’s first year at Manchester City.

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