The first season in Manchester under Pep Guardiola has been inconsistent and, although some signs of improvements in the adaptation process was evident, Manchester City was out of the title race already since December.
Positional play is a complex system and the process to learn it requires time – usually it took 3 seasons for Pep to work. Although personal changes occurred in some positions, it was especially at the back that Manchester City showed their biggest issues.
So, in order to stabilise his system, Guardiola has spent £158m but he not bought a centre-back.
That looked weird as Guardiola’s side biggest issues have been the goal allowed and the problems they showed in the build-up phase under pressure, and these are areas they must improve this season.
Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi remain Guardiola’s main options in defence and, with the Catalan currently preferring a three‑man backline, injury or poor form for one of the starters could leave Guardiola with just the unexperienced Eliaquim Mangala and Tosin Adarabioyo as options after Jason Denayer joined Galatasaray.
Guardiola targeted Southampton’s centre-back Virgil van Dijk during the pre-season but sporting director Txiki Begiristain thought Saints’ £60m asking price a bit exaggerated. They also targeted Jonny Evans but Tony Pulis’ asking price for the West Bromwich Albion captain also were too high.
That said, club’s board of direction let Pep spend £158.2m to bring on three full-backs in Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy and a new goalkeeper in Ederson. “We cannot go without any full-backs, which were a real priority,” told Guardiola.
This resulted in a sort of commitment to width.
When Manchester City do not have the ball, a more structured shape – featuring wing-backs too – can help them in transition favouring a better counter-pressing. It can help Pep’s side as no one registered more possession than City this season and as sitting deep and going forward has been the most successful way to attack Guardiola squads.
Last season, City often allowed opponents to come in danger zone to score showing their defensive liabilities. The fact Guardiola’s central-backs problems will be solved by spending remains to be seen.
On the offensive phase, Guardiola is faithful to a control the ball style when in possession. The 46-year-old needs of appropriate centre-backs in the way to keep-ball for a large amount of time. Last season, his centre-backs often suffered under pressure as they tended to stay too open wide, lowering the space at their disposal and disturbing the progression of the ball out from the back. Centre-backs’ wide position also forced full-backs to play higher, enlarging the spaces in between the players with the result to ruin the link between centre-backs and full-backs. So, the build-up phase was far from perfect while the defensive-midfielders too were not available for the centre-backs.
These issues occurred when Manchester City used both a 3-2 or a 2-3 positioning at the back. This liability against pressure often allowed the opponent to force Manchester City to play a long ball from Bravo.
The centre-backs often had the chance to be the ball carrier. But the structure of City’s system often limited centre-backs’ options as they didn’t have vertical passing lanes, being forced to move the ball toward the full-backs.
This season too, the space between full-backs and centre-backs was put under pressure as it appeared as a weak point into the aforementioned troubled Manchester City’s defence.
That said, City’s 5 new signings should offer an upgrade in defensive phase. Walker, Danilo, and Mendy added athleticism at fullback while Ederson provides a better long range passing and distribution than Claudio Bravo as a goalkeeper.
Moreover, the newly acquired full backs/wing backs offer Guardiola a better stability on the buildup as they can stay in wider zones rather than play the false fullback approach which Guardiola has already used last season at times. With Nolito and Sterling high up on the flanks, this false fullback tactics produced the negative effect of leaving City’s centre-backs with no good passing lines as the team’s distribution wasn’t good enough to maintain the needed ball control to manipulate the opposite shape.
It resulted in a 2-3-5/-2-3-2-3 formation in possession – depending on central-midfielder dropping in between the centre-backs – that poorly affected the progression of the ball out from the back as the distance between centre-back and the flankers wasn’t ideal. The whole structure was dysfunctional as the width was lacking in the first part of the buildup with no one who taking the wing-back positions.
In the first weeks of last campaign, with both the fullbacks and wingers taking a more central role inside, the only opened passing options for the centre-backs was towards the middle of the field or through long and direct passes lane up front. So, the centre-backs hadn’t a link out wide, resulting in no passing lines towards the upfront players through short passes from these wing-backs.
With no wide support, City lacked the structure to progress the ball out from the back in a proper manner, accordingly to positional play principles.
The inserted full backs could now improve the ball circulation by generating a better web of connections between the wider areas, the half-spaces, and the centre.
City still showed some issues this season defending on counter-attacks
We already have seen some of this with Stones playing as deepest centre-back with both Otamendi and Kompany acting on their own centre-half while Danilo and Walker were positioned out wide to support ball circulation by linking the back-three with Silva and De Bruyne, which stationed high up into their respective half-space.
Surely City’s main goal to occupy and attack through central areas still remain but Danilo and Walker give Guardiola’s side the opportunity to exploit the wide areas adding another playing dimension to the team in the way to improve their chances to manipulate opposite’s defensive block.
Obviously, a better decision making by the centre-backs is needed as their pass selection wasn’t ever optimal. The back-three also has to improve the speed of play to produce a more successful building up. Adding a couple of wing backs still could help here as Danilo and Walker provide centre-backs with new diagonal pass options.
Also, these wing backs could allow Guardiola’s team a better way to escape from opponents’ pressure. Is true that a ball to the wing-back can invite more pressure wide open but you can avoid it by leaving the wing-back not isolated with the ball at his feet.
First and foremost, it happens having the centre-backs providing a depth option for a back pass with the ball nearest centre-back moving towards the ball carrier. The, a defensive-midfielder and a winger offer an option in between the opposition pressing lines. It creates a connection between the ball carrier and his teammates, allowing City the opportunity to move the ball both horizontally or vertically.
City is still a work in progress a highlighted by the below pass maps produced by @11tegen11 In the first one, the pass map with average players positions show us as City’s spatial distribution was far from appropriate. Team’s passing play was unbalanced and Walker hasn’t been involved into the collective structure.
Instead, the second pass map represents an upgrade as every player is occupying their own areas. Danilo and Walker were positioned as wing backs have to be and they were involved into team’s ball circulation, offering support to clean the ball and to link the three centre-backs with Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
Guardiola can be partially satisfied as Manchester City showed some improvements in their positional play starting from the back. That said, City have to get better in their defending phase if they want to remain competitive through the season. Guardiola hopes the changes he made in some positions, could provide a defensive stability.
However, is clear that Guardiola has some work to do as team’s defensive fortunes don’t rely just on individual upgrading.