6 Straight wins, 13 Goals scored and only 1 goal conceded – the results of Pep Guardiola’s latest innovation to a constantly evolving Manchester City side.
Evolving and adapting is something Pep Guardiola has worked on every season at Manchester City: Creating the system that made them Champions (and domestic treble winners), creating the system to win the league with KDB out for more than 6 months and now, this season, Pep has the daunting task of tweaking the system after losing Leroy Sane, David Silva and even though he is still at the club – Sergio Aguero.
We take a look at his latest creation over two back-to-back games against Crystal Palace and Aston Villa.
Why the shift from 4-2-3-1?
One of the main reasons for the switch from the 4-2-3-1 earlier in the season that it was not offering enough attacking options; a principle of Peps systems is that he keeps at least 4 players behind the ball during attack, which meant in the 4-2-3-1, the midfield pivot was providing protection at the back beside the two Central defenders. This meant the fullbacks were the main source of width in the side which often left City a bit exposed on transitions.
The pressing shape from the 4-2-3-1 was not ideal either as it meant having all 4 forwards high up the pitch which meant they could easily be bypassed and the 2 midfielders would easily be outnumbered, with the 4-3-3 there is an extra midfielder for such situations.
Also the poor form of Riyadh Mahrez and Raheem Sterling early in the season and the fact that both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus were missing for large parts early in the campaign played a part in this decision.
City have gradually shifted from the 4-2-3-1 system at the start of the season to a more familiar 4-3-3 shape. The rotations within this 4-3-3 however are not similar to the ones used in previous seasons.
The system bears a slight resemblance to Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 shape he has deployed throughout his career, with Pep himself being an admirer of the Argentine philosopher it would not be a stretch to say he borrowed the tactic from him. There are a few differences between the two; mainly in the use of the wing backs and wingers.
With Bielsa, there is an emphasis on using the wingbacks to overload wide areas 2v1 against the opponent, however with Pep, the fullbacks tuck in and act as midfielders within the halfspace and the wingers stretch the pitch staying as wide as possible and going 1v1 against the opponents fullbacks without an overload. Also a difference in personnel, as Bielsa prefers to deploy midfielders in defence, while Guardiola prefers to use defenders (fullbacks) in midfield.
The defensive shape
One thing City have maintained from the run of deploying the 4-2-3-1 is the defensive shape off the ball, City now primarily defend in 4-4-2 off the ball with minimal pressing. This is key, because one of the reasons Guardiola gave for their poor start to the season was that the players were “running too much”, and he was right, the press in the 4-2-3-1 was uncoordinated as it was too much ground to cover, unlike the 4-3-3.
Pep has found a middle ground (literally), City now shape up in a 4-4-2 mid block and only engage opponents when they come across the halfway line. Using the energy of Bernardo Silva, Foden and De Bruyne they are able to hassle opponents within this shape without creating gaps behind them.
Rotations in the new system
The back three
One constant aspect of this new system is building up with a back 3; 2 Center Backs and an inverted fullback. They spread across the pitch in the first phase with the aim here to bypass the first line of the opponents press.
The lone Defensive Midfielder
The deepest midfielder is usually almost alone near the halfway line during the first phase of buildup. His role is to provide an outlet in behind the first line of the opponents press, and combine with the rotating midfielders and attackers when they drop deep.
A huge shift from the 4-2-3-1 which often deployed two inverted wingers, is that this new system relies on the wingers for width. Both wide men stretch the pitch by hugging the touchline.
The Free-Flowing Quartet
As mentioned earlier, about 5-6 player rotations are in defined zones; back 3, lone DM, Wide wingers but the rest of the team are given some semblance of freedom to roam within the thirds of the pitch; the two midfielders, the striker and the inverted wingback (usually Cancelo) are given freedom in and around the attacking thirds.
Cancelo has been brilliant executing his roles this season, coming into midfield from fullback, penetrating the half spaces and creating chances via his passing and dribbling.
Gundogan and Bernardo have also been given a new found freedom in this system, allowed to make runs from deep into the back and hover around the final third.
The chief orchestrator of the attack, Kevin De Bruyne is also given freedom to roam more than usual, but his role usually involves creating from in between the line rather than bursting into the box.
Since the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, 7 of Man City’s 10 goals have been scored by midfielders:
Phil Foden – 2 Goals 1 Assist
Kevin De Bruyne – 1 Goal 3 Assists
Ilkay Gundogan – 3 Goals
Bernardo Silva – 1 Goal
This is down to City’s new system which places emphasis on getting numbers in between the lines and into the box from midfielders. Gundogan especially has been a huge beneficiary of City’s new system, his runs from deep are often not picked up by opposition midfielders and he punishes them time and time again.
A great example of this system in full flow, was their game against Chelsea, where Bernardo Silva and Gundogan were bursting into the box from deep positions and causing their markers all sorts of trouble during the game. Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden were also in holding their width and breaking forward into the box on some occasions.
The main positive of this system is the number of players it can get forward at a go, runs from deep destabilize the opponents midfield while the wide wingers stretch the backline, the amount of rotations in between the lines also makes it difficult for opposing markers to decide who to pick up and who to step off.
This system also gives Pep a bit of stability his previous system did not offer, as it leaves as many as 5 men behind the ball, it does not empty the midfield either as the inverted fullbacks are there to cover any issues
This really is not a knock on the system, but rather, the individuals; as City play without a recognised striker, it allows the opponent to force City out wide and focus on defending the central areas in the box. The system allows City to create numerous chances but the finishing from players who often lack conviction (Bernardo, Gundogan, Cancelo) will hurt City when the stakes are high and they need a goal.
How can opponents exploit this new system?
Even though the system does provide better defensive protection, it can still be exploited. since the fullbacks are a bit high up the pitch in the attacking phase, the space between the midfield and defence can be exploited at times. Since the only defensive option Rodri will be the only player in that gap trying to snuff out attacks, getting beyond him gives you a direct run at the 3 defenders.
Vacating the space in front of the center backs and attacking the wide channels is also another option, Ruben Dias and John Stones are not blessed with pace, and thus a forward with a bit of speed can cause the defence problems dragging them away from central areas.
In the passage of play above, Villa keeper Martinez launched a quick counter attack down the flanks to Bertrand Traore who was able to beat Kevin De Bruyne (who had dropped back to defend the area) and get past Ruben Dias to get a clear sight of goal.
It’s quite clear that bypassing the midfield and running at the 3 rest defenders in transition is a teams best bet at exploiting this new City system.
Much has always been said about this season; he was already under pressure after failing to deliver a title charge as Liverpool swept the league last season, and recorded one of the worst starts of his managerial career in his first 6 games this season.
Pep has managed to tweak his system a bit and turned the teams form around, all the praise should not go to Pep Guardiola though, as Gundogan, Bernardo and Cancelo have been excellent foils around Kevin De Bruyne in attack. Phil Foden has grabbed his chance, edging out Riyadh Mahrez from the team sheet, and the dynamic duo of John Stones and Ruben Dias hold down the fort at the back.
This season’s title race has been wide open, and Pep Guardiola and Man City have been able to claw themselves back into the race. If City can maintain the pace as Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero return to the lineup, then we may see the Cityzens lift another Premier League trophy under the Catalan genius.