We’re not even two weeks into the new Premier League season and Pep Guardiola is the main topic of discussion.
In whom many regard as the most coveted manager in the sport, this shouldn’t be a surprise given the global media attention the Premier League receives. However, the attention and pressure surrounding Guardiola is larger than his passion for the game – not only must he win, but he must do so playing entertaining football Frankly, the willingness to break boundaries, evolve the players at his disposal, and the determination to play proactive possession football are one of the many caveats that makes Guardiola likeable.
With that being said, Guardiola is human, and like many managers has his flaws – particularly his man management skills have been questioned over the years. The sudden decision to drop Joe Hart and Yaya Toure have also been closely assessed, and though it’s a logical decision from a manager aiming to guide City amongst Europe’s elite, it’s been quite controversial.
Guardiola’s success as a manager is unprecedented, revolutionizing two historically great clubs in Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He took the world by storm with the former, revolving his team around intelligent ball-playing midfielders, whilst transforming Lionel Messi into one of the finest players this sport has ever seen. Barcelona utilized lengthy spells of possession and intense high-pressing as their primary defensive method, but going forward, they constantly overloaded flanks and quickly shifted the route of attack until space was available to penetrate.
His move to Bayern was less appreciated considering they won the treble the year prior, but even then, Guardiola completely altered their style of play. The German powerhouse still possessed excellent midfielders, but his attack was based around the wing play of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. His final seasons at Bayern saw an all-rounder centre-forward in Robert Lewandowski lead the attack, and Arturo Vidal offer verticality combined with combative tackling, which completely differs from the side he built at the Camp Nou.
It’s evident that Guardiola’s appointment at the Etihad is the trickiest of his short career. Here’s a man who worked with genuine world-class players in every position at his previous clubs, whereas at City, only David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and possibly Kevin De Bruyne are in that category.
More so, in terms of structure and a constructive footballing philosophy, City can be considered a broken team lacking technically adequate footballers. It’s been the same core since the turn of the decade, operating mostly in a 4-4-2, thus relying on their superior talent to somewhat dominate a league that’s drastically declined.
Guardiola’s arrival – along with a few other notable managers – changes the general scheme of the league. Certainly the top clubs in Spain and Germany have the best players at their disposal, but the Premier League now has the best managers. And with most of the top teams generally at the same stage of their development, the value of a tactically astute manager can’t be overlooked.
Therefore, Guardiola is aware that there’s minimal margin for error, regardless of the amount of time and patience the City board offers.
“It’s the right moment to come here and prove myself,” stated Guardiola earlier this summer. “I want to play the way I want. But wherever you go you have to adapt to the quality of the players. We have to find each other as soon as possible.
“What we want is so simple. When the opposition have the ball to get it back, when we have it to move it as quickly as possible, to create the most chances as possible.”
The contrast between City’s two competitive games is stark, but the shift in styles is evident. City now adopt a 4-1-4-1 with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in deeper positions, whereas it appears Sergio Aguero will primarily operate as a lone striker. Aguero’s not an all-rounder like Lionel Messi or Robert Lewandowski, and it will be interesting to see how Guardiola intends on maximize the Argentine’s devastating finishing.
The midfield trio of Silva and De Bruyne ahead of Fernandinho is equally intriguing. Fernandinho splits the centre-backs to offer protection, but also play penetrative passes into his midfield partners. But the Brazilian is renowned for his dynamism rather than his passing, and though he’s capable of deputizing in this position, Guardiola’s buildup play may encounter slight issues until Ilkay Gundogan is match fit.
Silva and De Bruyne, on the other hand, have freedom to join what is often a five-man attack in possession, but the creative midfielders receive passes in deeper positions rather than between the lines. Although this may not be a permanent role for Silva in the bigger games – Guardiola may prefer a physical presence centrally, and Silva in a wide possession similar to Andres Iniesta during his tenure at Barcelona – the combination with the wide players has been positive. It’s notable that Raheem Sterling assisted Silva’s opener against Steaua midweek, whereas De Bruyne created Nolito’s goal.
But the abundance of wide players at Guardiola’s disposal suggests he may once again build his side around the likes of Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Nolito and Jesus Navas. The quartet offers Guardiola a good balance of experience and youth along with direct crossers and wide forwards. Suddenly, last year’s underachievers Sterling and Navas are showcasing signs of improvement, the former has won two penalties and both men have been involved in goals thus far.
One of the key elements in City’s late win over Sunderland witnessed Guardiola replace Nolito with Navas, thus pushing Sterling to the left in generic 4-4-2. The alteration resulted in Sterling and Navas hugging the touchline and running at defenders to offer a source of creativity from wide areas. City’s winner also stemmed from Navas’ dart down the right and a low cross into the box that was redirected past Vito Mannone.
Still, the main talking point regarding City’s season opener against Sunderland was the positioning of full-backs Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. The full-backs adopted more central positions in half-spaces to help City dominate the centre, whilst ensuring David Moyes’ men could launch breaks through midfield.
Apart from an exceptional out-side the foot pass from Clichy in the opening half, the duo wasn’t comfortable receiving the ball facing their goal, and often played passes backwards, rather than offer penetration in the final third. City’s passing was slow and patient throughout, thus making it easy for Moyes’ men to remain compact when shifting from flank-to-flank as a unit.
Tuesday’s Champions League playoff clash at Steaua witnessed Guardiola start Nicolas Otamendi alongside new signing John Stones, thus pushing Aleksandar Kolarov to left-back – he started at centre-back against Sunderland – and Pablo Zabaleta at right-back. Kolarov and Zabaleta were more assured in possession in central positions, while Otamendi’s passing and familiarity with the position was an upgrade to the former’s display last weekend.
Coincidentally, Zabaleta played a super pass into half space from a central position for the advancing Kolarov, which awarded City a penalty that Aguero subsequently missed – this is was a prime example of what Guardiola expects from his full-backs: incisive passing from central positions, and advanced running into dangerous areas.
“It’s not time to change a lot because I don’t want to confuse my players but I have to say, I am impressed the most that they are so intelligent,” said Guardiola.
“The way we played in Bucharest was a high, high level. We did it so quickly. That’s because of the intelligence and quality of the players.
In fairness, the hosts were in complete shambles out of possession, and City easily bypassed the opposition with their swift passing combinations – a trait that was also nonexistent on Guardiola’s debut, but vividly displayed via Aguero’s combination with Nolito prior to his second goal against Steaua.
Likewise, there was a distinct understanding in their positioning, highlighting Guardiola’s demand of proper positional balance: when the full-backs were narrow, the wide players attacked the opposing defenders, and if the wide players moved centrally, City’s full-backs could charge forward.
Guardiola’s men were nearly flawless on the night, but their trip to the Britannia Stadium should provide an accurate indicator of City’s progress. Stoke have transitioned into a proactive side under Mark Hughes, as there’s more variety to their game than simple long punts up the field, whilst acquiring young technically gifted attack minded players.
The Potters’ recent success against City is key, and even without Xherdan Shaqiri, the counter-attacking threat of Mame Biram Diouf, Marko Arnautovic, Bojan should really test Guardiola’s men in transition. On the other hand, they’re more than capable of maintaining possession, and Hughes’ side can bypass City’s possible high-press it would be interesting to see how the away side copes.
A change in shape, variety in defensive structure, and improved performances from last season’s outcasts illustrates Guardiola’s influence at the Etihad thus far is headed in the right direction. Ultimately, Guardiola wants to build a flexible side capable of mid-game formation changes, yet his current dilemma is a simple as certain City players struggling to complete five-yard passes and receiving possession in tight spaces. Only time and more work on the training ground will improve the understanding of Guardiola’s approach, but for now, Guardiola must identify what style of play benefits his side.
The current squad at Guardiola’s disposal indicates City are better suited to play on the counter-attack, and in his first domestic away fixture against a Stoke City side capable of retaining possession, it’s a logical prospect despite the Spaniard’s fixation with territorial dominance.
Nevertheless, Guardiola’s presence in a league suffering from a tactical and structural rut is exciting. His aim to buck trends and develop a footballing culture could reap rewards sooner than expected.