Tactical Analysis : Can Manchester City be a title Challenger under Pep Guardiola?


Newly appointed Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola must be  looking to cement his managerial legacy by winning a League title in a third country and also lead City to some Champions League glory.

Guardiola has previously won League Titles in Barcelona and Bayern Munich and has never failed to qualify for Champions League Semifinal. Last year, Manchester City finished fourth in the Premier League under Manuel Pellegrini and now with Guardiola, can they be a title contender again?

New signings and the Squad:

There was never a shade of doubt about the quality in Manchester City squad, with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne being able to turn any match into it’s head on their own.

Ex-Everton Centre back John Stones (for £47million), ex-Schalke winger and German international Leroy Sane (for £46.5million with add-ons, with £37million upfront payment), ex-Borussia Dortmund midfield maestro Ilkay Gundogan (for £21million), Spain international Nolito  (for £13.8 million) and Brazil forward Gabriel Jesus (for  £27 million) – have been the highlight of Guardiola’s City signings. These signings have supplemented City’s existing classy squad.

Manchester City have the likes of Zabaleta, Clichy and Kolarov as their top notch specialist  fullback options with solid centre halves in Stones, Mangala, Otamendi and Sagna being there to sort out the defense. The ability of Sagna and Stones to play both as right back and centre back add to the versatility of City defense. Plus, the attacking traits and delivery of City’s overlapping fullbacks add another dimension to their attack.

In the heart of midfield, City boast of two excellent defensive midfielders in Fernando and Fernandinho, who can excel in playing the Regista role. The pivotal players in City’s central midfield are newbie Ilkay Gundogan and veteran Yaya Toure, one of them are expected to play number 8 role in the starting line up. They also have Fabian Delph at their disposal.

City’s attacking midfielders are a class apart, with De Bruyne and Silva as the central attacking midfielders or 10s, Sane and Sterling on the wings. City’s front 3 behind the striker can deliver killer punch, with new signing Nolito also being a very capable attacking midfielder. World class number 9 Aguero is expected to be be the focal point of City’s attack, with Iheanacho being the back-up striker.

How Guardiola is addressing City’s Weaknesses:

Inaccurate positional play and failure to occupy correct spaces in the pitch have been a major problem for Manchester City for last 2 seasons. To get connected spacing on the pitch, Guardiola practiced his players on marked pitch from his Barcelona-Bayern days and expected to do so in City also. This will help City in creating proper structures and appropriate shapes and occupying the key spaces around the player carrying the ball.

Their incorrect spacing  hindered them to penetrate the attacking midfield area, or the ”10 space”. When they tried to spray the ball, they often had insufficient players behind the opponent’s midfield. Guardiola has addressed City’s unnecessary 4 man chain crew in deeper areas and inability to occupy key spaces, by focusing on different lines and unlocking passing lanes. City’s another big problem was their reaction after losing the ball possession. Their players were too slow and lazy to counter-press or to make recovery-runs. By proper shaping and connected shaping, Guardiola is expected to fix the defensive transition, provoking the proximity of most of the opponent players around the ball and recuperating the ball imminently.

His short passing tactics will also help to fix this facet. While pressing, City could not close down the opposition and cut off the angles. Improper and non-compact pressing led to their downfalls at times. While trying to press high up, their midfielders being not so dynamic, it created large gaps and the disconnection between the players helped the rival teams play passing game and strangle City.

During build up play to move upwards to opposition half, City used to become static off the ball and lack of supporting runs from midfielders made their attack blunt. Yaya Toure and Fernando, who were guilty for this flaw, are finding themselves in bench during Pep era. Guardiola’s famous re-inverting the pyramid through positional play, or his oft-used ”Juego de posicion” will enable supporting movements to strongly support local compactness in half spaces, give stability to the player carrying the ball. More team-play and overloading can be expected in Pep’s tenure.

What we saw in Sunderland Game: 

In Manchester City’s first Premier League game with Guardiola at helm, they won 2-1 against Sunderland, maintaining 77% ball possession. Notably, in Premier League’s opening weekend, City played most passes (681), distantly followed by Southampton (583). More importantly, confident pressing of City was witnessed. The two fullbacks were moved high up infield, with the defensive midfielder Fernandinho dropping in between them.

Pep’s master strategy was moving De Bruyne and Silva back into central midfield positions from their natural attacking midfield positions. It automatically drew Sunderland midfielders close to them in search of the ball, making their midfield very close, leaving huge passing lane, to where Fernandinho had options to make pass to. It also left City front three unmarked. The team created a shape where 5 always stayed behind the ball and 5 always ahead, in attacking positions, like the team being split in two, very organised. The fullbacks not only bombed forward, but also always were in position to stop Sunderland’s counter attacks, during City’s build up play.

With the promises shown and the class Manchester City have in their squad, it’s almost certain that the Sky Blues will get a top 4 finish and with Guardiola at the helm, a City fan has every right to be optimistic about being a Title challenger. The Achilles Heel is Aguero and Gundogan’s fitness though. Gundogan is utterly needed to play as 8 and Aguero must stay fit for most of the season as there is no back-up striker who is as good or almost as good.


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Photo by Thomas Rodenbücher