Manchester City lost three games in December, which put a good few nails in their bid to become the first team to retain the Premier League title for over a decade. The reason mooted by many is complacency, the loss of Fernandinho, or simply a bad spell of luck, with many conceded goals being ‘screamers’. Given Guardiola’s meticulous nature, there is no such thing as ‘luck’, good or bad, and the issue always lies deeper.
One reason could be the terrible form of English full-backs Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph – when they don’t play, City capitulate. Coincidence? We think not. We would instead argue that full-backs are absolutely crucial to City.
Cast your memories back just two years: the league leaders are on a rampage – they have that knack that all champions do where colossal defending makes it seem impossible that they could lose a game, while everything seems to be coming together in attack, and they are managing to keep all key players fit. Over in Manchester, the favourites for the title are struggling, with the full-backs looking like they have never played the position before, every shot they face seems to end up in the back of the net, but at the other end nothing will go in. Seem familiar, City fans?
In the case of two years ago, Chelsea were leading the way after a formidable run of form and it looked like no one could stop them, whereas City were struggling with an ageing duo of Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy. They got torn apart at Leicester and the title became pretty out of their grasp. While there are issues all over the pitch, the main problem is the full backs – Zabaleta, Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Aleks Kolarov – all over the age of 30, all way past their best.
Fast forward six or seven months, what do City do? Spend around £130m on full-backs – Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo. The media in England criticised ‘cheque-book manager’ Pep Guardiola, but the analysts who know what they are talking about did the opposite, instead praising Guardiola and City for strengthening an area that their coach relies on. The season to follow was record breaking, with City ending up running away with the league, setting a points tally of 100, which is the Premier League record.
One reason for City’s success last season was the full-backs, and it could be said the poor form now of Walker and Delph is a big reason for the downfall of City of late. This begs the question: why are full-backs so important to Guardiola’s side? We examine the tactical side of the game, looking at the innovation of ‘inverted full-backs’, the desire for overloads, and the box-to-box full-back.
Inverted full-backs and overloads
Pep Guardiola adopts a base formation of 4-1-4-1 in most matches with City. To simplify a formation, which Guardiola would hate to do, City basically have five attackers and five defenders – Walker, Stones, Laporte, Mendy and Fernandinho are the defenders (by nature) and De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, Aguero, Sane are the five charged with attacking.
Guardiola told friend and author Marti Perarnau that he is converting away from a manager that would ‘play a million midfielders’. He said:
Yes, I was, but I’m being converted into a manager of five forwards. Its a curious phenomenon that I’ve learned here and I will always owe it to Germany. Although, well, maybe in Champions [League] we will play the away game with a lot of midfielders, and the home game, with a lot of forwards. Away we’ll try to control through the pass, and at home we’ll unleash, like against Shakhtar (7-0).
The line-up for that Shakhtar game [for Bayern Munich], that Guardiola referenced, was as follows:
You can see this translated to City in the way they play, with Sterling often playing as an inside forward, but De Bruyne often playing as the winger. To dominate games, City quite literally play 5-5.
The best example of this is the game at Stamford Bridge in City’s title-winning campaign, potentially City’s finest tactical display under the Catalan, with Guardiola’s side registering a narrow victory by one goal to nil, but being hugely superior on the day.
We see here the position of Walker dropping in as a third central defender, while Delph tucks in as a midfielder. The Chelsea forwards that day – Hazard and Morata – could not lay a glove on City, who could pass out easily due to this shape. Once City were out and had the ball with one of Delph or Fernandinho, they could attack via a breaking the lines pass to Silva or De Bruyne. Delph, a central midfielder by trade, has the skill set to operate in this unorthodox midfield role.
Due to the narrowness of Walker and Delph, the defenders have two options: go and press the inverted full-backs at the expense of leaving space out wide, or stand off them and let them play forward passes straight into Jesus (the deep-lying forward). Coincidentally, for the goal in the second half, it was the latter approach Chelsea took, allowing Otamendi to play a daisy cutting ball through the lines, which led to De Bruyne and Jesus playing a simple one-two before the Belgian scored in trademark fashion.
For a lot of the game though, and most games City play, De Bruyne will drift into the right-wing position, which he played for a lot of Pep Guardiola’s first season in England. This opens up many robotic movements for City, that they have practiced meticulously on the training ground with Guardiola, Arteta and Borrell. Often, City’s superiority allow them to play through defenders and open up a crossing chance for De Bruyne or Sterling. At other times, due to the overload on the right, a switch to the left is on, where Sané will usually be left with a 1v1 on the full-back.
Influences from Cruyff and Bielsa
It is very easy to see the influences on Guardiola in this shape: Johan Cruyff and Marcelo Bielsa. It seems a very simple shape or tactic to adopt, so why don’t more teams use it? Cruyff would give the answer: “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” The shape allows Guardiola to play his juego de posicion, which is an element of Totaalvoetball from the famous Dutch 1974 World Cup side involving Johan Cruyff. Guardiola’s philosophy means that a maximum of two players should occupy one area of the pitch, which is divided not horizontally, but vertically, illustrated below:
Another influence on Guardiola has been current Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa. El Loco has a desire for numerical superiority. Guardiola and Bielsa once spent eleven hours in his Rosario home chatting about football, often getting into heated debates about their philosophy.
In Guillem Balague’s wonderfully insightful biography of the ex-Barca boss, Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, he said:
“The pair chatted with wide-eyed curiosity about each other. There were heated discussions, searches on their computer, revising techniques, detailed analyses and enactments of positional play which, at one point, involved Trueba [Pep’s friend] man-marking a chair. The two men shared their obsessions, manias and the passion for the game – and emerged from the charca declaring eternal admiration for each other.”
One of Bielsa’s key ideologies is to gain numerical superiority and he does this by always playing one more defender than the opposition have strikers, even if it is just Kalvin Phillips dropping in as an unorthodox defender.
The whole theory of the inverted full-back that Guardiola adopts is thanks to the principles of Cruyff and Bielsa, and it helps Pep’s sides control the build-up in a controlled manner.
Fluidity and Mendy’s differing roles
Pep Guardiola’s system is fluid, and he expects players to play multiple positions, in one given game not just over the course of a season. An example of this is how Jesus could play as a orthodox forward, but Guardiola could switch it up and ask Jesus to drop deeper as a false nine, and create space behind him. He expects the same of his full-backs, and it is not just the inverted role they must play, but instead play the role of wider, box-to-box full-backs. City have three full-backs: Danilo, Walker, Mendy. Fabian Delph is a midfielder playing out of position in left-back, and cannot play both profiles. That makes one man’s fitness crucial: Benjamin Mendy.
While his defending may be criticised at times, Mendy is City’s most important full-back, and it is no coincidence that City have failed to keep a clean sheet since his most recent injury suffered in November. He plays a similar role to that which Dani Alves played for Guardiola at Barcelona, but on the opposite flank:
In the above image, you can see when Aymeric Laporte, the left centre-back, receives the ball, Benjamin Mendy is in a narrow position as an auxiliary central midfielder. This gives City the necessary numerical advantage in a 3-4-3 shape, whilst creating space for the winger, in this case Raheem Sterling.
It is not just on the ball that this tactic helps City, it is off. Mendy occupied the half space with his body shape open, allowing him to read and intercept many balls to prevent the counter attack.
City concede so few chances not because their back four is simply formidable, but because the first line of defence is so quick to get the ball back. If it goes through the first line of press, there is another, and if it escapes that, there is Fernandinho. No surprise that Fernandinho accumulates so many yellow cards per season.
Indeed, it was this occupation of the half space in a defensive manner that led to City’s opener in the aforementioned game against Arsenal in this seasons opening fixture.
As you can see, when Riyad Mahrez crossed the ball into the Arsenal penalty area, Benjamin Mendy (#22) and Fernandinho (#25) were positioned in similar positions, ready to intercept a clearance.
Mendy did pick up the loose ball, before passing into Sterling. The Frenchman made an overlapping run which left Bellerin in two minds, allowing Sterling to take it round him and finish well.
Yet, Mendy’s position in this game was fluid, and he also adopted the wide left position, which is often seen with Guardiola’s full-backs:
This gives City’s full-backs the chance to stretch the pitch and make it bigger, allowing more spaces to open up in the middle for crosses or pull-backs into the attacking midfielders.
At Barcelona, Dani Alves covered the entirety of the right-flank by himself, running up and down his side of the pitch unlocking Lionel Messi’s full potential as a threat on the inside.
For the Catalan giants, Guardiola often adopted a 3-4-3 shape, with Alves and Abidal often the wide men. Evidently, City’s coach sees Benjamin Mendy as his Dani Alves equivalent, and until his injury, it was paying dividends, with Mendy leading the assist charts in the Premier League.
City and Guardiola have two options with full-backs and these are interchangeable in matches. One thing that is not changeable, is that Pep Guardiola puts ultimate importance on his full-backs.
Mendy has been injured, Delph is out of form, as is Kyle Walker, no coincidence then that City have had their worst run under Guardiola.
Let us finish with a quote from the man himself in Marti Perarnau’s book Metamorphosis:
“Look, I, the flag-carrier for midfielders, playing with five forwards!! All my life arguing that the game should be played with midfielders, that the key is in the center mids, and now my strength is on the forwards… But, watch out, its not about playing forwards for the sake of it. This is not the same as that day against Real Madrid (0-4). That time I played with 4 forwards, but the fullbacks were wide open and that was the biggest mistake because we defended with two holding mids and two center backs, and it becomes impossible to stop counter-attacks that way. Now its completely different because the key is on the fullbacks; when they have the ball ahead of them, they close down next to the holding mid and form a line of three that protects us from counters. With that life-guard it is possible to play with five forwards since their backs are covered.”