After dominating the Premier League last season, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have become even more tactically fluid in 2018-19.
You’ve read them, those fawning, convoluted tribute pieces to the game’s preeminent tactical mind. They all have it, the same old photo, a young Pep Guardiola receiving instruction from the man to whom he owes so much, Johan Cruyff.
Of course the tributes all also reference total football, a concept often talked about and yet rarely understood. Though the tactic has all but disappeared from the modern game, it’s spoken of like a prophecy. The grainy YouTube videos are almost mesmeric. “This is how the game should be played,” one might think.
Whether you believe that or not, it’s not how the game can be played. At least not right now. The realities of modern football make complete positional fluidity all but impossible. Most teams these days are too tactically astute to be completely undone by the superior organization of another. However, there’s one man blurring the line between past and present. The kid in the old photo. The one the prophecies spoke of.
Guardiola’s use of positional play has evolved over the years — from a system that relied on more traditional attacking full-backs to hold width and provide the spacing necessary for what would eventually morph into a front five, to one that used five forwards from the start — but regardless of the specifics of his approach, he needs players capable of propping up the death star he deploys in attack.
The way City played last season was largely a result of necessity. With Benjamin Mendy out injured for the majority of the campaign, Guardiola was handcuffed into playing a 4-3-3. Unlikely left-backs Fabian Delph and Oleksander Zinchenko made the perfect specimens for his tactical experiments. In a hybrid role that asked them to cover wide areas in transition while also operating as passing outlets when City possessed the ball, their positional fluidity proved essential to Guardiola’s attacking system.
This season, however, with Mendy fully fit, Guardiola has more options. With one of the best attacking full-backs in the world at his disposal, Guardiola can play the system he intended when Mendy was signed from Monaco and he can play the 4-3-3 he used last season, with the inverted full-backs. Perhaps more importantly, he can switch fluidly between the two.
If any team has Manchester City’s number, it’s Liverpool, who beat Guardiola’s side three times in four meetings last season and battled to a 0-0 draw at Anfield on Sunday. The reason for this is the way Liverpool attack City. Instead of haphazardly trying to press an extraordinarily well-drilled and technical set of players off the ball, the Reds set traps.
By providing just enough pressure to keep the ball moving and stop City’s talented central defenders from picking their high line apart with long passes, Liverpool invite dangerous balls into midfield and wide areas. Because they’re directing the flow of possession, what often appear to be rudimentary passes are actually opportunities. It’s in these moments, by attacking City when they’re trying to load their big gun at the front, when Liverpool bully City off the pitch.
There was, of course, one instance last season when that didn’t happen. Though many Reds fans have insisted their 5-0 defeat last September was simply a result of Sadio Mane’s first-half red card, City looked like the better side even before the sending off. By using a three-man defense, City ensured they had the numbers in midfield to play through the traps Liverpool tried to set, while maintaining width in attack. Mendy, in particular, was consistently able to progress the ball up the field because there was simply too much ground for Liverpool’s players to cover.
Liverpool are the gold standard for how to beat Manchester City, but very few sides boast their attacking riches. For less talented teams, the mid-block is the way to go. By mimicking certain aspects of what only Klopp’s side are truly capable of, smaller teams have begun to attack City earlier on in their buildup play, instead of allowing them access to the final third with little resistance.
Unfortunately for City, it’s tough to anticipate whether a team will take a proactive or reactive approach, and increasingly even teams without progressive managers seem willing to try to take the game to the Citizens. Some do this without proper preparation, which only makes things easier for City, but with the influx of coaching talent to the Premier League, and the greater tactical understanding of teams on the continent, Guardiola is always looking for greater variety in the way his team progress the ball. Fortunately, City have several positionally versatile players who allow them to transition seamlessly from a back four to a back three.
Aymeric Laporte was ostensibly a right-back in a back four in City’s win against Hoffenheim last week, but frequently found himself in central positions, while Delph and Zinchenko have both done a similar job on the left. But no City player excels in this role more than Kyle Walker. When City line up with a four-man defense, Walker is a perfect outlet, capable of overlapping to support the front five, or coming inside to help move the ball up the pitch. Walker can also play as a wing-back and a central defender, meaning if he’s on the pitch, City can shift to a back three more or less whenever they want, regardless of who’s playing left-back.
The positional fluidity of players like Walker and Laporte allows City to remain truly proactive. Instead of waiting to see how the other team try to delay their progression of the ball, they can often be found switching roles in the first 15 minutes of a match to see how the opposition react. If they can create an overload on one side of the field, they’ll use three central defenders and wing-backs. If the wide areas are covered, they’ll target the space through the middle.
We saw this variety of approach once more in Sunday’s draw with Liverpool. Walker, Laporte and John Stones made a back three, while Mendy and Riyad Mahrez maintained width. Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva dropped deep into midfield, and Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero looked for space in behind. The shape might’ve been lopsided, and the approach conservative, but going to Anfield and conceding so little (Liverpool managed only two shots on target) is an accomplishment in itself, especially for a team whose style is so vulnerable to the transition Liverpool specialize in.
It might not be total football, but in today’s game, the manner in which Guardiola’s City are so seamlessly able to alter their approach is the closest we’re going to get.