For Pep Guardiola, it would have been unthinkable for Man City to finish eighteen points adrift of Liverpool and be knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter finals.
To finish the season with only the league cup to show for it simply doesn’t compute with the Spaniard’s, nor City’s, relentless winning drive.
This was to be the story of 2019/20 for Manchester City. The headlines undoubtedly make for disappointing reading. However, there is more to this relatively barren year than just playing worse.
Having written ‘Mastering the Premier League: The Tactical Concepts behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City’, tactical writer Lee Scott is well equipped to compare the successful 2017/18 and 2018/19 campaigns with last year’s. This isn’t to say that they performed poorly, however.
“It is difficult to say that they were underwhelming. Pep teams always have the ability to perform in this way, and eventually be out thought.”
“They are within the bracket of the very best teams, in the 90th percentile. For them to not perform to this standard, is deemed disappointing. It is a very difficult task to maintain these standards however, and very few do.”
So, what were the supposed shortcomings last season, and how will City adapt next year? Lee and I discussed the elements that had misfired for Guardiola in 2019/20.
Changes at Centre Back
When Vincent Kompany departed before the season, it was always anticipated to leave a void in the City team. Leaders and natural defenders, of Kompany’s standard are impossible to replace. City’s depth at centre back was limited however. In not replacing the Belgian, City were caught short.
“For so much of the season, Fernandinho was the only consistently playing centre back. Laporte was injured so Otamendi, John Stones and Eric Garcia all rotated to little effect.”
“The demands of a Guardiola centre back are extreme. The high line with which they play means they must:
- Have fast recovery time
- Be involved in the build up and spot forward passes
- Be comfortable splitting wide in possession and facing the opposition press
“Fernandinho has never fallen short in any one of these areas, the other three partners however fail to fit this demanding bill. Otamendi and Stones are often too erratic, and Garcia is yet to fully mature in the role.”
“Changing this structure meant playing players of varying ability defensively but also in possession play. City therefore never settled in their approach and found it more difficult to establish a consistent playing rhythm.”
“I remember years back when a friend of mine coached in Spain. He told me about this player for the under-eighteens that was the perfect Guardiola midfielder. That player was Rodri.” recalls Lee.
The success of Sergio Busquets under Guardiola at Barcelona made signing Rodri almost predetermined. The young Spaniard is widely regarded as the successor to Busquets, possessing the same ease on the ball and physique as Busquets.
Rodri’s first season in Manchester was difficult despite appearing in all but two league fixtures for City. He never quite felt like the Fernandinho replacement many hoped he was.
“Rodri offers a different style of ball progression to Fernandinho” says Lee. “and at the start of the campaign looked like he would slot into the role perfectly. For some reason that fell away throughout the season, as if his confidence took a hit.”
“There were occasions where his body shape looked off when receiving the ball under pressure.”
This is a vital note for a Guardiola defensive midfielder. It is essential for the single pivot to be comfortable under pressure, to either move the ball quickly and bypass the press or to carry the ball and break the lines. This is something Fernandinho does brilliantly at defensive midfield, shaping to pass backwards before letting the ball run and stepping into the midfield zones.
“This might be the product of playing under a manager such as Diego Simeone, that demands less in terms of ball progression. This leads to turnovers and dispossession on the ball.”
There is still the belief that Rodri will adapt and learn to play this role however. As with most positions on the pitch, Guardiola has his own playbook that very few young players will know.
The Gündogan-Rodri partnership
City fans have been accustomed to a midfield of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. A more conservative system with Rodri and Gündogan was always likely to be underwhelming to these supporters.
“Rodri has understandably required time to learn the league and the position. Putting Gündogan alongside him as allowed him that extra protection, if detracting from attacking impetus.”
The frosty reception to this pairing however has often been misjudged.
“I think Gündogan is viewed in this way for the simple reason that he isn’t David Silva. Silva plays the ‘8’ role so perfectly and with such style that Gündogan just appears slower and less aesthetic.”
“At Dortmund he was the perfect Guardiola ‘8’, breaking the lines and supporting attacks. Pep has played him more as a deep ‘6’, tiering the City midfield in the process.”
So, is Guardiola likely to give way to the attacking luring of his supporters? Lee doubts it.
“These two along with De Bruyne will make up the midfield a lot next season. Even with Phil Foden likely to play more regularly in Silva’s absence, and Ferran Torres having the technical ability to play inside. Both offer central control, just without the rotations we are accustomed to seeing with Silva in there.”
It is pertinent to say that some of the difficulties experienced by City last season are part of a larger development. They may have suffered from moving Fernandinho out of defensive midfield, but there is belief that Rodri will more than improve on his early showings in England. Similarly, the lack of centre back options in 2019/20 are likely to be part of a long-term plan to target a world class player next season.
“One imagines Dayot Upamecano will be high on their list. And they won’t be alone in that. His signing makes far more sense than Kalidou Koulibaly’s for example. As great a defender as he is, to spend that money on a player of his age seems strange when the likes of Upamecano would be potentially available and considerably younger.”
Where else will Guardiola look to adjust and adapt coming into the new season though?
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Nathan Ake had long been coveted by sides at the top end of the Premier League. At any one time each of the top six could have likely signed him. In winning the race for his signature, Man City have captured a capable defender and one that fits Guardiola’s model.
“Ake’s signing isn’t a matter of adding just centre back depth or left back depth. He offers both, and this is something Guardiola wants in a defensive player.”
Ake commits less fouls than Otamendi and even Fernandinho, made more interceptions last season and makes almost double the clearances of Fernandinho, Otamendi and Stones. This of course was in a Bournemouth side that were relegated; requiring him to make more defensive actions than a side that dominate the ball.
Bournemouth’s attacking style however was facilitated by Ake’s ability to play from the back, and for this reason he is a strong presence on the ball. Again, this is a Guardiola pre-requisite. Ake’s position however might not be a fixed one within the team, according to Lee.
“It is unlikely that Ake will play all the time. Instead he will probably rotate with the left centre back and left back. I can imagine a scenario where Pep fields Ake centrally with Fernandinho and Laporte at left back. He likes Laporte at left back as he inverts his runs better than when Mendy plays there. Against a side that sit and defend deep, I can imagine this being the case as a means to building more progressively from the back.”
Whether a back four has ever been assembled that can all progress the ball so effectively as this proposed setup, is highly unlikely.
As with Kompany’s departure, David Silva is leaving behind a legacy and role in the club of more than a player. Replacing one of the most highly technical midfielders of a generation is hard enough without having to find a new cog for Guardiola’s rotating attacking machine. Many in Manchester believe the heir to Silva’s throne already plays for the club.
“Phil Foden is almost certainly ready for a starting role in this team. You imagine he will have a twin role, playing on the wings occasionally as well as centrally. Thierry Henry once said that Pep maps every possible rotation and movement out on the pitch for the players to learn, apart from in the final third. There players have free reign to express and create as they wish. Foden is learning his creative craft in that final third. It is likely that he will be groomed to play in those central midfield areas too.”
Many names have been touted to play in Silva’s role on the left of the midfield three. Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele are among those discussed, Aouar offering the more obvious replacement to Silva than the Spurs midfielder.
“Ndombele would be a fascinating one. Guardiola would certainly enjoy his skillset and his ability to break the lines by carrying ball from deep. Quite why Spurs have treated him as they have is staggering” says Lee.
To acquire an exciting young winger such as Ferran Torres for just £20 million is impressive business by City. He has spent most of his career at Valencia on the right wing. However, it is anticipated that Torres will play wide left for City after Leroy Sane’s departure.
“In losing Sane to injury last season, City didn’t have a natural left winger. Sterling is at his best on the right, where he can drift centrally and open up room for the overlapping right back. Playing him on the left meant he was trying to cut inside. This made the pitch narrower and destroyed the wide structure Pep tries to create.
“Similarly, Mahrez does not see the game in the same way from the left so is wasted there. Torres will allow Man City to play directly as they did to Sane, without having express pace he still reads passes and moves beyond the last man well. His combination play is also very good, meaning he can strike a relationship with the left sided ‘8’ and the left back in a similar vein to Sane. He is certainly technically capable of playing the role and finds pockets between the lines brilliantly.”
With City wounded and desperate to hit back at rivals Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp seemingly has one major adjustment in mind; to bring in Thiago Alcantara.
“The perfect example of why Liverpool need Thiago was their Champions League defeat to Napoli. Napoli shut down the channels to progress the ball from midfield to the forwards, and so Salah and Mane received no supply. Thiago would sit deep and make a massive difference to this progression.
“For him to sit alongside Fabinho in a double pivot would make a huge difference to them. Wijnaldum is a covering defender, in that he doesn’t press conventionally. Instead he uses the angle of his running shadow to prevent passing lanes. Jordan Henderson is a more chaotic presser. Thiago does both, and adds passing quality, symptomatic of his Bayern and Barcelona heritage. It would be an excellent signing.”
Are City ready to overthrow Liverpool?
I put the statement to Lee that Liverpool are searching for spare parts for their machine, whereas City need new pieces all together. He agrees.
“I think you’re right. It is unlikely that Liverpool will sign anyone other than Thiago. Their squad building has been brilliant, and this is probably why they didn’t sign Timo Werner. Signing him would mean putting him straight into the starting eleven, and that isn’t something that Liverpool have built towards.”
So, having extensively researched both Klopp and Guardiola’s sides, who is Lee backing to win the league in 2020/21?
“I’m going to have to say Guardiola. He will be hurting after last campaign, and I think his ruthless streak will see him win the league back. Klopp has a different task, to re-motivate his players.”
“If Liverpool had come second last year, I would back them to win it. Both have this bloodthirsty winning mentality that’s sees them come back from setbacks.”
Thank you to Lee Scott for his insight into Guardiola’s Man City. His books ‘Mastering the Premier League: The Tactical Concepts behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City’ and ‘King Klopp: Rebuilding the Liverpool Dynasty” are both available on Amazon.