“Pep rotated his players in this formation and his idea was not to run too much with the ball, rather, pass to the teammates, then adjust the respective positions and open up space and thereby contribute productively”
It was 1-1 at the Etihad Stadium with just ten minutes remaining. And in those ten minutes, the Wolves experienced the City of Pep Guardiola at their ruthless best. With a relentless thrust, they bombarded towards the goal of the Wolves and struck thrice to make the score-sheet look like a thumping victory.
First, Jesus turned home Kyle Walker’s cross from the right, then Mahrez was set up by Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling before Jesus turned home a Rui Patricio parry in added time as City powered 15 points clear at the top with a 4-1 win.
Manchester City’s record sequence of victories now stands at 21.
They also equaled a club record 28 matches unbeaten, can dream of surpassing Bayern Munich’s record mark of 23 straight wins for Europe’s top five leagues. They are leaving second-placed Manchester United way behind with 11 games left and even if Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team wins the upcoming Derby, it would not bother Pep at all.
In this season, till now, Pep and his boys have been invincible and despite the scratchy start to the season how the genius transformed the whole team into a brute force remains a matter of interest to many.
Pep tweaked his tactics and such sort of changes is nothing new from the master.
Pep started the season with a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Kevin de Bruyne started at the number 10 position and operated with a false nine because of fitness issues with Kun Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. Either Mendy or Joao Cancelo would operate as the left-back and Kyle Walker as the right.
Mendy and Cancelo are full-backs who moved higher up the pitch and switched to the more central areas leaving spaces, which was shielded by Walker with the two central defenders – John Stones and Ruben Dias – a 3-men defensive line would be created and in front, Gundogan formed the second pivot along with Rodri.
Now with Walker – the full-back know for advancing higher, lying alongside defence, Riyad Mahrez had to cut back inside the right and position himself behind the false nine and aid. This move would shape the midfield in flat 4-men standing in front of 3-men defence: Mendy or Cancelo on the left, Gundogan and De Bruyne at the center of the park, and Walker guarding the right zone with Rodri joining the defenders to form the 3-men defence.
City lost the creative power upfront.
Raheem Sterling, positioned on the left, would wait for the ball from the flanks – Mendy or from the deep – Gundogan and move out and inside the opposition penalty area. The movement of Sterling forced Bernardo Silva- often played as the false nine – drop deep and allow De Bruyne to advance higher.
Players moved in between the lines during the final third but lacked the cutting edge because the there was a bit of disharmony during switching the positions and breaking the defensive lines became tough – which allowed the opponents to regain possession and counter during the break.
Yes, such a tactic did bring results, but to win the title during this hectic schedule and season of injuries and COVID-19 setbacks, Pep thought about boosting the consistency level and become untouchable.
He switched back to the 4-3-3 formation – to be specific it was a 4-1-2-3 formation.
Cancelo moved to the right-back position and Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left.
The likes of De Bryune and Gundogan were given the roles at which they are more comfortable and started with the wingers staying wide. Rodri was like a genuine pivot and allowed Gundogan to advance higher.
The number nine in the form of Gabriel Jesus stayed a tad deeper to cope with the movement of his teammates.
The advancement of Gudogan higher up the pitch added a new dimension to the City shape.
His presence positively impacted the team’s ability to overload the horizontal zone upfront.
This was vital to the team to play the ball behind the opposition midfield by creating decisional dilemmas.
It was never easy for a defensive midfielder to switch to an offensive role, but Pep is well aware of the attacking intent of Gundogan and when given the role, he adopted it beautifully. Especially, his utilization of half-spaces paid rich dividends.
But before this, comes the build-up: as soon as the City keeper releases the ball and the center-backs start building the full-backs moved to the midfield and stayed firm in their respective positions with the pivot in the middle.
This position allowed the wingers like Phil Foden, Sterling, Silva, or Mahrez to stay wider – interestingly, Sterling is used as an inverted winger; while Foden’s strong left-foot was exploited more.
When the wingers came under pressure, the full-backs advanced for the shield act and ensured the wingers orchestrate the inswinging cross from the angle to the center. If the left-back’s fluid movement allowed inswingers then the right-back’s one would ensure the teeing up between Gundogan and the winger, which would draw the players towards them and open the half-spaces to exploit for the number 9 and players like De Bruyne.
And when the left-hand side is overloaded, the pivot gains the passion and passes the ball to the free winger on the right, who creates havoc and vice versa.
When the opposition regained possession and pressed – Pep did not defend with the previously used 4-4-2 where four players stayed firmed in the midfield, rather, the shape was changed to 2-3-5, where the center-backs stayed back firm and three players – two full-backs and the pivot shielded the back from the midfield – they have contributed more in tackling and an interception.
2-3-5 is a shape with which the teams attack more often, but Pep is using it to ensure solidity when the ball is lost.
Pep rotated his players in this formation and his idea was not to run too much with the ball, rather, pass to the teammates, then adjust the respective positions and open up space and thereby contribute productively.
This has instilled the rhythm, which is becoming hard for the opponents to overcome.
Pep is a master tactician and under pressure, his plans have reaped a rich harvest for Manchester City.