Pep Guardiola's first week in charge has been a successful one with two wins out of two, kickstarting his tenure at the Manchester club with only one goal conceded and seven goals scored. However, the result against David Moyes' Sunderland at the weekend flew dangerously close to a draw, and who knows what the media would've done with a Mourinho win and a Guardiola draw in the first weekend of the Premier League. With that being said, a lot has been written about the implementation of Guardiola's system and tactics into his new Manchester City team, but what can we take away from the first performance at the Etihad?
"Guardiola is teaching the City players a new language," said Julien Laurens of the The Times' The Game podcast hosted by Gabrielle Marcotti. Laurens spoke about the fact that Guardiola was using Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna as inverted fullbacks in order to create more space on the flanks for the likes of Nolito and Raheem Sterling. The idea behind this is that the extra man, in this case, the fullback, takes up a position in the center of the field so that the wide player can isolate his defender and create a chance from the flank. This requires the fullback to operate beyond their capacity as a traditional defender and be stable on the ball in a midfield position, something that many would agree might be beyond the current ability of any of the City fullbacks with the exception of Aleksander Kolarov.
However, despite Clichy and Sagna's inexperience in their new and more complex roles, Sterling, and to some extent, Nolito, did enjoy some success in chance creation from wide positions. Sterling completed seven take-on's, more than any other player in the Premier League that weekend, and although Nolito didn't look quite as dangerous, still provided a threat to the opposition through his exploitation of space and dribbling. However, there is a disconnect between the stats, the performance, and the result.
Manchester City only won by one goal, and technically didn't score any goals from open play. Sergio Aguero's penalty and a Sunderland own goal made the difference in Pep's first competitive game in charge; slim margins of success decided the contest. It's easy for most fans and pundits to gloss over the result because City ultimately achieved what they wanted, but had the result been a draw, or even a loss, the headlines would've been brimming with pieces on whether Guardiola could even succeed in England at all. The xG (expected goals) rating gives us a true understanding of how City lacked in end product.
The graphic above shows a minor difference in actual threat through examining the quality of the shots on target, but the bare bones statistics add a third narrative to the result. Manchester City completed 681 passes and held 76.9% of possession against Sunderland. The possession was not meaningless, 16 shots on target with one forced own goal and a penalty plus observational analysis shows that the play wasn't stagnant in the final third. City effectively dominated the flow of the game, and as a result won, but if they dominated possession, penetrated effectively, and created opportunities, why could they score on their own? The answer may lie within the post-match press conference.
Pep Guardiola spoke about the buildup to his play as a big part of his selection concerning the lineup, and if we look at the Pep system at his previous clubs, the buildup is essential in the play he seeks to implement.
"That’s why I decided with that, we create a good buildup, with Willy with John with Kolarov and Fernandinho we made an amazing buildup, because for the short time we work together they did it really really well."
The importance of starting with the ball at the back and drawing opposing players out of position while exposing them through complex positional rigidity and intelligent passing is a cornerstone of his philosophy, and although the play and passing was adequate for the majority of the game, there were moments where that was interuptted, and ultimatley had an effect at the attacking end.
In summation, the signs are encouraging. This 'juego de posición' style is one of the most difficult styles to implement into a team, but the possession, the passing, the spacing, the nuances of the system are already starting to materialize. Results like the 5-0 against FC Steaua Bucharest show that this team is dangerous, it's simply a matter of working the kinks out of the whole system so that it can be effective against even the highest caliber opponents.