A ball slithers past the final line after Raheem Sterling's close control makes quick work of the angry Spanish keeper. Pep Guardiola's passing heavy philosophy seems to be finally coming to fruition after a brilliant first half against City's bogey team of yesteryear. The performance wasn't perfect, but anyone who has watched Bayern or Barcelona teams of the past few years were sent down memory lane on Sunday as Manchester City's star-studded team sheet passed and moved their way into the opposing goal. Though only positive results are on the competitive record of Guardiola's tenure in Manchester, it's obvious that this is the first performance where the end product was a result of a quantified math problem that Pep Guardiola intends to solve each and every time his team steps out onto the field. With that realization, let's have a look at the specific tactical concepts the Catalan seeks to employ.
The formation, though it is often presented as a 4-3-3 on the pre-match graphic, transforms into a 3-2-5. There are various nuances to the correct implementation of the functioning formation, but some of the more important ones are attacking and defending with five, width, midfield ball retention, and movement. All of these key aspects, combined with positional discipline, high work rate, and counter-pressing, make up the Guardiola playing philosophy at Manchester City.
Normal vs functional formation progression under Guardiola pic.twitter.com/Vun1M2WsCK— Nick Morales (@Nico_OMorales) August 29, 2016
In possession, the back line is converted from a back four to a back three, with two ball carriers sitting in front. This back three gives the central defenders an adequate number of passing options from their natural positions while allowing a sufficient number of players for forward support. John Stones usually sits at the tip of the back three and distributes the ball to one of two advancing players; either a fullback who is using the width of the field as a method of transition, or, more commonly, one of the defenders will play a pass to one of the two carriers that sit in front of the back three. These ball carriers will then look to play a pass to an ever-shifting front five. The front five will consist of three players in the middle who will move in and out, either checking to the ball or making a run in behind, in addition to the wide players who will seek to hold the width. The width kept by the wide players keeps at least two defenders occupied, and the back line stretched.
The fullbacks in the back four transition to inner midfield positions once the ball is moved forward so that the wide players can be isolated with their defender. Isolating the opposing defenders with quick wingers gives the team the best possibility for chance creation from the flanks. Guardiola will also often switch the wingers at halftime, throwing the opposing defender for a loop if they've started to become used to the play style of the previous player.
The 3-2-5 shape becomes even more relevant to the purpose of the system when playing the ball out of the back. Often times a few passes can take several opposing players out of the equation, leaving City with positive numbers on the offensive end of the field. The importance of passing through almost every situation is underlined so heavily in Guardiola's tactics because of the advantageous position it often puts the team in when it is executed correctly. It's a tactic that is extremely effective against teams that will seek to sit in and try to create a defensive block. Holding the possession further up the field can draw the other team out of position, making the positional discipline maintained by the wide players even more effective.
In terms of defensive tactics, Guardiola's objective when implementing the counter press is entirely different than that of Klopp or Pochettino. While these managers seek to create offensive chances through a quick and instinctive counter press once possession is lost, Guardiola's primary objective is simply to reacquire possession and settle back into the offensive shape. This isn't to say his teams will never move forward if the ball is won back in a dangerous position, but the majority of the time possession is simply recycled back to the defenders, and the shape is restructured.
As stated before, Guardiola always seeks to attack and defend with five players, and when you look at the shape of the formation, it's quite obvious to see how easily it can be implemented. There is a focus on not losing possession in the center of the field, but if it is, the closest players will press, and everyone else would fall back and fill in the back line.
Counter press example pic.twitter.com/IE3bWs9UWO— Nick Morales (@Nico_OMorales) August 29, 2016
The major point of weakness for this Manchester City team lies within their set pieces. Due to the average height of the team being five foot nine, the lowest average height in the premier league, Guardiola has decided to implement zonal over man-marking tactics for defensive set pieces. Zonal marking is infamously harder to implement over simple man marking because it requires defenders to cover a zone rather than a man. Things can get complicated when those zones are shifting with nine or ten other players to worry about, but so far the sky blues seem to be handling it well.
These concepts round the team out and promise to make Manchester City a real contender amongst Europe's best, but it's important to remember that this team is still a work in progress. An article written by Carlo Ancelotti makes an interesting point about the contrasting play styles of the modern era.
"It is a simple truth that if you want a team to play out from the back, to build the play patiently, then that takes hours on the training pitch to develop and refine unless, like Spain, you have a group of players who have been doing it all their lives. A more simple approach is to set your side up to play counter-attacking football. You organise your defence well and you coach your players to soak up the pressure from the opposition, then you hit them on the break with quick strikers who are prepared to run."
The point here being that though this system takes more time to implement than other play styles, Manchester City have just begun scratching the surface in regards to the potential results, yet they're still achieving the desired outcomes. What could be accomplished when the team realizes it's full potential, only time will tell.