Pep Guardiola has been a manager known for this tactical innovation since his time at Barcelona. Though his trademark style of play has persevered through it all, we have seen Guardiola process through variety of formations and strategies just during his time with Manchester City. Under Pep, the Blues have showcased everything from a traditional 4-3-3 to the 3-5-2 that dominated early last season, with variations of each shape mixed in.
Ultimately, the inverted fullback look has been a fixture in recent memory, roughly illustrated by a standard 4-3-3 in defense melding into a 3-2-5 going forward where a fullback tucks inside to the defensive midfield.
But Pep Guardiola has introduced a new wrinkle to his tactics that maintains this most recent shape, but changes the transition required between the offensive and defensive structures of it.
Against Arsenal, Guardiola sent out a backline that included Fernandinho as the right-sided center back. This in itself is not unusual, Pep has shifted defensive midfielders into the backline before, most notably with Javier Mascherano at Barcelona. But the interesting aspect of Fernandinho’s position is that he was the member of the backline that stepped into the midfield when City were on the front foot.
Fernandinho’s movement out of the backline into the midfield happened quickly, as early as the third minute of the match yet persisted for the full ninety. You could see the Brazilian directing right back Kyle Walker to shift in behind to create the now three-man backline in City’s familiar 3-2-5 going forward.
In isolation, the genesis of this tactic seemed to be in Guardiola’s trust in Fernandinho’s ability to handle the defensive responsibilities of a center back, while simultaneously allowing more natural positioning throughout the lineup in attacking sets. It gave City the ability to get an extra midfielder on the field without having to sacrifice or adjust in any defensive sense.
It also made the player movement from backline to midfield, and vice versa, more efficient. Shifting forward from the center back position doesn’t require much, if any, lateral movement, so the swing player retreating back into the desired defensive shape is already in the correct vertical channel. In comparison, a fullback in midfield would not only have to track back to defend a counter, but also get himself out into his wide position.
To be fair, I’m not even sure what the proper terminology would be for this type of a role, so for the time being I’m going to refer to it as a false center back.
Originally, the false center back position struck me as something that Guardiola would only trust to Fernandinho. Intuitively, he’s the only player on the City squad who has the offensive and defensive capabilities to be successful in this dual role. But this assumption was proven to be incorrect the next time Manchester City took the field.
Manchester City were back on the pitch only a few days later in the midweek against Everton at Goodison Park. The starting eleven included four defenders, three of which being natural center backs. It appeared to be a return to a traditional backline or inverted fullback look, with right back Kyle Walker expected to be the swing player into the midfield.
My expectation was proven wrong quickly, with right-sided center back John Stones moving into the midfield in the exact same manner as Fernandinho in the Arsenal match.
Manchester City actually didn’t go to this tactic until the 26th minute. This would leave us to believe it wasn’t a tenant of the pregame strategy as it clearly was with the Arsenal match. But Guardiola did opt to use it during a point in the match when Everton were having their best run of play, and then continued its use throughout.
Moreover, having Stones be the swing man instead of Walker is a clear indication that Guardiola likes the movement from center back into midfield, independent of the player occupying that position. Though Stones has been tested in the midfield before this season, it has been the fullback that has routinely been inverted, so changing the responsibility is noteworthy.
Seeing Guardiola use this on multiple occasions is a promising development. This motion doesn’t affect the desired team shape in either direction, but also cleans up the recovery in transition, often where City is most vulnerable.
This movement does beg a number of questions however.
What players will be trusted to play as a false center back? Conventional wisdom would suggest that only Fernandinho and Stones would suffice, but it’s hard to rule anything out with Pep. Also, despite being a few years away, Eric Garcia strikes me as a player who could eventually fit perfectly in this type of role.
How often will this tactic be used? It’s difficult to say for sure, but it’s use does diminish City’s fullback depth concerns as it creates a clear fit for Aymeric Laporte at left back. Though it’s safe to say it won’t be a strategic staple going forward, especially considering Guardiola reverted to a traditional backline against Chelsea last weekend.
Regardless of the intricacies within this specific tactic, one thing that is for certain is that adding this element to their repertoire makes City even more difficult for opposing managers to prepare for. It’s changes like this that make this team so unpredictable leading up to games and provides an additional layer for Guardiola to fill in a perceived weakness.
One of the most interesting destinations for the false center back role moving forward could be a four-man backline completely absent of fullbacks. The possibility of seeing Laporte, Otamendi, Fernandinho, and Stones line up from left to right is enticing. It will once again put the Brazilian in the false center back position with three natural central defenders dropping in as City move forward in the 3-2-5. On top of that, Stones and Laporte have both seem time as wide defenders for the Blues in the past. As a lineup, this collection of players may constitute the strongest passing lineup Pep Guardiola could field, especially while Benjamin Mendy is unfit to play.
What the future holds for the false center back position with Manchester City is unclear, but you can count on Pep Guardiola to have it in his back pocket when needed, and for him to always keep innovating.