After a slow start to the season, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are flying high and look like the most realistic title contenders as things stand. Interestingly enough, they’ve been playing without a natural striker, making Pep Guardiola’s side all the more tactically intriguing. With inverted fullbacks, possession-based football, and goals galore, Manchester City have been a joy to watch in recent months. This is RDF's x TheMasterMind latest Tactical Analysis into the mind of Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City team in 2020-21.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3
As customary for a Pep Guardiola side, Manchester City haven’t exactly had a set starting eleven this season. However, in their recent resurgence, a few key figures have emerged, along with a consistent formation. The Portuguese fullback has been one of City’s best players this season, contributing the most tackles and interceptions to the team. Further forward he’s also had an impact, creating 2 chances per game, to which only Mahrez and De Bruyne have created more. John Stones and Ruben Dias have also received much in the way of praise for their recent performances
Ahead of the back-four, Rodrigo’s finally fulfilling his Fernandinho promise but has been massively helped by his partnership in midfield with Ilkay Gundogan, an excellent ball-playing midfield maestro. With a natural ‘6’, ‘8’ and ’10’ in their line-up, City can chop and change their 4-3-3 to seamlessly transition into a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, or their 2-3-5 with inverted fullbacks as part of the ‘3’. That natural number ’10’ in their line-up also happens to be City’s best player, Kevin de Bruyne, who himself could play anywhere on the pitch to aid in their title quest. The Belgian international has scored 3 goals with 10 assists so far, creating 3.2 chances per game.
Guardiola’s front three has been less consistent, including nine different players fulfilling the role as the striker during matches in the league this season. Ferran Torres, Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, and Riyad Mahrez have all played the part As a result, we’ve gone with Bernardo Silva, to concentrate on, upfront, who can also play as a Kevin de Bruyne replacement in midfield, or fulfill either role on the wing. So those are the players. Now let’s talk about how City have used their players to achieve much in the way of success this season, en route to a Premier League title chase.
PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACK
Pep Guardiola’s teams always have a strong desire to play out from the back and have done so over the years in various ways. Manchester City’s key method of build-up is inverted fullbacks, as already discussed. With the fullbacks often abandoning their wide position, it’s important that the central diamond of Ederson, Stones, Dias, and Rodrigo keep hold of the ball. Pep Guardiola has a widely talked about the philosophy that states it takes about fifteen passes for a team to unbalance the other. City don’t rush forward with long passes over the top. Instead, they keep hold of the ball, with all eleven players in constant cahoots over where to exploit space. The depth that City achieve in build-up phases is also important, with all eleven players in relatively close proximity to the ball and in a reasonable enough position to receive should they be required to.
It seems nearly impossible to mention anything to do with City’s tactics under Pep Guardiola without mentioning his use of ‘inverted fullbacks’. The primary reason for this tactic is to create overloads in central areas, while simultaneously stretching the field wider. Now it might seem complicated to achieve both of those things at the same time, but it’s actually quite simple how City manage to achieve both width and centrality through their inverted fullbacks. As opposition players drift in-field themselves to try and mitigate the presence of the inverted wing-back, more room opens up in the wide areas for City to exploit. It’s important to note here that despite the inverted approach from the fullbacks, the wingers generally remain very wide for City, hugging the touchline at every opportunity.
As you can see in our example image, it then becomes very difficult for opposition teams to assess exactly how and where to cover the space and how to effectively pressure the ball. If for example, the left fullback on the blue team covers Mahrez, Cancelo and/or De Bruyne might have more space to advance into. If the blue central midfielder abandons De Bruyne to pressure Cancelo, a number of different players could exploit that space. It’s also not as though City’s fullbacks are never wide in build-up phases. To say that would be untrue. On goal kicks, they might even start wide and then drift in-field as City progress with the ball, or they may invert one at a time, attempting to gain an overload on one specific wide area of the field (the opposite one from the inverted fullback).
VERTICALITY & SPACE INTERPRETING
All of City’s players are masters of the art when it comes to interpreting space. Much of that space interpreting comes in central areas, especially when they are trying to play through their opposition and find a route to goal. With the eight outfielders plus Ederson that operate in these areas during City’s build-up, no other team in the league has adopted a more vertical approach to their attack this season (29% of attacks).
Their inverted fullbacks are critical to this verticality, which in turn opens up greater avenues for Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne to receive in space. If Cancelo is unable to find de Bruyne or Gundogan in the example, he can go wide for Mahrez to hold the ball and find the two of them in space later on. He can also find the false nine, as the two midfield men make runs in behind. City’s use of inverted fullbacks isn’t just about the fullbacks. It’s about opening up greater space in between the lines for Gundogan and de Bruyne to receive, something the team and the two players as individuals have done to a magnificent effect this season. It’s also important to note that the lack of a natural number nine has opened up more emphasis for Gundogan and de Bruyne to push forward. Both are incredibly astute at finding space, but have greater license to find space higher up the pitch and create goal-scoring opportunities due to City’s lack of a striker.
MAN CITY IN NUMBERS
Manchester City are a dominant side and that comes with no surprise. Creatively, they have been superb and have created the most Shot-Actions so far, with 566 Shot-Creating Actions (25.73 per 90) and also have the 2nd highest xG in the Premier League, with xG 42.4 (1.93 per 90). The three main ways City create their chances are by live-ball passes, dribbling, and defensive actions that led to a shot. Live-Ball Pass: 412 (most in the league) Dribbles that led to a shot: 51 (most in the league) Defensive actions that led to a shot: 15 (3rd highest in the league) In possession, they also like to dominate and no other side has completed more passes than Manchester City so far this season. Defensively, Manchester City are very solid too and they have a very good press but statistically, that may not show as they're constantly on the ball so naturally, defensive statistics such as tackles won or pressures made will be low. Average Possession: Short Passes Completed: 5779 (most in the league)
Through Balls: 38 (most in the league) Dribbles Attempted: 499 (most in the league)
Touches in Final 1/3: 5141 (2nd in the league)
Tackles Won: 211 (14th in the league)
Tackles in Final 1/3: 50 (7th in the league) Pressures Attempted: 2400 (lowest in the league)
Successful Pressures in Final 1/3: 720 (6th in the league) Stats provided by Fbref
With some crucial games coming up in the next few weeks, Manchester City could begin to run away from the rest of the pack if they continue their impressive unbeaten run. But even if they don’t, you can expect to watch some tactically intriguing football, including inverted fullbacks, exceptional build-up, and smooth defensive transitions to win the ball back quickly. As if it were even possible, Manchester City have improved this season under Pep Guardiola, despite not having a natural number nine in the side for the majority of their games. The manager deserves an immense amount of credit for this.