The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Manchester City Under Pep Guardiola
Dink. Dribble. Pass. Pass. Erupt. The penultimate sounds of what many already consider to be one of the most exciting games in Champions League history. 5–3. 8 goals. Not something we’re used to seeing at what is universally considered the highest level of football. But we should’ve seen this coming, right? If there’s one thing we can readily associate with Pep Guardiola, it’s goals, and Monaco under Leonardo Jardim have set Ligue 1 ablaze with their attacking inspiration this season, leading the line with over 100 goals across all competitions. However, we’ve seen this before from City under Guardiola. They’re the loosest, most fragile glass cannon that currently exists in world football. At a moment’s notice able to down the likes of Monaco and an in-form Barcelona with textbook chance creation and shifting positional overloads with the same ease that they’re decimated by Everton. This begs the question, why are Manchester City like this?
As opposed to simply boiling it down to, “the Premier League is just harder,” and pandering to the analysis of former players and Premier League praisers, we’ll be diving into the X’s and O’s that encompass Pep Guardiola’s philosophy. Crazy, I know.
With results varying at such a large scale for Manchester City, it’s difficult to get a grasp of what exactly goes wrong for the sky blues and what goes right. Their flying start to the season seemingly confirmed the idea that Guardiola was footballing intelligence incarnate, and that he and his ideas would sweep the English game aside just as he and his powder blue pawns were sweeping aside their Premier League competition. Dark clouds soon approached, however, and rained on the Catalan’s parade. Soon enough, peerless Pep was without a win in six, and a comfortable 2–0 defeat to Spurs casted doubts over whether Guardiola could succeed in his latest and greatest challenge.
A little over four months later and a lot has happened. Amongst a rekindling of their attacking efficacy, conceding plenty of goals, resurrecting a City legend, and coming out of the festive period well within the race for top four with a decent position in the Champions League, it’s clear that Guardiola has had to tinker quite a bit. Conjured up images of a mad scientist that singes off his hair as often as he perfects his bubbling concoctions isn’t exactly the right idea considering the standing across competitions the club has put emphasis on, but the two-time Champions League winning manager has taken, and needs, time to get it right. Despite the squad’s display of relative equilibrium recently, if you can call it that, there are still some glaring team deficiencies that have been present throughout.
Though the majority of these issues manifest themselves as ‘defensive problems,’ understanding the system as a whole will illuminate the dark cave that is defensive analysis and specifically the pitch black sub-sect of said cave known as Manchester City’s defending under Guardiola.
The two core concepts Manchester City utilize in their defensive approach are counter pressing actions and limiting the relevant field of play through a high line. These core concepts are essential to the functionality of the entire system because of the way in which Manchester City choose to go forward.
“I want the ball. I’m always going to try and have the ball”.
Pep Guardiola’s affinity for possession is no secret, but his reasons for wanting to do so on such a consistent level are what seem to be up for debate. Dominating possession allows the team to more efficiently perform various types of positional overloads, manipulating the opponent through passing actions and exploiting their defensive reactions. Examples of positional manipulations include quantitive overloads that allow for isolation on the opposing side of the field, quantitive under loading that provokes pressing actions, and expanding the relevant field of play in possession to create gaps in defensive systems.
Guardiola’s various offensive techniques seek to expose and create chances against ‘packed-in’ defenses because that’s the most common form of obstacle his teams tend to come up against. His affinity for possession, is, in his mind, the most intelligent way to structure one’s team. Striving for the domination of possession, in theory, allows for his teams to stick with the same style of football regardless of the opponent. Whereas other managers who successfully coach off-ball tactics can sometimes encounter difficulty when facing more defensively oriented systems, a la Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool for example, Guardiola’s general approach to a game never changes.
This offensively minded philosophy doesn’t come without its caveat’s, however. Overloading different areas of the pitch and having enough support in forward areas to keep the ball for the majority of the game requires more outfield players to position themselves in offensive areas. Often, Manchester City only have two players holding the offside line, and that line is usually quite high. Limiting the exploitation of their line falls within the responsibility of a well oiled ‘Gegenpresse’ or counter press. The primary goal of any counter pressing action is to force the initial pass of the team on the ball towards their own goal so as to limit the exposure the recently dispossessed team can be subjected to by their advanced numbers.
Though there have been obvious exposures of Manchester City’s defensive line, it needs to be understood that the two defensive tactics go hand in hand. Long ball tactics never trouble the defensive set up if even the most basic principle of the counter press is achieved. The overall discipline of the players, the area in which the ball is lost, and the success of the pressing action are all factors that work against long ball tactics. The positioning of the line also helps the press in its ability to cover ground by determining the relevant size of the pitch. Defending a small area is easier than defending a larger one, but it’s about finding the balance between expanding the pitch in possession so that retaining the ball is easier, and closing the spaces in effective ways when the ball is lost.
Some hold the opinion that the exploitations of systems like Guardiola’s are easily achieved by long ball football, but their analysis fails to account for the fact that there’s a very limited window of time, amongst other things, that allows for a dangerous ball to reach onrushing attackers.
Take Sevilla’s first leg against Leicester City in the Champions League for example. Sevilla under Jorgé Sampaoli plays a similar style of positional football that requires the advancement of many outfield players. Leicester City, the quintessential ‘long ball team’ tried to utilize their favored tactic yet enjoyed little success due to the manner in which they chose to do so. Their distribution from deep was aimless and hopeful as opposed to calculated and guided. Simply lumping a long pass forward won’t accomplish much, even with the pace and tenacity of someone like Jamie Vardy. Hone that distribution and refine the manner in which the ball is played and you have a domineering, seemingly miraculous, performance against Liverpool just a few days later.
So, the obvious follow-up question is whether the defensive tactics deployed are sufficient as a defensive system for Guardiola, and if so why hasn’t this been working to the same level that it has in previous situations?
Looking at the primary aspect of what is essential in the prevention of conceding goals, City, along with other pressing outfits like Liverpool, concede fewer shots per game. At 7.8 and 8 per game respectively, the dual sided tactic does a solid job at limiting the number of chances opponents can create, yet they’re being scored on more frequently because the shots that do make it through are often of a greater quality. In fact, of the top six teams, Manchester City have the fewest shots faced per game, yet have the second most goals conceded behind, you guessed it, Liverpool.
One factor that many may deem is consistent within these two clubs is the performance of their goalkeepers. Claudio Bravo, Loris Karius, and Simon Mignolet have all been slated at different points throughout the season for what has been interpreted as sub-par goalkeeping. While I’m not here to jump to the fervent defense of any of these shot stoppers, (largely because there’s still a debate about shot quality, save difficulty, and many other factors that have and have not been discussed), suggesting they’re a sole, or even majority, contributing factor as to why these teams concede so frequently is reductionist.
The data visualization pictured above was created when Manchester City were going through their streak of six games without a win, and it illuminates how dangerous it can be when the press isn’t achieving its primary objective. Since then, Guardiola has more frequently included the likes of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané in conjunction with Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, and either Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus as the striker. The youth, energy and tactical nous of his current front five has allowed for better press success and thus fewer goals conceded with more goals scored. However, issues from the defensive line remain.
Guardiola’s usage of the counter press as a key component in his overall system isn’t new. We’ve seen elements of it during his time at Barcelona, but the more fitting comparison was his system at Bayern Munich. What makes many confused is the fact that Bayern was one of the best defensive teams in Europe under Guardiola regarding goals conceded. So, what’s the deal? Without pandering to the narrative that there is a massive gulf in quality between the Bundesliga and the Premier League, there are a few key points that separate Manchester City and Bayern of yesteryear.
Midfield Manny and Harrying Javi
Manuel Neuer was a key player for Pep Guardiola in possession because of the way he was able to exploit the current laws of the game. Though the German World Cup winner was imperious between the sticks throughout Pep’s tenure, the former Schalke man was arguably more important because of the way he could limit the areas in which teams could counter by positioning himself in the defensive half spaces. Guardiola’s usage of Neuer as an extra defender circumvented the laws of the game by having a defender to cover the backfield, without actually using a defender. Teams would send the ball long, and, often, whether it was aimless or with some purpose, Neuer would be there to collect, disrupt, or intercept on a consistent basis.
Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot mentions a particular World Cup 2014 match in which Germany played Algeria; a well-documented instance of his outfield versatility. Germany piled players forward in an attempt to break down the deep defensive block Algeria had constructed, leaving themselves open at the back. To no surprise when Algeria did manage an attempt to counter attack with their pacey forwards, Neuer was there every single time without fail.
The second aspect of Bayern’s defensive setup that differs from Manchester City’s is less the need for a specific player and more of an ingrained concept that can be best explained through the qualities of some specific players. One of Pep Guardiola’s mentors, Marcelo Bielsa, re-located Javi Martinez from central midfield to the center of defense when ‘El Loco’ managed Bilbao. The reason for the change in position was not because Javi was an inadequate central midfielder, it was because, among other impressive traits that related to verticality and pressing, Martinez possessed the innate understanding of positioning. Often times when teams counter, the backpedaling defensive line can be cut open by a single ball. Players with the tactical understanding of how to either eliminate the situation from occurring in the first place through intelligent positioning or those who can make the correct defensive decisions in the context an offensively minded system tends to create hold extremely high value in teams like Bielsa’s and Guardiola’s.
Guardiola did the same with Martinez when he arrived at Bayern Munich. The move undoubtedly raised eyebrows among Bayern fans and football pundits alike considering the Spaniard’s partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield was the base of the Bavarian’s all-conquering team of the year prior, but the move was essential. Using Martinez, and eventually, the likes of Boateng, who was able to learn from his cohort, allowed Bayern to redefine the term ‘domination.’
The Citizens are clearly missing a Martinez, Medel, Mascherano type player on the field, due to the kind defending they’ll be frequenting. Guardiola has done and will continue to do his best when it comes to maximizing the efficacy of the press, but a reader of the game is ultimately what the team is crying out for, and at the end of the day it is the role that John Stones will likely occupy. Jerome Boateng wasn’t the best defender when Guardiola arrived in Bavaria, but by the time he left you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doubts the towering German. Stones has shown sparks of understanding when it comes to passing decisions and in-game application, especially when implementing the essential tactic of creating space by drawing the opposition out through deep possession, but he’s hardly the finished article. In time and with more experience with Guardiola and the type of non-traditional defending he’ll be subjected to, Stones has a solid chance of blossoming into the kind of player they want and need.
Our perception of Pep Guardiola’s time at Manchester City, just like any coaches tenure at any job, will be entirely dependent on the palpable success he has with the club. Whether or not he’ll live up to those lofty expectations remains to be seen, but what is guaranteed is the spectacle football fans can all undoubtedly enjoy. Though I hate to indulge upon the opinions of proper footballing men and their claims of Premier League superiority, it’s difficult to argue against the depth of the tiny island’s most prominent league. However, this truth only enhances the possibility of what could come of Catalonian success. Though the debate of nature versus nurture will always go on, many would tend to agree that one’s surroundings define the product, and the Premier League has produced many a reactive minded champion. While Pep’s success is far from guaranteed, a proactive system that takes the much yearned for crown is something we’re likely to remember.