Pep Guardiola has a tendency for adapting to the overarching environment. The Catalan tactician brought superlative football to both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, though each team had its own unique tactical identity that reflected its history and culture. And, on the basis of his work with Manchester City so far, it appears Guardiola is establishing his own version of perfect Premier League football.
Marti Perarnau, who authored two books – Pep Confidential and Pep Evolution – that focused predominantly on Guardiola’s time in Germany, discussed the manager’s proclivity for modifying his tactics to fit the circumstances. “Germany has changed him in his approach to work, he’s more efficient, more German,” Perarnau told City Watch Podcast. “Pep has adapted very much in Munich, he has added new player ideas, he has constructed a new vision of himself as a coach. [He] now is more eclectic.”
Just as Guardiola leaves his own imprint upon the team he manages and the league they play in, he also tends to absorb bits of the footballing ideals surrounding him. Hence the differences between his Bayern and Barcelona sides, such as use of a more traditional centre-forward in Robert Lewandowski with the former compared to his use of a false nine in Lionel Messi with the latter.
Guardiola spoke of his need to adapt to the Premier League earlier this season. “I try to play in one way all my career and here … it is not allowed,” he told Sky Sports in December. “Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt.”
While his Manchester City side currently lie eight points behind league leaders Chelsea, they are already beginning to form the perfect mixture of Guardiola’s specific tenets and the Premier League’s general style of play in a number of aspects.
The Premier League has gained renown for its high tempo, at times even chaotic, football. Relentless back and forth games with little established control are regular sightings in the English top tier, and it isn’t easy for players and coaches to get to grips with.
However, rather than rage against the chaos, Guardiola seems to be embracing it, and even incorporating it within his own team.
In terms of the player profile Guardiola has gone with at Manchester City, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are perhaps the best examples. Both are extremely mobile, athletic, have quick feet and relish attacking space, and it is no coincidence that both have also been two of the club’s most important individuals this season.
As well as utilising fast footballers, Guardiola has emphasised purposeful possession. Like his Barcelona and Bayern teams before, his Manchester City dominate the ball; indeed they average more possession – 60.8 per cent – than any other Premier League side. However, this is not the ultra-patient, probing passing seen in other teams that enjoy the majority of possession, but a quicker, more incisive form of possession aimed at constantly trying to open up the opposition.
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Considering the frenetic and physical nature of the Premier League, many games can turn into games of almost constant transition as teams look to counter each other over and over again. Again, rather than turn his nose up at the tactical environment in which he now resides, Guardiola has welcomed it, made it a key part of his own team’s game, and sought to perfect it.
Manchester City’s transition play is a major aspect of their success this term. Not only are they now a brutally efficient counter-attacking team, but they are also an immediately insatiable counter-pressing one too.
Few teams can turn defensive situations into attacking opportunities like Guardiola’s side can. With the aforementioned pace of the likes of Sane and Sterling, as well as Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, they are dangerous from the moment they win the ball back. This quality is shown statistically by the fact that no team in the Premier League has scored more than Manchester City’s four from counter-attacks, a number only matched by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea.
And, in moments when possession has been given away, Guardiola’s side are quick in attempting to win it back. This is seen in the images below, taken from Manchester City’s recent 2-0 win over Sunderland.
The first image shows the position of nearby players when Aguero gives the ball away to a Sunderland defender, while the second image shows the same players’ positions mere seconds later, putting pressure on the opposing ball-receiver. Their reaction is instant and fast as they look to counter-press and win back possession right after giving it away.
Manchester City’s approach to winning the ball back immediately after giving it away also acts as a portrayal of their aggression in defending. The Premier League has a thing for applying pressure and being active defensively, as opposed to remaining passive and focused on retention of shape.
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Guardiola has accepted this, with one of his side’s best performances of the season coming in a 2-2 home draw against Tottenham where they pressed intensely high up the pitch in an attempt to force turnovers from their visitors.
Guardiola has also occasionally opted for the British preference of man-orientated marking when defending. Against Chelsea, he lined his Manchester City side up to essentially mark man-to-man to try and generate constant pressure on the opposition. And, while the tactic didn’t lead to a win (Chelsea won 3-1) it did showcase Guardiola’s willingness to adapt.
There are a number of Premier League pundits who have an obsession with getting the ball wide and getting crosses into the box. Failing to see that many intelligent teams will leave the flanks vacant defensively in order to remain compact and force their opposition away from the centre of the pitch, these pundits encourage attacking the space out wide. However, they have found a friend in Guardiola, who has made width a crucial component in his team’s style.
While he isn’t quite so interested in piling up the cross statistics, his Manchester City are focused on exploiting the pace and skill of Sterling and Sane by having them retain relatively wide positions. By doing this, the players can isolate themselves and get into one-on-one situations which, with their aforementioned attributes, they are highly likely to win. And they also stretch the opposition’s defensive structure laterally, creating more space centrally for penetrative forward passes.
Only six Premier League sides have attacked the flanks more than Guardiola’s Manchester City. This is yet another example of the coach altering his own ideas to the league’s style. And, in all of these slight modifications, he may soon produce the ultimate Premier League team.