How Pep Guardiola took Manchester City to the top

February 6, 2018

With less than a third of the Premier league season to go, there is little doubt who will win. In his second season at the Etihad, Pep Guardiola has produced a Manchester City team that has swept all before it, playing a brand of football that has simultaneously thrilled fans with its invention and strangled the life out of opponents.  

The upshot is that the Premier League is all but in the bag, there is a Carabao Cup final to look forward to, while City are still going strong in the FA Cup and Champions League. Those enjoying corporate hospitality at the Etihad Stadium have been spoilt this year, and it seems much more is to come.

All this is something of a contrast to the previous three years. While it is unquestionably true that the overwhelming factor in the club's rise to success has been the wealth lavished by its owners, the fact remains that the period since 2014 - when Guardioloa's predecessor Manuel Pellegrini marked his first season with a Carling Cup and the Premier League title - has been relatively fallow. One League Cup and no sustained title challenges had been the tale of the last three years, something Guardiola had been unable to change in his first season.

Of course, spending heavily on top class players was a key part of the plan and it is true City have had a bigger budget than the rest. However, it is how it has been invested and the particular style that has been implemented that has made the ultimate difference.  

Guardiola made his name at Barcelona, first as a player, then as a youth team coach before becoming its most successful first team coach. The team was celebrated not just for its victories and the brilliance of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandes, but the possession-based tiki-taka style with which it dominated games. 

Barcelona had already hinted at this under previous coach Frank Rijkaard, but Guardiola added a more effective pressing game, as well as switching Messi from the wing to the 'false nine' role. Neither were new inventions - the 'false nine' could be traced back to Hungary's Nandor Hidegkuti in the 1950s - but they took the team to new heights. A year of playing with a more orthodox number nine - Zlatan Ibrahimovic - was a notable failure, after which everything was built around Messi.

Casual observers may think Guardiola has simply transplanted that same tiki-taka model and created a sky blue clone of it in Manchester. The reality, however, is more subtle.

Firstly, while seen as the ultimate idealist, the Catalan is more flexible than some imagine. When he moved to Bayern Munich, he applied much of the possession and pressing tactics he had in Spain, but with the best old-fashioned centre forward in Europe at his disposal in Robert Lewandowski, had no hesitation in playing him as a number nine. He also used real inverted wingers in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, in contrast with the way he had turned strikers like Samuel Eto'o and David Villa into wide men at Barcelona.

These variations need to be noted because at City Guardiola has not sought to use the false nine. Instead, the use of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane as orthodox modern wingers has been combined with the use of one or even two centre forwards, depending on the form and availability of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero. Equally, however, the dominance of the ball and creative flair is as present as ever through Kevin De Bruyne - surely this season's footballer of the year - and veteran David Silva.

Moreover, while so many features - the ball retention, the comfort on the ball of the goalkeeper and centre backs, the use of speedy wing-backs - are all Guardiola trademarks, there have been adjustments. 

At Barcelona, Luis Enrique tweaked the system he had inherited from Guardiola's successor, the late Tito Vilanova, to place a slightly lower premium on possession and added the capacity to counter-attack with pace. Barcelona's relative lack of height at set-pieces was also addressed with taller signings. These helped Barca win the 2015 Champions League through the brilliance of the front three of Messi, Neymar Jr and Luis Suarez. That team's style was undoubtedly closer to the current Manchester City side than the Barcelona of Guardiola's time. 

The speed of City's counter-attacks has not only brought goals, but has made the high press riskier for opponents. Even the top sides have mostly opted to sit deep and defend - a futile move that invites endless attacks. Liverpool's high press brought City's only domestic defeat so far this season, but few teams are equipped to match that tactic. 

Set-pieces have also proved crucial, with the Manchester Derby being won with two such goals and the need to compete aerially in English football being recognised by the coach. In short, just about all bases are covered.

Indeed, the 2016-17 season was a key learning time for Guardiola. He soon realised his ageing full-backs needed replacing to bolster the wide attacking options, while the erroneous purchase of Claudio Bravo demonstrated that even a team with most of the possession is vulnerable if the goalkeeper is unreliable. 

For all that City have dominated games and are on course to score 100 Premiership goals, Ederson has made some crucial saves at times, including a last-minute penalty at Selhurst Park that prevented Crystal Palace inflicting their first Premiership defeat.

When Pep Guardiola arrived in Manchester, many questioned whether his methods would work in the hurly-burly of English football. The fact that Swansea City had successfully played in a similar way under Brendan Rodgers using less talented players suggested that they would. 

Now, however, the questions have been answered. English football is being conquered. It only remains to be seen if Europe will follow.

Image: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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