“We always play boxes in training,” Kevin De Bruyne explained to Jamie Redknapp in a sit down interview last month. He continued “five v two, six v two...if you can do that good, then you can play good in a game.” In emphasizing passing triangles and player overloads throughout the field, we see manager Pep Guardiola’s training methods applied to match play by his Manchester City side. At the beginning of the season, we discussed the varied ways in which managers drill their sides into shape in training, but rarely is it made to look as easy as City have made it in the first four months of the season.
City are already separating themselves in this early season, leading second place Manchester United by eight points and having scored 42 goals with a plus-34 goal differential. Beyond the numbers, they look like a Guardiola side. The long passing sequences leading to goals have gone viral as they did in his Barcelona days. There’s this sequence against Stoke City, featuring De Bruyne’s blindside movement to lose a defender off the ball, followed by a give and go with Leroy Sane to get behind the backline. Then there’s the latest version against Leicester City, featuring Fabian Delph, De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Gabriel Jesus moving in and out of opposition half spaces with quick passes.
Last season’s third place finish was disappointing considering the expectations we had of Guardiola to revolutionize the league in his first season as he did in the Bundesliga. Their 80 goals scored, also third, was good enough for a title run, but their 39 goals allowed was uncharacteristic considering his Bayern Munich side only allowed 17 goals in his final year in Germany. Hence another theory on the dual nature of possession: it takes a side 15 passes to regain its positional structure preventing their opponents from creating an effective counter attack. Possession is a tool for controlling a match, attacking a defense and preventing counters. But the shape of the tools had to fit the specific nuances of England.
Although he did create the foundation for a structural blueprint with the use of fullbacks as center midfielders with defensive midfielder Fernandinho dropping back between the two center backs. While shifting between a 4-3-3 and the in style three defender back line, City’s division of five defenders and five attackers harkened back to a W-M formation used in the 1960s. The focus was on the pragmatism of midfield stability in a physical, counterattacking league. But that reasoning is not why we’ve been transfixed by Guardiola throughout the years.
The fullback has turned into the marquee position in recent years, with top sides across Europe investing significantly in the position. Last year’s version featured holdovers Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy. Signed for $60 million this past summer, Kyle Walker is a far different fullback from Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm. Left back Benjamin Mendy signed for $70 million from Monaco. Alongside Danilo and Fabian Delph, the outside roles reveal how Guardiola has adapted to the physicality of the Premier League.
Delph’s emergence as a defining player shows the nature of circumstance in shaping a club’s season. The 28-year-old played just seven matches last season and he appeared closer to leaving the side in winter before Mendy’s injury opened up an opportunity at left back. With the intelligence and passing of a center midfielder and the athleticism and positional sense to play wide, he represented Guardiola’s ideal for the role. Against Leicester City, Delph was tasked with containing Riyad Mahrez in transitions while maintaining his central position in attack. De Bruyne named Delph the man of the match for his dual role.
An overarching theme in both Marti Perarnau’s books documenting Guardiola is how the specific nuances of each new league he manages in creates both challenges and solutions. There is the one “a-ha!” moment in which he stumbles upon a positional or tactical innovation that guides the team during the season. He observed that the Bundesliga had the quickest, most organized counter attacking teams in Europe. Thus, his biggest challenge was to balance possession with snuffing out opposition counters before they entered a danger zone. Moving Philipp Lahm to center midfield and using David Alaba across the backline gave the side control and tactical stability.
Alaba’s versatility foreshadowed his current innovation. Guardiola’s biggest antagonist in his initial Premier League season was in finding a way to control, or at least neutralize, the uncontrollable “second ball.” Similar to the Bundesliga’s well drilled counter attacks, the use of the long ball was a tactic in which mid-table sides like Burnley caused City’s small, finesse midfielders trouble. His response this season is in overloading the midfield with the physicality and athleticism of Delph and Kyle Walker providing support to the creativity of De Bruyne and Silva. His underlying concepts of control are the same, but the nuances are in the implementation.
Former Bayern Munich pupil Joshua Kimmich, who memorably received a 1-on-1 coaching instruction post-Dortmund match in 2016, discussed Guardiola’s immediate impact at City last season. Goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn gave partial credit to the manager for Germany’s 2014 World Cup win, and for giving Bayern a brand of entertaining football. Only in his second season, discussions of his legacy at City appear too early to discuss, although we are halfway into his other theory that a manager is only effective for three seasons with the same club. Walker contrasted former manager Mauricio Pochettino’s “volume” training methods focused on running and physicality to the tactical emphasis of his new manager in describing losing the ball during training and not seeing it again for five minutes. With regards to viral training, we’ve seen him work on Sterling’s body positioning to immediate effect. Phil Foden, the 17-year-old star of soccer Twitter last summer, recently made his first team debut against Feyenoord.
After their Champions League match against Napoli, Guardiola called Maurizio Sarri’s side one of the best teams he’s ever played against. He paid tribute to the Italian team’s ability to play short passes, although Sarri presents a different wrinkle to drawing out defenses and creating space and overloads. The praise was telling as Serie A is the last of the top four European leagues for Guardiola to solve. Yet his focus on space, control and balance would be a constant variable wherever he manages next. It’s the differentiation and movement from players like Lahm and Alaba to Walker and Delph that reveal the nuances of his art.