Manchester City’s start to the new season has not entirely gone the way Pep Guardiola probably envisioned. After two stunning performances against Arsenal and Huddersfield Town, the defending champions drew 1-1 with Wolverhampton Wanderers last Sunday. These first three weeks showed the good and the bad side of Guardiola, and the two faces of Manchester City.
Take for instance the decisive win over Huddersfield. Guardiola had to know that Huddersfield were expecting a similar formation to what City played against Arsenal, meaning a system with one centre-forward and two wingers. Hence Guardiola mixed things up switching to a back three and a two-forward formation with Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus up front.
City were dominant right from the kickoff, as Huddersfield struggled to figure out how to react properly. Agüero and Jesus were 2vs2 against the central defenders, which meant they were in an advantageous position considering the superior individual ability both these players have. The former scored a hat-trick, and was Twelve’s player of the week.
What Guardiola often intends to do is not some sort of magic. He is aware of the overall talent he has in his attacking department and the specific skills each of his players has. Agüero is tremendously gifted in open spaces at the edge of the offside line. Jesus can stretch the field and trick defenders into making mistakes. Leroy Sané is a fast-paced dribbler in one-on-ones. Raheem Sterling can overwhelm opponents with his acceleration in the half-spaces.
When Guardiola coached Bayern Munich a few years ago, he more or less confessed that he was mainly responsible for how the plays were set up at the back and in midfield. But once the ball reached the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry it was up to them to break through and interact with their team-mates instinctively. At City, the entire structure of the team is quite similar.
Everything starts at the back
In City’s 6-1 win over Huddersfield, Guardiola employed a back three with Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte and John Stones. Instead of asking them to fan out across the pitch, they stayed close to each other and did not allow Huddersfield to even sniff at the possibility of an early interception.
The ball circulated effortlessly through the backfield and City were able to set up the plays that eventually would break the opposing defence. All of Huddersfield’s interceptions happened at or inside their penalty area. City lost the ball only once in their defensive third, caused by an unsuccessful touch from Sané in the 87th minute.
Guardiola, however, did not have his magic touch against Wolverhampton. A rather tame performance ended up in City’s first draw of the season. The Catalan manager could not come up with any creative ideas, returning to the 4-3-3 City played for the majority of last season.
His players seemingly struggled to get past the Wolves’ midfield block and initiate one-on-ones on the flanks. Sterling and Bernardo Silva often received the ball with their backs towards Wolves’ goal, and were flat-footed instead of in a moving motion.
Perhaps Guardiola had hopes that his three midfielders could occasionally outnumber João Moutinho and Rúben Neves, but most of the time City were not able to move the ball down the field through the centre. Kompany, in particular, had an off-day and was not as reliable in build-up.
Guardiola also seemed hesitant to make necessary changes throughout the match. He waited for over 70 minutes before he brought on another skilled dribbler. He did not try any formation changes, for instance a diamond in midfield or a back three.
Guardiola himself has stated in the past that he tends to have self-doubts. People close to him know that he may overthink things at times, which makes him human and certainly no less interesting as a football figure. It is fascinating to analyse how he analyses the game and develops ideas. If he comes up short, it is also a golden badge on the jacket of the other manager. The next in line to get one over on Guardiola will be Rafael Benítez when Newcastle United play Manchester City this Saturday.