Pep Guardiola Up to the Manchester City Challenge with Tactical Flexibility

David Mooney@DavidMooneyFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2016

Pep Guardiola isn't afraid to make tactical changes from the touchline.
Pep Guardiola isn't afraid to make tactical changes from the touchline.TF-Images/Getty Images

For some time towards the end of Manuel Pellegrini's reign at Manchester City, the fans could look at the Chilean's team selection and worry about whether their side would be able to take maximum points. The concerns never stemmed from a lack of quality in their own team but rather the system the manager was using and the tactics that he had in mind for the fixture.

At the beginning of his reign, picking his strongest side and expecting them to wipe the floor with their opposition was a viable option. In 2013-14, nobody really knew how to deal with a quick-breaking City team, which had an impressive strike partnership between two lethal attackers—Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo.

Midway through Pellegrini's second year in charge, though, he was sussed out. From that point onwards, games became a lot harder for his side to win—opponents seemed far more disciplined and City appeared to find it much harder to break them down.

Pellegrini could rely on his players to blow teams away early on, especially with partnerships like Aguero and Negredo's.
Pellegrini could rely on his players to blow teams away early on, especially with partnerships like Aguero and Negredo's.Michael Steele/Getty Images

There's a sense of irony in the calls for new manager Pep Guardiola to have a so-called "Plan B"—often translated as using a long ball instead of trying to work the openings—because the Catalan has displayed a willingness to deal with his opposition on a game-by-game basis in a manner that Pellegrini often didn't.

The classic example of the Chilean's trust in his own players came in 2015. City, through to the Champions League knockout phase by the skin of their teeth, faced Barcelona for a second year running. Pellegrini played 4-4-2 and left so much space in the middle of the pitch it was a miracle that City weren't further than 2-0 down by the time he changed it.

What made it a strange decision was that, 12 months earlier against the same opposition, Pellegrini had strangled the game and played five in midfield. That had worked until an unfortunate red card for Martin Demichelis.

Pellegrini left City far too vulnerable in a match with Barcelona in 2014-15.
Pellegrini left City far too vulnerable in a match with Barcelona in 2014-15.Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Towards the end of his reign, Pellegrini continued to make similar mistakes. He seemed oblivious to the idea that Liverpool would press his defenders high up the pitch and did nothing to help them out, resulting in a 4-1 home defeat in 2015. Later that season, Leicester City's breakaway style ripped his team apart time and again—while he stood on the touchline, watching it happen.

In his first few months in the job, Guardiola has shown how he's able to adapt his team to his opposition. Of course, it's not always worked—the idea to draw Tottenham Hotspur out and exploit the gaps behind was a good one, but the home side were just too good on the day.

That style has worked brilliantly in other games—with notable breakaway goals against Bournemouth and Swansea City early on in the campaign.

Few would have had the bottle to travel to Barcelona and leave one of the best strikers in world football on the bench, but Guardiola had no qualms about dropping Aguero for the good of the team. As with Pellegrini against the Catalans in 2014, the best-laid plans of the manager were undone by a red card—this time Claudio Bravo was dismissed and City's game plan fell to pieces. 

Aguero was a surprise exclusion for City's trip to Barcelona under Guardiola.
Aguero was a surprise exclusion for City's trip to Barcelona under Guardiola.JOSEP LAGO/Getty Images

Many opinion columns were written about how things might have been different had Aguero started that 4-0 loss, but few seemed to suggest what was probably the more likely to happen. Without the Argentinian, City were doing a very good job of cutting the supply to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar—with the three of them only truly coming into the game after the goalkeeper's dismissal.

Had the striker been on the pitch, it's more likely that City's midfield wouldn't have been as potent, and it could have allowed so many more chances to the Spanish side.

It was a slightly different story at the Etihad Stadium a few weeks later. Guardiola pulled the same trick of strangling the Barcelona supply lines, but this time he opted to do it by continually harassing the visitors' defence—and that also forced errors that led to City goals.

City's season so far has been littered with tactical tweaks from the manager. During the 1-1 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach, Guardiola's side were criticised for not wiping the floor with their opponents. However, the Catalan was more than content with the point that was enough to ensure qualification to the Champions League knockout phase, given there wasn't much danger of City losing after they'd equalised.

Guardiola continually moved his players around in the draw with Borussia Monchengladbach.
Guardiola continually moved his players around in the draw with Borussia Monchengladbach.TF-Images/Getty Images

What the boss did do, however, was constantly change City's shape. For a spell in the second half, his team were playing three in defence when they had possession and four at the back when they didn't. This gave them an extra man in attacks and more cover when Gladbach were trying to break against them—and it solved the majority of the defensive issues City had been plagued with during the first half.

It wasn't too dissimilar to the "false full-backs" system he used at the start of the season, moving the left- and right-back inside into midfield when City had control of the ball to give his front five more options.

In the opening 20 minutes of the 2-1 success at Burnley, the home side were much the better team. City were struggling to put two passes together, and aerial balls into the box were causing no small amount of confusion for Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov.

Recognising that Burnley were proving adept at winning free-kicks in the middle of the pitch—which allowed goalkeeper Paul Robinson to play a long ball into the area or midfielders to cross from the flanks—Guardiola decided to take a risk.

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: Ben Mee of Burnley and Nolito of Manchester City compete for the ball during the Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester City at Turf Moor on November 26, 2016 in Burnley, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Most teams would line up on the edge of their own area and try to clear it by winning the first ball. Understanding that Burnley are better in the air, the Catalan pushed the defensive line so high up the pitch it was almost comical at times. On one occasion in the first half, it was only a few metres away from where the ball was being crossed from.

It meant as the kick was taken and the defence dropped, the play was still too far away from City's goal to be overly dangerous. It forced Burnley into having to win both the first and the second ball to be able to form an attack, and the away side were proving better at picking up the pieces.

While the victory came courtesy of two scrappy goals, the foundation of those attacks was built on Guardiola pushing the game higher up the pitch and away from his own defensive third. For all of the problems they caused City in the opening stages, Burnley weren't able to trouble Bravo again until stoppage time as a couple of corners and throw-ins were swung into the area.

Guardiola did something similar for his 2-1 Premier League victory at Old Trafford earlier in the season, noting that Manchester United—Zlatan Ibrahimovic especially—were more likely to be successful in the air. That afternoon, the high line was overshadowed because of an error from Bravo, but it still worked more often than not.

As it looks like City's troubled spell is being sorted out and they're back to winning ways with back-to-back top-flight victories for the first time since September, there are signs that Guardiola is showing great adaptability in the Premier League.

Many questioned whether he'd be able to do what he'd done elsewhere in England, but his in-game management and his tactical approach before matches is proving that, if nothing else, he's up for the challenge.