How Much of Manchester City's Squad Will Pep Guardiola Rip Up?May 5, 2016
The postmortem of Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City is already in full swing; with the Citizens now officially out of the running of domestic and UEFA Champions League glory, we have nothing to look to bar the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola and what he might do.
The lethargic, limp showing the Citizens put in at the Santiago Bernabeu was regrettable in so many ways. Yaya Toure’s non-performance typified the entire approach, as the Ivorian simply stood and watched as Real Madrid bypassed the midfield without pressure and attacked in relentless fashion.
When Guardiola watches the game back, he’ll see myriad good performances from Los Merengues’ players; Dani Carvajal, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco and Gareth Bale all starred in a showing that could easily have yielded four goals, not one, on another night.
Picking out strong Manchester City performances is a far tougher exercise, as Joe Hart (and maybe Fernandinho) are the only two to emerge with any semblance of credit.
The viewing was so abject it prompted a post-match discussion on BT Sport regarding how much of an overhaul this squad needed.
Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand both agreed approximately half the team would be different once Guardiola had had his way, and while these sorts of comments can often be over the top due to the fact they’re based largely on the most recent performance (in this case, a tepid one), the duo’s assertions probably aren’t too far wide of the mark.
Guardiola will bring a unique playing style to the Etihad Stadium which will force every footballer on the books to rethink everything they think they know about playing the game.
He changes the sheer basics of your movements and actions. If you can hack it, you get to be a part of the coolest party in the sport; if not, you’re sent packing almost immediately.
So who stays, and who goes? Who fits and who doesn’t? Is the overhaul going to be quite as ferocious as Hargreaves and Ferdinand suggest, or does Guardiola merely need to sprinkle the finishing touches in terms of player recruitment and focus on remoulding what he has?
Guardiola’s tactical flexibility and versatility knows no bounds—he’ll try any formation, even a 2-3-5—but there are certain staples he rests his hat on. Possession, pressing and width are key parts of every game plan he constructs, as he values controlling the ball, stretching the pitch and stressing the opposition highly.
The possession strand starts from the back, and a goalkeeper equipped with good passing feet and one-on-one skills is a must. He is exposed more often and more openly than most, so confidence in space and in dealing with pressure is key.
Hart is an underrated goalkeeper—or was, perhaps, before he starred against Real Madrid over two legs these past two weeks. He’s actually excellent one-on-one, saving a high percentage of those types of chances and exudes confidence for the most part.
His distribution will need some work in order to play his part under the incoming manager, though, and that’s perhaps why reports suggest Hart could leave (he’s been linked to Liverpool, per the Liverpool Echo) and that Guardiola has identified Barcelona reserve ‘keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen as the ideal replacement, according to the Daily Express.
The defensive line’s modus operandi is set for radical change too. They’ll play higher up than ever before, be required to contribute to build-up play more and have to refine their sweeping skills.
Guardiola’s possession-oriented approach requires centre-backs who are comfortable on the halfway line with a sizable margin for error, and full-backs who are clean passers, intelligent movers and capable of creating overloads on their respective flanks.
Bleacher Report’s Dean Jones reported this week that Guardiola will make Vincent Kompany available for transfer, as the Belgian is not seen as capable of carrying out the same key role in his defence as he has done for previous managers. His injury proneness—displayed bare in front of the watching world in the eighth minute at the Bernabeu on Wednesday—is a serious problem; you can’t rely on or build around a player who misses so much football.
Eliaquim Mangala, too, will be in trouble. He’s not great in possession and struggles tracking runners over his shoulder. The channel between he and his full-back will be ripe for counters.
Nicolas Otamendi’s stunning 2014-15 at Valencia is proving to be anomalous despite suggestions here and there that he can return to that rock-like presence. He’s not a great fit either but may survive a chop given he’s only one year into his deal and cost a bomb.
That paves the way for one, perhaps two signings. In the video, Jones reveals Guardiola wants Athletic Club Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte and Everton’s John Stones, who are both exceptional fits for the sweeping role—though both have kinks to work out of their game, with Stones guilty of overcomplicating things at times and Laporte capable of genuine moments of chaos. Marc Bartra of Barcelona could be a great fit too.
Bacary Sagna has the football IQ to survive and play the first season. He also has the defensive back-post awareness to cope with a common attacking play that Guardiola faces: the break and cross to the far post, where a taller winger or peeling striker tries to take advantage of a full-backs lack of height.
Pablo Zabaleta, though, has declined rapidly this season and links to Inter Milan (to rejoin Roberto Mancini), according to the Daily Star (via the Manchester Evening News), aren’t all that surprising.
Left-back doesn’t look anywhere near as good. Aleksandar Kolarov’s putrid defensive effort against Southampton should be the final nail in his City-shaped coffin, while Gael Clichy is obviously a better option, but he doesn’t offer anything outstanding at either end of the pitch.
Bernat, who Guardiola brought to Bayern Munich, could be an option, while Ricardo Rodriguez is the best left-back in the world who isn’t already at an elite club.
Midfield is even harder to project, largely due to the fact that, starting in his second season at Barcelona, Guardiola went formation crazy and threw an incredible amount at the wall to see what would stick.
Will it be 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 or a midfield diamond with two strikers? The likelihood is he’ll flit between them all, and that means tactically flexible midfielders can prosper.
Fernandinho, a hard-working player who can defend, attack and shuttle from box to box, will be a key performer. The rest of that corps, though, are all in varying degrees of danger; Fabian Delph may just absorb enough to survive and fill a squad role, but don’t think that because Sergio Busquets was Guardiola’s crutch at Barcelona that Fernando is safe.
It is conveniently forgotten that Busquets is one of the finest passers in football—largely because he happens to be the best holding player in the world, and that focuses more on his defensive traits.
Fernando is a good anchor but is limited on the ball. Can he provide the impetus to the play by passing between the lines and setting attacking midfielders off on the turn?
Yaya Toure’s future—or lack of it—at the club seems open and shut. The Daily Mail reported in February that Guardiola’s arrival would spark his exit, as the two fell out at Barcelona and, as Wednesday night proved, the Ivorian is extremely unlikely to subscribe to the new template of play.
One player City are seemingly close to signing, per B/R’s Jones, is Ilkay Gundogan. A £30 million deal is in the offing, and the German could revolutionise this midfield, providing the sort of playmaking talents that Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara do for him currently. He is exceptional at dictating the rhythm of Borussia Dortmund’s play, and they visibly miss him when he’s injured.
Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are all likely to feature heavily, and if Guardiola opts for a midfield diamond with two up top (a genuine possibility), they could be a fierce trio. Their talent is not in doubt, and they’d provide creativity, dynamism and end-product.
Someone who could well sneak a role against the odds is Jesus Navas. Fans will be expecting him to go back to Sevilla, but Guardiola has always kept a player who can provide game-stretching width in his squad even if they’re a lower calibre than the rest.
The Catalan has started Isaac Cuenca (now at Granada) and Cristian Tello (enduring a succession of loans away from Barcelona) in semi-finals before because of this one attribute they provide, and Navas can offer it too.
Up front things are easy: Sergio Aguero is the main man, Kelechi Iheanacho the rising star, and Wilfried Bony the odd man out. The first two are mobile, can drift, link play and contribute in several areas; the latter couldn’t be less of a Guardiola player if he tried.
Guardiola attempted the “Plan B target man” thing with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona and it failed miserably.
Tallying it up, that’s three or four first-team signings required to morph this City side into a team who can play “Pepball.” One or two centre-backs who can sweep, pass and stay fit; one master-passer in central midfield who can switch play and dictate; and one tactically intelligent left-back who can fulfill his role at both ends.
It’s not the sea of change BT Sport’s pundits suggested, but it’s close. Those four players will easily cost in excess of £100 million combined, and if Ter Stegen is added to the list, it could exceed £150 million.
This may feel a little like performing the autopsy while the blood is still warm, but City have two Premier League games left and then it’s time for Guardiola. Pellegrini will leave the club, and the seismic changes will begin almost immediately.
Truth be told, there’s a fair bit to do.