It looks like Sergio Agüero’s time at Manchester City is nearing an end, hampered by injuries and frequently linked with a return to his native Argentina. With the departure of David Silva to Real Sociedad, and Fernandinho’s contract coming to an end, the core of a squad that delivered three league titles since 2013 will soon be gone. How Guardiola is managing this transition is interesting to watch, with City in the 20/21 season in particular shifting towards a more “conservative” style of play. Since their last league defeat to Tottenham, as of writing City have scored 14 and conceded 2 in their last 7 games. Pundits and journalists have referred to City as being more “pragmatic” and “balanced” in their approach to games, so what stylistic changes have there been, and what indications does this give as to City in the coming seasons under Guardiola?
Firstly, it is difficult to understate just how important Agüero has been for Guardiola and City in past seasons. Despite their riches of attacking talent, fantastic patterns of play and rotations in attack, the contribution of his goals at the end of their moves is a significant part of City’s success, as you can see below:
Being injured for a large part of 19/20, you can see what level of influence was lost in the attacking department. Agüero regularly opens the scoring, scores the goal which brings City level or puts them ahead, and accounts for a significant percentage of City’s shot output. It is remarkable just how reliant on Agüero City were in the 16/17 season in particular, and can be thankful for his part in dragging them to a Top-4 finish. It was no coincidence, therefore, that City fell off last season with Agüero injured. Jesus is a fantastic all-round young striker, however he only had 26 more shots in 566 additional minutes in 19/20, converting these at a comparatively low 13.9%. Despite all the plaudits for Guardiola’s football, it’s important to emphasise the difference a world class striker makes. Aguero ability to create separation in and around the box, whether this be for cut-backs or by his signature shift to create a half-yard for a shot, has been incredibly important to City for nearly a decade (not just for Guardiola).
A lot of the changes in style discussed below would likely be masked by a fit and firing Agüero (as was the case in 16/17), however I feel his absence has had a significant effect on how City have approached this season particularly, restricting them to a style that largely contrasts that of last and previous seasons, and perhaps giving insight into what a post-Agüero City may be like.
With Agüero out injured, Fernandinho rarely in the side and Silva departed, Guardiola has had to alter City’s style in terms of how they attack, the patterns they use and how they progress their attacks up the pitch. Similarly, the manner in which they react and defend out of possession has seen a big shift.
Some of these changes will be analysed below.
As has always been the case for Guardiola, security comes first. Regardless of the base formation, City don’t commit too many men forward when building due to the threat of opposition counter-attacks, typically keeping 3+1 or 3+2 at the back.
The roles vary depending on shape, and the two base formations most often used this year have been the 4–2–3–1 and the 4–3–3:
4–2–3–1: Two CB’s, One CM drops in to the side, One CM connects centrally and FB’s stay in-line with deeper CM
In the bigger matches, such as those against United away, the approach is even more conservative, with both full-backs holding positions around the halfway line, and two DMs staying central in front of the defence (unless one of the fullbacks moves higher and one drops in: 2nd pic). Guardiola has done this with his fullbacks in big games for a number of years, it must be said.
4–3–3: Two CB’s, One CM connects centrally, Walker tucks in and Cancelo moves central into midfield
The 4–3–3 sees some slight tweaks in how City build in the middle third. Generally, one fullback tucks in to form a back 3 (Walker), and the other fullback comes inside into the midfield (Usually Cancelo carries out this role). Obviously the individuals who play on a game-by-game basis will change, however the movements and general positioning stays the same.
Progressing into final 3rd
Guardiola has seemingly recognised that Rodri as a single #6 cannot carry out the role of Fernandinho in the years 2016–2019 in terms of his ability to cover spaces and break-up play on the defensive transitions, so there has been a large emphasis placed on overloading the near zones and recycling the ball in the middle third. City can’t afford to play riskier passes into the final third and increase the risk of turnover, and they don’t have players like Silva who can operate in tight pockets in advanced areas to play into to retain the ball.
City, therefore, are more patient in how they construct their attacks, circulating the ball in a safe manner with their incredible technical quality before deciding when to speed up the play. They often use bounce passes into a third-man to facilitate this circulation in the middle of the pitch, with one of the forwards will showing for the ball and bouncing into one of the deeper players facing the play. Expectedly, De Bruyne is absolutely central to initiating attacks, and is given a lot more freedom in the spaces in which he operates. This approach is quite a contrast to previous seasons, whereby City attacks were far more structured, with De Bruyne often seen solely positioned in the right channel. As you can see in the below video of the goals from their 18/19 season, De Bruyne and Silva occupied spaces high up in the inside channels (or ‘half-spaces’), and there was a significant emphasis on patterns and movements such as 3rd man runners to overload these wide areas and penetrate behind for cut-back/crossing opportunities.
City use standard wide rotations on both sides (RB tucked in, RW gives width and CM inside), and the players rotate according to the situation and movement by others, irrespective of the ‘formation’. When De Bruyne moves across the pitch, City’s forward line will rotate to balance his movements to ensure all the necessary spaces are occupied. If for example, De Bruyne moves over to the inside left channel, Jesus will move into the right channel, and Sterling will hug the touchline on the left. In the example below, De Bruyne has moved to a deeper position on the left, and the wide rotation principles means Mendy hugs the touchline and Sterling comes inside.
City essentially attack with a flat-4 across the forward line, although in the 4–3–3 especially, Gündoğan often moves high to support from midfield. De Bruyne and Sterling this season are typically the only players who provide dynamism with runs in behind the defensive line, and the fullbacks don’t join the attacks until the ball has been progressed into the final 3rd (or there are sufficient players behind the ball). Walker, Cancelo and Mendy all get forward well with their overlapping and underlapping runs, often triggered by quick switches of play.
To illustrate the positional freedom De Bruyne is given this season in contrast to previous, a few examples of De Bruyne’s “Passes Received” in 20/21 (left) vs the 18/19 (right) season are below:
Overview of formation movements
Overall, there has been a major stylistic shift in City’s chance creation methods. As aforementioned, in previous seasons there was a massive focus on entering the penalty box through the wide channels via penetration behind, 3rd man combinations, a variety of cross types (cut-backs, De Bruyne from deep), whilst players like B. Silva and Silva could operate in tight pockets of space in and around the box, and most importantly, Agüero would convert the chances created. This season, City dominate the ball less (60.7% possession), are more patient with their possession (43 passes per shot), the number of touches and the proportion of touches in the final third of the pitch has also fallen quite drastically. Although Guardiola in the past has disliked the term “Tiki-Taka” being attributed to his sides due to its meaning of “Defensive Possession”, City’s larger focus on the retention of possession in the middle and defensive thirds this year probably makes it quite an appropriate description.
The shift in the way City construct their attacks and enter the final third can be seen below:
Without someone in the box to reliably convert the chances City created (Agüero) for a majority of last season, Guardiola has seemingly made a trade-off in that security behind the ball in relation to the prevention of counter-attacks has been prioritised, therefore less men are committed forward to attacks to ensure this (and therefore fewer chances).
City this season have actually looked to exploit their opponents more when they are out of balance and stretched. De Bruyne is vital to this, and his central position out-of-possession means City can rapidly progress play through him whilst opponents are still disorganised, with the weight and accuracy of his final pass in these situations often devastating
Out of Possession
Whats been most impressive is how good City’s defensive record has been this season. As previously mentioned, they circulate the ball more safely in different zones to previous seasons, minimising the risk of being caught on the counter when committing bodies forward into the final third (with no natural striker at the end of these moves) and leaving Rodri exposed on counter attacks. With City losing that athleticism in the middle of the pitch, how is it they have managed to keep such a defensive record?
Firstly, despite the drop in possession percentage, loss of Silva and the phasing out of Fernandinho, a major part of City’s strategy upon ball loss and for breaking up play is still fouling in transition. This season so far, City commit a foul once every 3 and a half minutes of defending, which is not too dissimilar to previous seasons and quite remarkable when compared to other teams in the division.
Stones and Dias
It was obviously be wrong not to mention the importance of Stones and Dias for City’s massively improved defensive record before discussing other factors. Dias in particular has looked a fantastic signing so far, an aggressive front foot defender who is dominant aerially (despite his relatively short height for a CB), alert to danger in the box whilst also having the athleticism to match up to forwards when he is dragged into wider areas.
City in previous seasons have been renowned for their aggressive reaction to losing the ball, looking to win the ball back (or foul) high up the pitch to sustain the attack or break up an oppositional counter before it can even begin. This season however, they have been far more passive on their defensive transitions, looking firstly to drop back into a mid-block and defend space. Tom Worville talks about City’s drop-off in pressing intensity high up the pitch in this brilliant article for The Athletic, with City applying pressure to one in every three touches in the final third, compared to one in every two in the past two seasons.
The change in defending style could be down to the disruptions brought about by the congested fixture list and player tiredness, or perhaps Guardiola has recognised that without Silva and Fernandinho, Gündoğan and Rodri aren’t able to support a high press over 90 minutes with their lack of athleticism, and therefore feels a more passive approach upon losing the ball is more appropriate.
City have shown that they are capable of pressing and recovering the ball high, however. In the first half against Manchester United especially, they pressed United’s build-up high in a 4–4–2 and created a number of dangerous opportunities from winning the ball these situations. De Bruyne and Jesus were excellent in screening United’s double pivot and forcing the play wide, where Shaw and Wan-Bissaka were used as pressing triggers against the touchline. Rodri and Fernandinho would track Fernandes’ movements when he drifted to their respective sides.
Generally, City only ever squeeze high in short spells during games however.
Because City are still primarily a possession based side who’s players have been trained to press teams high for four seasons, there are obvious problems when they fall back into a block.
Firstly, they are often passive and lack compactness. There are often big pockets of space in-between the midfield and defensive lines for opponents to receive in.
They also don’t get much pressure on the ball in certain situations, which has meant teams have been able to play directly in behind their high line or they have been able to switch play and overload the far side. Southampton used this to great effect with long switches out to Kyle Walker-Peters down City’s left by Vestergaard.
Gündoğan and Rodri also struggle to cover the width of the field defensively. If City’s front four are bypassed, then the two midfielders are often slow in shuffling across and protecting the spaces in front of the defence. When the opponents regain the ball and break quickly, if City are unable to stop the transition with a foul then this again causes massive problems. The fixtures at home to Leicester (2–5) and away to Leeds were games in which they lost control completely. In the below video look at Rodri for Leicester’s 3rd and 4th goals. For the 3rd, he does not close down Barnes quickly enough or put any pressure on the ball. For the 4th he gets pulled wide and then slowly ambles back, meaning when Walker is beaten, Maddison is free to have a shot on goal.
Also, Rodri is susceptible to jumping out of position, vacating his slot in front of the defence and giving space for forwards to drop in the hole and turn.
In the context of the current season and the circumstances surrounding it, it is no surprise that City’s more patient, defensive and passive style, combined with their incredible technical level, has seen them emerge as main contenders for the title in a division that has seen widespread drop-offs in intensity and injury pile-ups.
If Agüero is nearing the end of his time at City or continues to be hampered with injuries, then will City simply look to invest in someone who can replace his goals (good luck)? It will be difficult to replicate or get back to the level City reached 2017–2019 with the qualities Silva, Fernandinho and Agüero possessed being near-on impossible to replace.
What does this mean for the future then? Maybe this seasons’ defensive possession style and passive approach off the ball is what to expect in the coming years. However, the patient retention of possession, the U-shaped circulation, and general plan of working the ball to your best player (De Bruyne) seems to go massively against the perception of Guardiola as a coach, as does the lack of pressing off the ball and focus on staying in a compact shape.
Perhaps Guardiola has finally bended his “philosophy” in the absence of a player like Agüero who single-handedly resolves and masks any problems a side may have. If City do win the Premier League or the Champions League this year despite this, it will be interesting to see how people perceive Guardiola and City’s season overall. Will he be praised for adapting to the qualities of his squad and being more pragmatic in his approach, something which other managers in the division get criticised for (with also far less money to invest)? Also, with the amount of money City have invested in their squad over the past four/five years, is it acceptable that there are so many holes that will require even further investment to fix, and is Guardiola to man to trust with that rebuild when taking this into account?
Regardless, Guardiola’s compromise of playing style is seeing City benefit, even if it is at the expense of entertainment and how people perceive him. If Agüero quickly regains full fitness, then City’s title chances will automatically receive a massive boost.
Picture Credits: BT Sport, Skysports, NSBCSN
Data: FBref.com, Whoscored.com