After a slow start to the season, Manchester City have cemented their place as title favorites this campaign.
Pep Guardiola’s team are ten points clear of second-place Manchester United at the time of writing, and while no other club seems capable of translating positive runs of form into consistent success, credit must be given to the 2018/19 champions for rectifying the issues of last season and mounting yet another title challenge.
When in possession City’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shifts in shape, with certain movements and rotations triggering a sort of chain reaction across the rest of the team. John Stones will pull wide to the right-hand side, allowing Joao Cancelo to tuck into midfield from right-back to form a double pivot with Rodri. City benefit from Cancelo’s inversion in multiple ways.
With left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko forming a back three with Ruben Dias, City can always build their attacks with a stable 3-2 structure that keeps them secured against counter-attacks. Cancelo’s movement infield also drags an opposition wide player with him and creates space on the right flank for City’s right-sided attacker to drop into, allowing them to turn and drive into space or pull their opposing marker out of position.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Cancelo and Rodri give Man City a reliable base through which they can construct attacks. Cancelo makes 7.18 progressive carries and 9.56 progressive passes per 90, ranking him in the 99th and 96th percentiles respectively when compared to other fullbacks in Europe’s top five leagues. Rodri’s 7.29 progressive carries and 5.8 progressive passes per 90 may not be as impressive when compared to other defensive midfielders, but it nevertheless shows he can effectively progress the ball from deep. By having two superb distributors of the ball in the double pivot, City’s number eights can push higher to find pockets of space in between the lines, make line-breaking runs into the penalty area, and interchange with City’s forwards.
These midfielders, usually Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, or Ilkay Gundogan, have all greatly benefited from Guardiola’s tactical tweaks this campaign. For instance, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling have often been used on the side of their stronger foot rather than being deployed as inverted wingers as City’s wide attackers were last year. By instructing the two Englishmen to hold the width, Guardiola has enabled both to get into one-on-one situations more frequently and stretch opposition defensive units to create space in the inside channels for the number eights to exploit. They can either get into positions to deliver cutbacks or arrive in positions to be on the end of them, which, as Tom Barwick has pointed out on these pages, has been the main way through which Gundogan has racked up so many goals this season.
Guardiola’s use of what some are calling the “double false-nine” has also greatly benefited City’s attack-minded central midfielders. A false nine is a center-forward who plays in front of the opposition defensive line and behind the opposition midfield line with the intent of either dropping into midfield to generate numerical superiority or drag an opposition center-back out of position to create space in-behind.
Pep Guardiola on @IlkayGuendogan: "I said many times he can play as a false nine and the people laughed at me. Today it was a clear action to win the penalty and then the two goals. He is so good in those terms."
— Man. City News (@_mancity_news) February 13, 2021
Guardiola has often used Riyad Mahrez or Sterling in this role but has also encouraged the eights to work in concert with the false nine by occupying the same area. By having a fluid triumvirate of players who can move in and out of the space in between the lines, City can confuse opposition defenders and more easily create chances through quick interchanges of passes through the center.
Defensively, Manchester City have been more passive than in previous seasons. They have improved their counter-pressing significantly as the season has progressed and still rank among the most aggressive pressing teams in the league. Nevertheless, they are averaging their lowest PPDA (passes per defensive action) in the Premier League since Guardiola took over, which means they are pressing less frequently than in previous years. This season’s greater fixture congestion could account for this, as it’s hard to maintain an aggressive press over the course of so many games. It could also be a function of having Rodri has a defensive midfielder as opposed to Fernandinho, as the Spaniard isn’t nearly as adept at sweeping up behind a high press as his Brazilian predecessor.
These and other factors mean that Man City are more comfortable defending in a slightly more passive mid-block during certain stages of a game than in previous seasons, falling into a 4-4-1-1 shape with Gundogan joining Rodri to form a solid defensive screen for the back four.
Another impressive aspect of City’s defensive play has been their set-piece defending. They’ve conceded just two goals from corners in the league this season, the joint best in the division with West Ham. As mentioned in Cam Meighan’s article for Total Football Analysis, City station five zonal markers deep in the six-yard box; one man at the near post, one man at the far post, and three men just ahead of Ederson in the middle. Four man-markers are deployed outside the six-yard box, staggering to cover more space than they would in a straight line.
Guardiola has once again proven his critics wrong this season by creating another Manchester City team that looks destined to win the title. Their stable build-up structure, use of Foden and Sterling as natural wingers, deployment of attack-minded and fluid number eights, and intelligent defensive adjustments have enabled them to redress the weaknesses they showed last season. Add to this the acquisition of Ruben Dias and the development of players like Stones, Cancelo, Rodri, and Foden, and it becomes clear why City have become the overwhelming favorites to become Premier League champions once again.
For the first time in his career, Guardiola is showing he can oversee a dynasty with multiple cycles of successful teams. That is a tantalizing prospect for Manchester City fans and a frightening one for the rest of the Premier League.