With Liverpool’s primacy in the Premier League this season, it’s easy to forget that just two seasons ago, Pep Guardiola led Manchester City to an unprecedented degree of dominance in the Premier League and became the country’s first side to amass 100 points in a single league campaign. They may not be at their peak this season, but City’s 17/18 squad was – both aesthetically and pragmatically – one of the best ever in Premier League history.
Man City predominantly set up as a 4-1-4-1, although their starting formation was less important due to Guardiola’s predilection for having a highly fluid in-game structure. Their style – predicated on dominating possession, creating overloads out wide, using passing triangles to progress the ball, and encouraging constant movement – accentuated the attributes of certain players.
The sublime creativity of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. The searing pace and skill of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. The ruthless goal-scoring of Sergio Aguero. Guardiola was blessed with a slew of talented players, and Guardiola’s style enabled such individuals to flourish. Yet in a system as intricate and complex as the Spaniard’s, less acclaimed players serve as vital a function as the likes of Aguero and De Bruyne.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of City was their fullbacks. In the summer prior to the 2017/18 season, City spent huge sums on the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, and Danilo. Over £100 million on the three players is a hefty sum, but one that was necessary to enable Guardiola to implement his ideas successfully.
A basic tenet of Guardiola’s philosophy is ensuring a five-five split of the players on the pitch: five attacking and five defending. The idea is that this provides his teams with enough players in the final third while also maintaining defensive solidity. Achieving this requires supreme technical and tactical quality from his players, especially his fullbacks, who must be comfortable in playing in and occupying a variety of roles on the pitch.
Like most teams in modern football, Guardiola will instruct his fullbacks to push high and wide on their respective flanks, allowing the wingers to cut inside. When this occurs, the central attacking midfielders – usually David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne – will drop closer to the defensive midfielder, dictating play from deep with flat, vertical passes that look to penetrate the opposition defensive lines.
If Silva and De Bruyne push up – as is their instinct given their attacking prowess – the fullbacks invert, becoming midfielders to enable easier retention of the ball and support the defensive midfield anchor in protecting the team against counter-attacks. This is why Guardiola was able to use Fabian Delph at left-back when Benjamin Mendy was injured, as the Englishman’s experience, tactical acumen, and nominal role as a central midfielder enabled him to adapt to the Spaniard’s demands.
Alternatively, one of the fullbacks can join the midfield and one can make a line of three with the centre-backs, a ploy Guardiola has used frequently at City with Kyle Walker as a third centre-back.
The multitude of responsibilities placed upon the fullbacks meant that City’s summer spending was necessary. It not only provided Guardiola the personnel he needed, but signified the understanding and coherence that existed between the ownership, recruitment, and manager. All parties supported the spending and realized its importance while many outside the club were baffled by such high levels of investment in a supposedly unimportant position.
City’s pressing was also an underappreciated yet fundamental component of their success. Jurgen Klopp has made himself something of the high priest of pressing in European football, with his intense gegenpressing approach characterizing his tenures at Dortmund and Liverpool. Yet Guardiola has always been fiercely committed to pressing himself. Like his mentor Johann Cruyff, Guardiola wants his team to make the pitch as small as possible when defending and implements a high-line and aggressive press to facilitate this.
Unlike Klopp, whose pressing serves to win the ball back high up the pitch and spur counterattacks, Guardiola’s purpose for pressing is to force opponents into aimless long passes which enable City to regain possession and recycle attacks. One may not associate the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne with tenacious pressing, but such work rate is as integral a part of Guardiola’s philosophy as controlling possession. His ability to get players to buy into his ideas at the expense of their natural inclinations is a further illustration of his excellence.
Guardiola also relied on individuals in key positions to enable his style to work, chief among them being Fernandinho. The Brazilian provided the steel and solidity to an extremely attack-minded midfield arrangement, plugging in gaps intelligently and thwarting counter-attacks through his reading of the game. His ability to withstand opposition pressure, passing range and decision-making also made him the ideal player to set the tempo in possession. Fernandinho’s unique blend of attributes made him the ideal defensive midfielder for Guardiola, and his shift to centre-back and consequent absence in midfield is no doubt one of the reasons City has been hampered this season.
Ederson also remains a vital player for Guardiola, and his acquisition prior to their centurion season was one of the most decisive factors for their success. His ability to sweep in behind City’s high defensive line enables their press to be engaged further up the pitch and provides the centre-backs with a degree of cover. Perhaps even more importantly, his distribution and immaculate passing range enable City to both withstand an opposition press and initiate attacks in transition through direct passes from Ederson. The Brazilian’s style of goalkeeping is crucial to City both in an offensive and defensive sense.
Guardiola’s ability to maximize the qualities of players such as Delph, Fernandinho, and Ederson to complement his more acclaimed superstars and execute his complex tactical system enabled City to achieve an unparalleled level of dominance in Premier League football.