Talking Tactics

How Guardiola's tactics have evolved during his reign at City

22 May 2023
Talking Tactics Man City

Adrian Clarke analyses the way the Spaniard has changed his approach over the last seven seasons

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Winning their fifth title in seven years, Pep Guardiola’s constantly-evolving Manchester City team have once again proved to be the strongest side in the Premier League.

Arsenal led the way for much of the campaign but, timing their run to perfection with an astonishing 12 wins in a row, it is City who have peaked at just the right time to finish top.

This is a habit they have developed under the Spaniard, whose teams always tend to finish with a flourish.

Man City's strong finishes
Season Finishes
2016/17 Unbeaten in last eight matches
2017/18 Lost one of last 15 matches
2018/19 Won last 14 matches
2019/20 Won eight of last 10 matches
2020/21 Won 22 of last 26 matches
2021/22 Unbeaten in last 12 matches
2022/23 Won latest 12 matches in a row

This has been the first season where Guardiola has deployed a target man as a centre-forward at City, and tactically they have made the adaptation look easy.

While Erling Haaland is often a bystander during the build-up phase - and as a consequence there has been slightly less rotational movement inside the final third - City’s fluid possession-heavy style of play has remained largely the same.

The Norwegian’s power, pace and aerial ability has simply given them an added dimension, and significantly enhanced goal threat when balls are put into the box.

In terms of creating "big chances" we have only seen a mild increase from the champions this season, but those opportunities have been spread around the team less often.

Haaland is now the focal point, receiving more than double the number of "big chances" than any other Man City forward in a title-winning season during the Guardiola era.

Big chances in City's title-winning seasons
Season Player Big chances
2017/18 Aguero
2018/19 Aguero
2020/21 Sterling
De Bruyne
2021/22 Sterling
2022/23 Haaland

The other key tactical change has been a preference for 3-2-4-1 towards the end of this campaign, pushing John Stones into central midfield to partner Rodri in a double pivot.

This has given City a lovely balance, greater control when playing out from the back, and better defensive stability when opponents have launched counters and transitions.

From the base of a 4-3-3 system, Guardiola’s teams have often morphed into something like this in possession, but the use of Stones as a midfielder is a notable change.

Going back to the beginning - 16/17

Year on year Guardiola has always looked to innovate and develop his team tactically.

The steepest learning curve took place in 2016/17, his first season at the Etihad Stadium, when the Spaniard effectively retrained the way his players thought about their playing styles, and their positioning on the field.

He moved away from the 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 used by predecessor Manuel Pellegrini, switching to a 4-3-3, but in possession that shape would often resemble a 3-2-5.

The most eye-catching change was his desire to invert both full-backs at the same time, while dropping his defensive midfielder into central defence when playing out from the back.

At the time this was a first in the Premier League. That strategy helped to push his attacking midfielders higher and slightly wider, where they took up positions in the half-spaces.

Guardiola also dropped popular goalkeeper Joe Hart, preferring Claudio Bravo, who was more comfortable passing out from the back.

The centurions - 17/18

Man City won the Premier League with 100 points in 2017/18, scoring 106 times and finishing with an astonishing +79 goal difference.

The key change in this campaign was the arrival of goalkeeper Ederson and a fresh set of full-backs, Kyle Walker, and Danilo.

Ederson’s outstanding distribution made City incredibly press-resistant, and by playing through the thirds they dominated matches.

This title-winning team averaged an incredible 71.9 per cent of possession, a high in the Guardiola era.

Man City's possession averages under Guardiola
Season Poss. ave (%)
2016/17 64.9
2017/18 71.9
2018/19 68.1
2019/20 66.6
2020/21 63.7
2021/22 68.2
2022/23 65.3

In 2018/19, Kevin De Bruyne endured an injury-ravaged season, forcing Guardiola to adjust the make-up of his team.

David Silva and Bernardo Silva occupied the No 8 roles to good effect, with a little more emphasis switching to the wings where Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane enjoyed tremendous campaigns. Between them they shared 47 direct goal contributions.

Left-footed balance also became more important to Guardiola in that campaign, as he brought in Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko. It helped City to play out from the back a little quicker.

First signs of a box midfield - 19/20

During the 2019/20 season the tactical approach evolved once more. Rodri came into central midfield, with Fernandinho often occupying a centre-back position instead.

In attack, the side was no longer built around Sergio Aguero, so at times we saw Gabriel Jesus play up front, with Sterling sliding across to join in as a second centre-forward.

Ilkay Gundogan was often asked to drop back into a double pivot to help Rodri at the base of midfield, with one of the wide players - Bernardo Silva or Phil Foden - coming infield to form a square box-shaped midfield that was completed by De Bruyne.

In possession that season City often resembled a 4-2-2-2.

Introducing a "false nine" - 20/21

During the behind-closed-doors 2020/21 campaign, Guardiola once again brought in a new tactical variance, turning to a "false nine" striker.

He used a floating player in that role in 13 out of 38 matches, rotating the likes of Silva, De Bruyne, Gundogan and Foden in that position.

In possession, that striker-less shape often looked like a 2-3-3-2, with the wingers operating as split strikers with three attacking midfielders in behind.

Full-back Joao Cancelo also regularly slotted into central midfield to great effect.

In that title-winning season, City developed a more considered style of play, pressing less ferociously and adopting a patient brand of possession football.

Their high skill levels and clever interchanging of positions bamboozled opponents.

Man City's changes in passing
Season Opposition PPDA* Direct speed (m/s)**
2016/17 8.3 1.39
2017/18 8.3 1.25
2018/19 10.0 1.20
2019/20 10.1 1.18
2020/21 11.5 1.12

*PPDA (Passes per defensive action)
**Direct speed (Metres per second progressed upfield in open-play sequences)

Last season Man City almost exclusively deployed a "false nine" and they improved their levels.

The key to their success was a wide spread of players with high numbers of direct goal involvements. Eight City players scored six or more goals, with nine producing at least four assists.

After pipping Liverpool to the crown by a point in 2021/22, Guardiola plotted yet another tactical shift last summer.

His vision was to incorporate the powerful Haaland up front, without sacrificing the style of play which suited the rest of his squad.

Some people questioned if that would work, but with another title secured and Haaland rewriting the history books, it has proved to be yet another outstanding piece of judgement.

Also in this series

Part 1: Man City are 2022/23 champions after Arsenal defeat
Part 2: Why Man City can become the greatest champions of all
Part 3: Man City lift Premier League Trophy after beating Chelsea
Part 4: In pictures: Man City's title celebrations
Part 5: Haaland: Thirty-six goals and a PL Trophy, not a bad start
Part 6: Gundogan: Fightback made this title special
Part 7: Guardiola: Team deserve celebration after my demands
Part 9: The matches that defined Man City's title triumph

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