Key tactics for Manchester City as Pep Guardiola targets another successful season

Manager has numerous options in all positions, and the arrival of Jack Grealish makes the team even more dangerous

Fantasy football participants, media pundits and Premier League coaches are seldom on the same page when it comes to selecting players.

So just imagine, for a minute, the consternation and confusion that will accompany trying to second guess Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola this campaign as the Etihad Stadium side seek to defend their English crown and go one better in the Champions League.

Guardiola has such an array of midfield riches at his disposal that planning for what team you think he might field will be akin to plaiting fog.

And that’s before you start to try to decipher positions and the tactics.

The only person clear on the ‘system’ and who will feature on any given match day is, of course, Pep himself.

Having accompanied and chatted to a nearly voiceless and crestfallen Pep on the airport bus at Porto’s private air terminal the day after the UCL final defeat to Chelsea, I can attest to how much the elongated, double-winning 2020-21 season took out of him.

The manager admitted to needing a rest but it was also clear he was already looking forward to another season of intense competition. It drains him but he loves it. And all indications are that he’s bouncing again ahead of the action recommencing.

Guardiola is wired to be a winning machine, a trophy guzzler that never gets sated. It explains why he didn’t just stick with the medal-laden players he had at his disposal this summer but instead went after the dazzling talent of Jack Grealish.

Pep, above most else, is a football aesthetic. A man who is intoxicated by, and besotted with, the beauty of his craft.

The Catalan manager is, therefore, a curious mixture. Having worked in the same environment for five years, I can vouch that the intensity and attention to detail are astonishing; he laps up the relevant state of the art science behind the statistics and yet he also still relies heavily on his eye and his intuition - that beautiful football thing again.

History of watching Pep closely tells us that you could be the best player in the world but if your training ground work lacks potency, vigour and joy during the lead up to a game there will only be one of two results - a seat on the bench or in the stands.

It is against that background that there are precious few certainties around this City squad of all-talents as they set off in pursuit of a fourth title in six seasons.

What we do know is that the Guardiola 2018-19 tactics that wowed via the width and pace of attacking wingers are not going to make a return.

Instead there will likely be a 2021-22 version of the possession-based style that set so many records last term.

Pep’s pragmatism will, though, stretch only to the point where his artists can paint pictures with their dizzying movement and complicated yet largely ordained and well-rehearsed patterns.

His first job, after swiftly integrating Grealish into his many schemes, will be to check the mental well-being of his England and Brazil summer tournament stars who were all given an extra week off after the disappointment of losing finals in July, defeats which came on the back of a crushing loss to Chelsea in May’s Champions League decider.

There shouldn’t be much of a hangover as most of the returnees, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ederson, Gabriel Jesus, and Raheem Sterling are all experienced well-travelled professionals versed in handling success and failure, whilst Phil Foden’s youthful enthusiasm and simple love for the game will mean he is always raring to go.

It’s safe to say, however, that the team that takes the field at Tottenham for next Sunday’s potentially spicy EPL opener will not be the team that plays in the biggest games of the season once everyone is fit and firing.

Pep’s options are almost incalculable but let’s try to break them down a little.

Ederson will be the goalkeeper of choice, John Stones after a brilliant summer with England and Ruben Dias will be the first choice central pairing. Kyle Walker remains the number one right back in a close battle with Joao Cancelo with Oleks Zinchenko and a rejuvenated and fit Benjamin Mendy fighting for the left back slot that could also on occasion be filled by Cancelo.

All the full backs will be expected to master the inverted role successfully deployed last season and all will be subject to rotation. No matter what you’ve achieved Pep will pick on form so there is not much written in stone.

One or other of Nathan Ake and Aymeric Laporte may get an early chance to shine by dint of being back in camp before Stones and they will also provide cover on the left flank of defence.

At the ‘six’ position Pep has Rodri and ageless skipper Fernandinho but don’t be surprised if Ilkay Gundogan or Kevin De Bruyne occasionally feature in a quarter-back - or Regista as the Itallians would term it - role.

Then we get to the tricky bit. A midfield dripping in sumptuous talent. Riches wherever Pep turns.

Who goes where? Well let’s start with new boy Grealish whose role will likely change over time. He has to learn Pep's ways quickly but will probably start wide in a familiar left sided position with Foden dropped into a deeper role.

Grealish’s ball carrying - and defender attracting - qualities ought to open spaces for others to exploit but he will also have to take on board what Pep wants in transition and, when the opposition has the ball, the three or four man press.

At that point he may well become a playmaking number eight operating from deep alongside KDB (or Foden or Gundongan). The fab four are likely to be interchangeable.

All those selection possibilities and still no mention of Raheem Sterling, Rihad Mahrez, Jesus, Ferran Torres, Bernardo Silva or a new striker (most likely Harry Kane).

Last season Guardiola fielded so many different false nines it was hard to keep up. He deployed systems that those who like numbers would have categorised as 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 3-4-3 (double pivot), 4-1-3-2 and 4-1-2-2-1.

As they await the arrival of an out and out striker, City could well deploy the free scoring Sterling - back to his best with his country in the summer - or Jesus (wide right for Brazil) in the 9 slot. An interesting alternative would be young Spaniard Torres whose goals per game ratio, and movement in the channels, suggests a man who could be converted from winger to central striker. Pep loves a project.

Guardiola could of course also play KDB, Gundogan (he scored twice in pre-season and was last season’s leading marksman) as a nine. Mahrez, in blistering form last season and in the warm-ups, is surely nailed on to start on the right flank but could also move inside.

Silva on the other hand appears as though he could be the man squeezed out in the summer reshuffle, a thought strengthened by his own desire for a new test elsewhere.

Whatever that challenge is, it will be but a mole hill set against the mountain that is predicting Guardioala’s starting eleven.

Updated: August 7th 2021, 3:55 AM
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