Manchester City won the Carabao Cup against Chelsea, handing Pep Guardiola his fourth trophy in English football.
The cup was Pep’s 25th overall in just nine-and-a-half seasons of management and any doubts about him being the best coach on the planet can be surely laid to rest. He delivers trophies and he does it in style. In fact, after his debut campaign with Manchester City, Pep has won four out of five possible domestic trophies, only being denied by Wigan in last season’s FA Cup. This year they’re still on for a domestic treble and with bogey sides Wigan and Liverpool already out of the FA Cup, chances are they could get what they’re after!
But how has this come to pass? How has Guardiola rebounded from the ignominious low of that debut season where he lost six league games (for the first time in his career), couldn’t get close to a goal difference of +60, finishing with +41 (for the first time in his career), had a win percentage of just 60.53% (for the first time in his career), finished outside of the top two, ending up 3rd (for the first time in his career) and won no trophies (for the first time in his career)? Read on and find out!
1. Controlled the second-ball
One of the most incredible things about the Premier League is the relentless pace at which games are played. It’s not necessarily about fast transitions (like the Bundesliga) or sheer physicality (ala Ligue 1) but a neverending pulse that keeps on rising. You know that one note in The Dark Knight that shows up whenever The Joker is about and never goes anywhere? It just keeps getting louder and louder, ratcheting up tension in a way you thought impossible? Yeah, that’s the Premier League.
Guardiola’s first season saw his usual style of play blown to bits by this relentlessness. “But really, you have to adapt to the second ball, and the third ball, and the fourth! I never before was focused on that, because in Barcelona or in Spain, more or less the players try to play for the culture,” he told Sky Sports two years ago.
So, what did he do? He drilled City harder at regaining the ball quickly, the organisation and positional discipline around big, powerful players. If City weren’t going to win all the first balls, they’d be faster to the second one and immediately restart their passing attack that way. By doing this, City became better at controlling the pace of games and were able to impose themselves fully.
2. Signed athletic defenders
It’s all very well to win the second ball but sometimes you have to win the first ball too. In his first season, Pep’s options at full-back were has-beens like Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy. Only Aleksandar Kolarov had any athleticism and he was often used at centre-back for his ability to build from the back.
So, the summer of 2017 saw massive investment in the back-line. £26m went on Danilo, £45m on Kyle Walker, £49.3m on Benjamin Mendy. That is a colossal outlay for full-backs (and was the subject of much derision at the time) and he topped all of that in January when he moved for Aymeric Laporte, paying £57m for the centre-back.
Such lavish spending had a purpose, however, and it gave City the athleticism needed to defend themselves from the Premier League’s dangerous wingers and powerful strikers. Laporte started slowly but is now the second-best centre-back in the league. Walker brings a relentless competence to the right side of defence and whenever Mendy has been fit, he’s been terrifyingly potent.
3. Worked with Sergio Aguero
When Pep Guardiola first arrived at Barcelona, he immediately tried to sell Samuel Eto’o. Now, Eto’o’s stubbornness (and brilliance) meant he stuck around a season but even after the Treble win, he was gone. His replacement was meant to be David Villa but ended up being Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who departed after just one year. When he joined Bayern, it was Mario Mandzukic who was shown the door as soon as possible.
Basically, Pep doesn’t get on with big ego strikers. Their individualistic tendencies clash with his collective view of the game. And early on at City, it was clear Aguero just didn’t “get it.” He scored goals, sure, but never looked fully settled into Pep’s vision of the game – so much so that teenaged Gabriel Jesus was often selected ahead of him despite having half the goal threat.
It would have been easy (well, ish) for Pep to discard Aguero and demand a more compliant striker, but he didn’t. He stuck by the Argentine and continued to work with him and now Aguero’s goals have helped Pep to dominate. Moreover, the Argentine even “gets it” now and participates fully in the build-up play.
Selling Aguero would have been a problem because Gabriel Jesus has proven to be an inconsistent scorer and City don’t have Leo Messi (e.g. Barça) nor dominion over their division and a superior incoming replacement (e.g. Bayern) that one would need to get away without having a proven and lethal 30 goal a season striker. Keeping the Argentine has helped Pep and Aguero become legends.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel: sqwk.at/Squawka-Sub
4. Attacked “the space” ahead of defences
There are a million-and-one tactical points that have made Pep dominant in England but the key one was realising that there’s only one elite defensive midfielder in the Premier League and as City weren’t playing Chelsea 38 times a season, there was a huge weakness to be exploited.
Most of the Premier League’s defensive midfielders are great tacklers, athletic and robust, they don’t shirk a challenge – but very few if any of them defend space well. There is nearly always an ocean of space ahead of most Premier League defences and that is where Pep put his two best players: Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, as central midfielders.
That’s a winger and a no. 10 playing as centre-mids in a 4-3-3. It was hugely offensive but the gamble paid off as City had two world-class ball-players in those key zones, making key passes and shots and that, more often than not, resulted in wins that even N’Golo Kanté couldn’t do anything about (the fact that it was De Bruyne who settled the titanic clash with Chelsea with a goal from this zone was so perfect).
5. Exploited the cutback
When you dominate the space ahead of the defence, you can’t always thread balls through the centre-backs or hammer in thunderbolts from 25 yards. No. You need to develop a high-frequency, high-quality system of delivering the ball into the box. For most Premier League clubs, this system is the cross, but that wouldn’t work for City – mostly because they don’t have any forwards that are good in the air, at least, not good enough to challenge Premier League defences who are happy to head crosses clear all day long.
So City developed a new weapon: the cutback.
Only two players have scored 15+ goals and provided 15+ Premier League assists since the start of last season:
🦈 Raheem Sterling (26 & 17)
🦈 Leroy Sané (15 & 20)
Sané is the only player with 20 Premier League assists in that time. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/k8sOVbPn0O
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 1, 2018
By stationing his wingers on their orthodox sides, that is right-footed Raheem Sterling on the right and left-footed Leroy Sané on the left, City stretched the pitch as wide as possible. Through this width (and their domination of the space ahead of defences), they were often able to play Sterling and Sané (or athletic Kyle Walker on the overlap) down the sides of the defence. And when they had them there, in space, they would whip the ball hard, fast and low across the ground. The cutback made it so that fast players like Aguero, Sané or Sterling were able to nip ahead of bigger defenders and get off shots at goal.
The fact that the best assist to goalscorer combination in the Premier League this season is Sterling to Aguero (4), followed by Aguero to Sterling, Sané to Sterling, Sterling to Sané and then Sané to Gabriel Jesus (all 3) showed just how much Manchester City use the cutback and how utterly devastating it is.