Pep Guardiola does not enjoy press conferences at the best of times.
As he sat down, drew his hands across his face and squeezed together a furrowed brow after Manchester City’s 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City last September, he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world.
“After 2-1 and 3-1 we were not strong enough to be stable and be patient,” he said, having watched Riyad Mahrez fire his team into an early lead before they collapsed shambolically and gave away three penalties.
“We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad.”
The lack of belief Guardiola eluded to owed much to City playing through a fog of bitter disappointment that still cloaked them following the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon the previous month.
A short turnaround to the new campaign was compromised by coronavirus cases and the overall impression was of something broken within a squad Guardiola was taking charge of for a fifth season – his longest spell at a single club.
At that moment, if you had been told one team would be unbeaten in 20 matches and the other would be seven points off the pace in the title racing heading into this Sunday’s showdown between Liverpool and City at Anfield, your first reaction might have been surprise that the team from Manchester were only seven points behind.
Two days after the Leicester debacle, Ruben Dias became City’s record signing for £62million.
The void left by long-serving captain Vincent Kompany was considerable during 2019-20, with a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi’s erratic form compounding matters at centre-back.
Wanting Dias to improve things was not too much to ask. However, his impact has been utterly transformative.
An instant mainstay, he has started three more games (26) than any of his team-mates across all competitions. Dias’ one substitute outing came with City 1-0 down and facing FA Cup embarrassment at Cheltenham Town last month. They won 3-1.
The Portugal international’s 2298 minutes on the field are 228 – or two and a half games – more than any of his colleagues.
He leads the way in terms of headed clearances (34), while 57 aerials won and 32 interceptions have him second only to Rodri and Joao Cancelo within the City squad.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time on the field and position, Dias’ 2241 passes – at an accuracy of 93.4% – are the most in the City squad, while his confidence in carrying the ball out from the back to start attacks underlines his suitability to Guardiola’s style.
Dias’ 470 carries – instances of him moving with the ball five metres or more – are the second best in the division, while he leads the way in the Premier League in terms of carries shifting the ball up field between five and 10 metres (177).
“He’s not just a player who plays good, he’s a player who makes the other guys play good too,” Guardiola said.
“It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.
“When that happens, it’s difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] un-droppable.”
This Dias effect is probably easiest to spot in John Stones, who is similarly one of the first names on Guardiola’s team sheet this season, having been frequently passed over despite the sorry state of the defence last time around.
In the 11 Premier League matches Stones and Dias have started together in defence, City have won 10, drawn one and conceded just once – an injury-time consolation for Callum Hudson-Odoi during a 3-1 win at Chelsea.
Such dominant form did not simply come packaged up with Dias’ transfer fee, though. During England’s autumn and early winter months, Guardiola had another problem.
The team that pilfered 102, 95 and 106 goals in the previous three Premier League were struggling to find the net.
If getting hammered by Leicester marks the first pivot point in City’s season, December’s dour 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford is the second.
“There was no intent there, whether it was on the pitch, or from the managers to win that match,” an unimpressed Gary Neville said on Sky Sports afterwards.
“If Jose Mourinho was the manager of either one of those two teams, we’d be killing them now. We’d be saying it’s not good enough, it’s boring, it’s parking the bus.”
Along with bringing in Dias, Guardiola tweaked his team structure after the Leicester game. Generally, Rodri would be accompanied by a second holding midfielder and his wingers would be inverted to guard against counter-attacks.
In the nine Premier League matches played after the Leicester game, up to and including the Manchester derby, City won four, drew four and lost one.
Over this period, they had the joint-best defence in the division with five conceded, level with Tottenham despite playing a game more. However, 12 goals scored was joint-ninth in the division alongside Crystal Palace, who managed the haul in eight outings to City’s nine.
In terms of minutes per goal, City’s 68 made them the 11th most prolific team in the top flight, below Newcastle United (65).
The creative burden sat largely with Kevin De Bruyne, who claimed five assists during these matches. No other City player supplied more than one.
On the face of it, the following game against West Brom suggested the pattern was set to continue. A 1-1 draw after dominating possession but creating relatively little until a stoppage-time flurry amounted to a dispiriting night’s work at a soggy Etihad Stadium.
But Ilkay Gundogan’s performance against the Baggies was indicative of the shackles being loosened. The Germany international scored and has not looked back.
From the West Brom match onwards, Gundogan has netted seven goals in 10 appearances – more than any other Premier League player during this time – to swiftly rack up the most prolific season of his professional career.
A look at the playmaker’s pitch maps if we split the season in this way shows a deliberate effort from Guardiola to get further up the field a player he credits as having “a special sense of finishing”.
Before facing the Baggies, Gundogan made more than 70% of his touches in the middle third of the field, with fewer than 20% in the final third. These figures have now shifted to 51% and 41% respectively. This has not only yielded an increase in Gundogan’s goals return, but his chances created (22) since being granted a more attacking role can only be bettered by De Bruyne (23), although injury means the Belgium star has played three fewer games.
It is to Gundogan’s credit that the PFA Players’ Player of the Year is not being especially missed right now, while his smooth style wreaking havoc in the small pockets of space that deep-lying defences allow means David Silva’s close-season departure is no longer being so keenly felt.
Actions do not happen independently within Guardiola’s playing style of Juego de Posicion, where team structure is paramount.
In other words, Gundogan hasn’t just been told to run into the box more often and see what happens. Changes have taken place to shift his position higher up the field.
One of these is a more aggressive approach with wingers.
“I didn’t like much the way we were playing. We’ve come back to where we were in the previous seasons with the wingers wider and higher and come back to our principles,” Guardiola explained.
“For many reasons – little rest, a lack of physical condition, the COVID many, many players had – we had to adapt the way we play for the quality of the players we had in that moment in better conditions.
“In the end, I felt wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and have more control in many aspects.”
One of the players to thrive more than most within this set-up is Phil Foden.
Guardiola used the boyhood City fan in a variety of attacking positions before leaving him as a frustrated unused substitute at Old Trafford. Since then, every start Foden has made in City’s on-going winning streak of nine Premier League matches has been on the left wing.
It marks a departure from the inverted wingers earlier on in the campaign, with the left-footed Foden generally deployed in parallel to Raheem Sterling on the right, the two England stars serving to stretch the area opponents have to defend and open up space for the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva inside them.
Again, starting after the Leicester game and applying the same pre- and post-derby split as we did to Gundogan, Foden’s numbers are on the up.
During City’s period of consolidation, he created three chances in eight appearances (two starts) at a shade under one every 90 minutes. Since then he has created 18 at an average of 3.2 per game. With him in the side in the Premier League this term, City’s shots per game rise average rises from 13.6 to 18.2
Foden’s most important contribution during this period was the only goal in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion. He is another player helping to share the goal burden and make light of Sergio Aguero’s on-going absence, with nine in all competitions.
Guardiola feels Foden’s energy and dribbling ability, along with this goalscoring knack, gives City a vital attacking edge, even though he still views him as a “number eight” in the long term. For now, his right-back very often fills the latter position.
“He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him,” the City boss said of Joao Cancelo last month.
Now it is opponents who find themselves repeatedly baffled by where the Portugal full-back crops up on the field.
Creative use of his wide defenders is nothing new for Guardiola. During his time at Bayern Munich, he shifted the likes of Rafinha, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm inside, with the dual benefit of swarming central areas when in possession and having bodies to thwart the counter if the ball was lost.
Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all operated in a similar fashion at times for Guardiola’s City, although always with the primary aim of assisting the holding midfielder. While Cancelo does this to fine effect – another factor in Gundogan being unleashed – he also operates with a broader attacking brief.
Walker and Cancelo’s touch maps for this season illustrate how Guardiola has used his senior right-backs differently.
Walker plays a full part in City’s build-up from deep but the majority of his touches (54%) come on the right flank either side of the halfway line. This is the return of a fairly conventional right-back.
Cancelo’s numbers are spread around, in part because of the games he has started at left-back. But 187 of his touches (12.5%) have come in attacking central areas between the halfway line and the edge of the opposition penalty area, compared to 97 (7.6%) for Walker.
Despite not always starting at right-back, Cancelo (231) also has slightly more touches than Walker (228) on the right-hand side of the final third, along with 162 in advanced positions down the left flank.
In short, he’s everywhere and his value to attack and defence simultaneously is underlined by a high ranking within the City squad across a number of categories.
Cancelo is third among his team-mates in the Premier League this season for passes (1108) and recoveries (88), joint-second for dribbles attempted (49) and chances created (31), second outright for tackles (32) and leads the way with 24 interceptions.
Some of those close to Guardiola believe the Catalan’s innovations with full-backs are his greatest tactical contribution to football. With Cancelo, he is pushing the envelope once more.
One of the biggest reasons Guardiola felt comfortable doubling down on his footballing vision during – within the context of his career – a time of crisis can often be found sitting on the other side of a vacant, social-distance enabling dugout seat in animated conversation with the City boss.
Juanma Lillo was appointed as assistant coach at City last June. He and Guardiola go back much further.
When he played for Barcelona, Guardiola was so struck by how impressively Lillo’s Real Oviedo played during a 4-2 defeat in September 1996 that he sought him out after the game.
A friendship was formed, and Guardiola closed out his playing days with Dorados de Sinaloa, purely so he could play under Lillo. Alas, there is no Netflix documentary for that period of the Mexican club’s history.
Alongside the late Johan Cruyff, Lillo is considered to have had the most significant shaping influence upon Guardiola the coach, which makes his presence as City tried to plot a route away from mid-table earlier this season feel significant.
“It would not have been possible, what we have done so far – which is nothing [in terms of trophies], but being there in the table – without his influence on me,” Guardiola said of Lillo last week.
“He knows exactly what I need to hear in the right moment. He sees something that I am not able to see, he has a special sense to read the game that is difficult to find worldwide.
“Especially in the bad moments, he is a guy who makes me feel calm and makes me see the real situation of the team. Juanma’s influence during this period has been so, so, so important.
“He’s important to me and that is what I need.”
Watching the superb wins over Chelsea and at Manchester United in the EFL Cup after the turn of the year was to witness a realisation of the vision Guardiola and Lillo fanatically share.
An array of central midfielders streamed into the space where there was no specialist centre-forward, Cancelo roved with abandon and Dias and Stones launched attacks from in front of their bolted back door. Everything was connected.
In an interview with The Blizzard in 2012, Lillo was asked to qualify his assertion that there is no such thing as attack and defence.
“Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don’t have the ball. How can one exist without the other?” he said.
“You can’t take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again.
“You can’t take an arm off Rada Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance.”
Guardiola hasn’t taken to hacking limbs off his players as with Lillo’s Frankenstein Nadal, but he believes a key to their success lately has been using their legs less.
“The reason why we played not good was because, when we had the ball, we moved too much and ran too much. Football, when you have the ball almost you have to walk and run in the right moment,” he explained, in a succinct summary of his and Lillo’s philosophy.
“When we don’t have the ball, we have to run like the last ball in your life. With the ball now we are more calm, more passes, everyone is more in the position and that’s why we are able to play a little bit better.”
Through standing still, City have taken a huge leap forward over recent weeks. If they are able to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003 – a game that launches a sequence of Premier League games against Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United – it will become a little bit harder to see anyone catching them.
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