Guardiola has turned City away from pressing and back to passing

Jonathan Wilson
·5 min read

Ominously, Manchester City have eased towards the front of the title race. They went into the weekend third, just four points behind the Premier League leaders, Manchester United, with a game in hand. Their next five league games are against sides in the bottom half and Aston Villa. Had Liverpool beaten them on 8 November, rather than drawing 1-1, their lead over City would have been eight points. As it is, by the time City face Liverpool on 6 February, there’s a good chance they will be top of the table. That, really, is a triumph of coaching.

It’s a triumph of resources as well because almost everything in modern football is (and let nobody ever forget the origin of those resources). The signing of Rúben Dias has been a triumph, not just for his own performances but for the way he seems to have galvanised the entire backline, John Stones in particular. That he is not playing in the position initially envisaged (operating on the left rather than the right of the centre of defence) is a quirky detail rather than something that calls the planning into doubt.

Related: Manchester City purring again after stumbling upon winning formula | Jonathan Wilson

Other recent recruitment, though, has been less effective and City are probably still short of a left-back, a holding midfielder, a centre-forward and, arguably, a wide forward. It’s still a very good squad, but it is not very good by the standards of the super-clubs.

When City drew at home to West Brom a month ago, it was reasonable to ask – and the bar is exceptionally high – whether this was the worst side Pep Guardiola had managed. Since then, however, City have won seven out of seven, including away performances at Chelsea in the league and Manchester United in the Carabao Cup that suggested a side near their best.

This has not been in any sense a normal season. The usual rules don’t apply. The truncated pre-season and the compressed calendar have made a material difference to how teams play. Players are exhausted. Injuries are rife. The constant churn of two games a week has made it harder for those sides who tailor their press precisely to the opposition.

The result was, initially, wildness, as United, Liverpool and City let in five or more in a game. A retrenchment followed: after all the excitement about the glut of goals in that first month, average goals per game is back down to 2.75 – 0.03 more than last season; 0.07 less than the season before.

John Stones celebrates with Rúben Dias after scoring in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Manchester United
John Stones (right) celebrates with Rúben Dias after scoring in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Manchester United. Dias has galvanised City’s entire backline. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Even teams who would usually play a high line as a matter of course have been dropping off. It is not quite true to say that the wheel of evolution has been rolled back a decade, for teams now play with the knowledge of what is possible with pressing, but nobody is pushing the boundaries as they were. Pressures in the Premier League are down almost 23% on 2018-19.

Liverpool and City had found a way of playing that brought them points totals in the high-90s, unusually high tallies that spoke of the depth and quality of their squads and the intelligence and effectiveness of their approaches.

If United keep gathering points at the current rate, they will amass 80. Realistically, it will probably take a few more than that to win the title as the better teams settle in the second half of the season, but these are highly unusual times and that makes this season far more of a test of a coach’s ability to adapt and improvise than normal.

Fortunes and expectations have changed quickly. Long-term planning and the capacity to instil a philosophy are not unimportant, but they are perhaps less immediately relevant. The sense is that Guardiola would have adapted anyway. The side he sent out against Lyon in the Champions League quarter-finals last season was an indication of how concerned he had become by City’s vulnerability to the counterattack.

The question then became how to reinforce the area in front of the back four without detracting too much from the aggression of the press and without restricting Kevin De Bruyne. There will be serious tests ahead, against Liverpool and, in the game after that, Tottenham, then in Europe. But the way City negated United, who beat them three times last season, suggested the slight change in Ilkay Gündogan’s role, to a sort of deep‑lying No 8, or pivote-plus, is working.

Related: Colin Bell, Cup semis and the Trippier Tapes – Football Weekly Extra

There has been another change. “We were running too much,” Guardiola said before the Brighton game. “Without the ball you have to run. But with the football you have to walk, or run much less: stay more in position and let the ball run, not you.”

A major factor in West Germany’s adoption of their curious pressing-less version of Total Football in the 70s were the matches the national side played in León during the 1970 World Cup. In ferocious heat, some relief was offered by the shadow provided by the grandstand, and players learned how, by smart passing and movement, they could manipulate the game to be played in the shade. External factors can encourage change.

There were always two aspects to the football played by Guardiola’s Barcelona. There was pressing and there was possessing. They won the ball with the press and they then kept it with their passing and movement.

Over the past decade, with the rise of the German school, the emphasis in elite football has switched more to regaining than retaining possession. But over this past month, as circumstances have demanded a less energetic approach, the needle has perhaps flickered back.

It helps City that playing Raheem Sterling on the right and Phil Foden on the left, their “natural” sides, as City did against Chelsea and United, widens the pitch and stretches the opposing defence. It’s a step back to the more traditional Dutch approach. It makes passing easier, but just as significant that passing has once again become a priority.

Making the ball do the work may sound like traditional wisdom, but for City a refocus has been effective.