Why is Pep Guardiola making his Manchester City full backs play in the centre of midfield?
At the end of the late 2000s, tactical commentators announced that from about 2008 onwards, European football had witnessed the rise of ‘Guardioliasm’. It may sound fairly pretentious, but the term essentially referred to the rise of Barcelona under the zealous ‘tika taka’ strategy of Pep Guardiola, which complimented the renaissance of the Spanish national team, and the return of ‘total football’.
If you have time, read this article on that collective movement, and how Guardiola’s tactical ingenuity sent tidal waves around the footballing world.
It was interesting then to see Guardiola’s latest tactical innovation, which has found itself at the centre of his new Manchester City side. The plan: playing full backs as central midfielders while in possession. It’s never been seen in the Premier League before.
It would be fair to say that every conventional formation that exists in the world utilises a team’s full backs as supportive wide men when in possession. See below.
The above example refers to City’s 3-2 defeat at Real Madrid in 2012, but you could take any example of pretty much any game to see the same tactical practices implemented.
Usually, wide players, in this case Samir Nasri and David Silva, have their attacking movements supplemented by overlapping full backs who create ‘overloads’ against opposition defences while providing additional ‘width’ to stretch out opposition rearguards. Instructing full backs to bomb up the flanks is a fairly foolproof method of attacking with additional numbers, as there remains cover in the centre of the pitch from a holding midfielder (Barry or Garcia) to prevent counter attacks.
What Guardiola has created completely inverts this. Against Sunderland and Steaua, City maintained a similar defensive shape. But in the attacking phase, instead of bombing forward up the flanks like full backs always do, Clichy and Sagna became central midfielders. This was complimented by Fernandinho migrating backwards into the Busquets-esque ‘sweeping-quarterback’ role, which allowed City’s central defenders, Aleksandar Kolarov and John Stones, to move laterally to the flanks to create a back three. It leaves a line of ‘three’ and a line of ‘two’. See below.
Above is the theoretical shape of how Guardiola wants his team to look. Why Guardiola has chosen to adapt this from his time at Bayern is easy to see when you analyse the rationale behind it.
Primarily, this is a strategy that re-enforces the side’s structure. By playing full backs in midfield, Guardiola sets up with five fluidly rotating attackers, and five defensive players. There isn’t a box to box, jack of all trades, hybrid player in the middle who balances between the two. Players either have a defensive or attacking obligation. That bodes well for preventing counter attacks because City nearly always have five players behind the ball. Fernandinho will solidify this by sweeping up any long balls.
Guardiola has boasted the best defensive record at both Barcelona and Bayern, and this has been born from tactical details similar to this. But with that, he will of course also have noted how Leicester romped to the title last year by playing counter attacking football, and will be wary of the likeliness that opposing teams will almost certainly attempt to hit City on the break after withstanding long periods of the game without the ball.
But beyond that, the strategy allows for City’s wing-forwards, Raheem Sterling and Nolito (circled in red below below), to have one on ones against their opposing full backs. Douglas Costa flourished in this role at Bayern, and when you can afford to sign pacey, flair-fuelled wingers, this formation facilitates one on one situations out wide.
There are of course limitations to pulling this off. The system evolves by building from the back and transitioning slowly out of a more regular defensive shape- City can’t just waltz into that structure easily- it needs to be patiently constructed. That’s why the assured distribution of the team’s goalkeeper is essential, and explains Guardiola’s skepticism over a goalkeeper as renowned as Joe Hart.
Second, the system was born from Guardiola having access to two of the world’s most technically adept full backs- Phillip Lahm and David Alaba. In possession phases, Clichy and Sagna will find themselves as deep-lying playmakers coordinating and feeding the attacking five in front of them. Whether they’re technically skilled enough to be relied upon to orchestrate Pep’s passing merry-go-round remains to be seen. Full backs, historically, have always needed to be physically outstanding to bomb back and forth up the pitch, but this new role will place a greater emphasis on their passing ability. Considering both Sagna and Clichy are aged on the wrong side of 30, expect City to hit the transfer market big to bring in a world class pair of full backs at some point soon.
Despite’s the sound logic behind this, it’s difficult to know just how effective it will be. Excessively dogmatic passing football has been known to fail in the Premier League in the past, as proven by Arsenal’s continued miss-performance in big games. Perhaps Guardiola’s biggest test won’t be in winning the league this year, but in sticking with the formation when things get difficult.
This is a new form of ‘Guardiolaism’- the advent of not the false no.9, but of ‘false full backs’. Whether it will be as destructive as the first wave of Guardiolaism will be interesting to see.