During Pep Guardiola’s 13-year coaching career, concepts like the functionality of players over their role, collective participation, different variations of ball possession and the value of transitions have all become part of the way we think and imagine the game. We’re talking about a coach who’s been an unbelievable driver of change. Not only has he consistently led successful teams and won loads of trophies, but he has also changed the archetypes of how we think about the game in terms of strategies and tactics.
One of the most fascinating things about Guardiola is his ability to suddenly shuffle all his certainties. The Catalan comes up with a new, innovative, unpredictable solution all at once, just like an illusionist keeping the audience’s attention on a decoy while getting ready for his big coup de théâtre. Every time we think we have seen everything – or that his ‘overthinking’ is limiting the performance of his team – a new masterpiece arrives.
The worst-ever start of the season of his career led Guardiola to call some aspects of his Manchester City into question. Not by setting aside everything he had tried and the existing dynamics with the team, but (with newly appointed assistant Juanma Lillo’s brain to pick from) rather moving a few tiles in order for the whole mechanism to work smoother, creating new dynamics and either gathering new ideas together or bringing old solutions back. For example, the usage of the inverted fullback, the ‘false fullback’ leaving its classic position to play beside the central midfielder – or in the ‘half-space’ – has been one of the most distinctive traits of his team. But it’s not a brand-new concept as the Catalan native already used it when at Bayern Munich.
The choice not to play classic strikers is one of the oldest strategies of his career and the even more radical choice of playing two ‘false nines’ had already been tried with Manchester City before, during the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 match against Zidane’s Real Madrid in 2020. During that game, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne started from central positions to then lie deep beside Casemiro and avoid the Madrid pressure.
The Shape of City
As mentioned, the double false nine’s first appearance dates back to February 2020, in a very different context than this season: Beside Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, there were Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez, with Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy behind them. Because of the players’ characteristics, both the exploitation of the external channels in the last metres and the rotations in central areas turned out to be less flexible than what we saw this season. “I didn’t like the way we were playing. In previous seasons the wingers were wider and higher so we came back to our principles,” said Guardiola. “I felt having the wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and the quality of the players do the rest. When we have the ball, we run less.”
This is probably the best way to start when trying to give a more concrete shape to City’s improved performances: a team that, regardless of their ability to move the ball and occupy space, had reached a deadlock in their offensive dangerousness, hence having defensive problems too. Guardiola’s solution started from the symmetrical occupation of width, with the two high wingers no longer having to be pinned to the touchline, but also being ready to attack the space by running internally. The founding principle around this idea is the manipulation of space, that is the ability to create and occupy spaces in an irregular and dynamic fashion.
This is an aspect that Guardiola himself reiterated in a post-match interview with Sky Sports Italy after the UCL semi final against PSG: “We get to the penalty box, we’re not already there”. To support this philosophy, Guardiola gave up on playing a pure striker (even if they were associative players, perfectly integrating into his system, like Gabriel Jesus and Agüero) and the central space of the attack was entrusted to De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva.
We can’t use one single system to describe City: When they press high, the positioning recalls a 4-2-2-2; when they defend with a lower block it looks like a 4-1-4-1; when they attack, they build up the play with a diamond (3+2 or 2+3) either with one or both fullbacks on the midfielder line, or sending both in advanced lateral positions (asymmetrical), as did against PSG. You could try to summarize all of these transformations in a 3-2-3-2 system, others with a 3-2-2-3 or even 3-3-1-3. But it’s probably unnecessary to agree on which system is more approximate.
Creative ability to manipulate space
Starting from their internal positions, De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva try to move according to the defenders’ behavior to overload a certain area or lure an opponent out of position, in order to have more space to attack behind the defensive line or to create isolation on the weak side. They also link with other teammates, trying to support the build-up.
False nines can move in the space between full-backs and centre-backs, stretching towards the external channels if they can get the full-back’s attention to free up Mahrez or Foden, or towards the central ones to create chances for an internal attack, maybe with a quick give and go.
With this great mobility, it’s natural that the tasks change within the same play. So it can happen that Foden, Mahrez or Gündogan also find themselves playing with these same concepts in mind once their teammates move. The whole point, though, is that City try not to occupy the centre to attack there immediately.
The individual interpretation is tied to the teammates’ movements: if De Bruyne, Silva, Mahrez or Foden – or whomever else – find themselves in very wide positions and the team needs a central invasion, Gündogan is often the one taking on this task. The German had the most prolific goal scoring season of his career and also had the most chances of freeing himself in the final third, especially in the games when the space beside Rodri (who usually lies deep to cover) was occupied by one or both fullbacks.
These are not strictly codified plans: Within a more/less permitting positional tactic depending on the match, the players have significant freedom of interpretation. In City’s own half, every situation is more defined, but what happens in the offensive half is always very challenging to read for the opponent.
There are matches and situations when De Bruyne and Silva can both lie deep to play beside the opposing central midfielders, or in front of them, either one at a time or both at the same time. In these instances, they can pick the area of the pitch to occupy. City can here also decide which opponents to lure and which spaces to free for future developments of the play.
De Bruyne and Silva position themselves in relation to the two players in front of the defense, creating either a diamond or a square, depending on the situation. Other times, City keep a central link on the opposing line (who can also play the false nine role, on his own) together with two wide wingers. At times only one of the two strikers plays as false nine, with the other one lying deeper to support the midfielders. Sometimes, it’s Gündogan himself who starts the attack from the centre instead of coming from the back.
When both De Bruyne and Silva move towards the same side of the pitch, City usually looks to consolidate possession to free space on the opposite flank. This dynamic proved to be useful even when Cancelo played on the left, allowing him to switch play with his right foot, finding a running teammate on the opposite side of the pitch.
In all of these variations, other than by Gündogan’s dynamism and Cancelo’s creative interpretation, the constant is given by Silva and De Bruyne’s ability to manipulate space. But why has Guardiola betted so radically on this duo, to the point of benching a player more direct to attack spaces?
First and foremost, they are two players at their respective peaks, playing at an incredible level. They also became critical in the progression of the movement of the ball and in determining the build-up of the play, right up to the final third. Most of all, though, they are two players very comfortable in managing possession in tight spaces in the central area of the pitch. They don’t have problems in running back or wide if that’s what they need to avoid pressure.
Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne are versatile players: they can receive the ball and turn, play with the teammates, protect the ball. And most of all, they acquired a crucial spatial awareness that allows them to anticipate the next move. They’re two offensive playmakers who operate in different areas, directly and indirectly influencing the success of the play. But none of this would work if City hadn’t acquired the ability to constantly change mindset during play.
A tangible example of this happened in the first-leg against PSG. After the inconclusive first half, when Guardiola decided to keep both the full-backs wide, bringing Gündogan back beside Rodri, attempting to contain possession in a double pivot, and therefore thwarting PSG’s defensive plan to flood the centre of the pitch to then have more space to attack on the wings. The influence that Foden and Mahrez had on the more internal channels made the difference.
Guardiola restarted from an aspect that could give more stability to the whole structure – wide wingers – but the heart of the plan was the vacating of central spaces, according to the type of opponents and matches.
There is the positional structure to keep attacking effectively and also the positional rotations, but the plan which remains cemented in place is the one of a fluid team which keeps opponents guessing. Once again, with the checked guidance and knowhow of his trusted assistant in the background, Guardiola took a step back to take three forward with his Manchester City team.