Pep Guardiola justified his place as one of the greatest managers of all time, when the Premier League trophy flaunted blue and white ribbons on it for the third time since his arrival in 2016. Come March, Manchester City was galloping away with the title. In little accordance to this, Pep was quoted saying that […]
Pep Guardiola justified his place as one of the greatest managers of all time, when the Premier League trophy flaunted blue and white ribbons on it for the third time since his arrival in 2016. Come March, Manchester City was galloping away with the title. In little accordance to this, Pep was quoted saying that this victory was like “no other”, terming this season as the “hardest one”. On the surface, Pep’s claims appear to be growing out of sheer ecstasy about the title win. But diving into the details, it’s anybody’s say that this City side is indeed, something else. Differentiated from the 2017-18’s Centurions, and 2018-19’s Domestic Treble winners, that’s how good this side is.
A slight rewind to November, when calls for Pep’s ousting had started to amplify amongst the Cityzens. City was struggling in 10th, and a potential comeback looked unlikely.
Enter: Another Pep Guardiola masterclass.“If I did not feel we could do better I would not have extended my contract here, 100 percent.”. These were Pep’s words after he signed a new contract in December. He precisely meant what he said. Manchester City finished the year unbeaten in the league, and went on a record breaking 21 game winning streak across all competitions. Pep Guardiola had once again proven his critics wrong.
After getting eliminated thrice- from Europe’s premiere competition and what is supposedly Pep Guardiola’s ultimate test of greatness-the Champions League, in a rather premature quarter final stage, the Sky Blues finally find themselves 90 minutes from glory. Pep will go all out to seal this hugely anticipated tactical victory against an old rival from his days in Germany, Thomas Tuchel.
So let’s find out what makes this season so special for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.
1. The Rubin Diaz Effect
Sir Alex Ferguson blessed the footballing world with pretty much everything, including the saying “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”. Analysts and statisticians might argue about the accuracy of this statement, but it appears like another managerial great has vindicated it quite convincingly. This Manchester City side has been lauded as the most complete footballing side of recent years, and it isn’t rocket science that City’s superb defence plays a crucial role in this.
Under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s largest concern has been finding someone to fill Vincent Kompany’s shoes. Ruben Dias’s arrival from Benfica wiped off those concerns, as he bolstered City’s defence, and ultimately transformed his team into an elite force. A brave defender, bold leader and a technically adept footballer, Ruben Dias has done more than keeping clean sheets.
In particular, his performance against PSG at the Etihad Stadium highlighted his intelligence as a defender, but also his passion and leadership qualities. He has forged a magnificent defensive partnership with John Stones, revitalising the latter in the process. Additionally, the presence of this solid defensive pairing at the back has made his team tactically flexible, which has made City a treat to watch.
Conclusively Dias’s strength in one-on-one situations, adroit decision making with regard to holding off the attacker and being aggressive whenever needed, his constant communication with the rest of the backline are his stand-out attributes.
2. Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez Coming to Fore
Liverpool’s woeful 2020-21 season shouldn’t conceal their heroics of last season, when they outclassed every team in England. It was done on the back of collective efforts from the entire team, a system smartly developed by Jurgen Klopp. Albeit the elaborate description of the importance of Dias, City’s title win cannot be credited to one player. These examples show how football, as a sport, is like a jigsaw puzzle; there’s one piece missing and the entire picture is incomplete.
Earlier in the season, Kevin De Bruyne was creating more than 50% of Manchester City’s goal-scoring chances. However, come the end of the season, Phil Foden leads the chart with a modest 22%. Players including Gundogan, Mahrez, Silva, Foden turned up at crucial moments and proved their worth. Gundogan’s advanced positioning saw him score 13 goals in the Premier League this season, an impressive return for a central midfielder.
Riyad Mahrez’s brace helped City shove past PSG in the Champions League semi-final, this season has seen Phil Foden move from being a talent to a performer, as shouts of “Stockport Iniesta” get louder. Pep has used Foden in a variety of positions, and to say the least he has excelled in most of them.
3. The Brilliance of Pep Guardiola
Right from his days at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola has established himself as one of the best when it comes to tactical brilliance. His incredible footballing genius helped City rise from their ruins and turn the tide to their benefit within two months. Stones and Dias’s formidable partnership at the back enabled him to get his full backs forward, and Joao Cancelo’s excellent vision and Zinchenko’s crisp passing meant that City formed a 2-3-5 formation while in transition.
Further, in David Silva’s time at Manchester City, he was entrusted with the responsibility of modulating the play in the midfield, similar to Xavi’s and Thiago’s roles in Pep Guardiola’s previous sides. However, the Spaniard’s departure left Pep’s midfield all over the place. Pep rose to the challenge and combined players with blistering pace to the relatively sluggish ones, and formed a midfield that would allow the attacker’s to carry out their duties freely.
Being screened by a ‘midfield’ 3 meant that the two-man backline had additional protection from menacing dribbles.City make changes from one match to the next, depending on how the opposition set up, but the general aim is to outnumber the opposition forwards and cover their midfielders.
This season, City have generally kept three defenders stretched out across the backline with one of the full-backs supporting Rodri in midfield, and this has given them plenty of options and great coverage of the pitch. But it can change depending on the opposition and against Dortmund they did a great job of caging Haaland by isolating him between four or even five players, keeping full-backs wide on this occasion.
4. No Striker, No Problem!
English football’s love of traditional strikers is well-known to all its followers. Pep’s Manchester City, however, omitted this element of affection from their game plan this season. Having your first-choice striker injured isn’t an encouraging sight, unless you’re Pep Guardiola. Pep saw Aguero’s absence as an opportunity to experiment further with his side and brought back the false 9 position onto his white-board.
Pep created a 5 man attacking midfield consisting of Bernardo Silva, Kevin De bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and Gundogan. Of these 5, only Foden has a primary position, the others have occupied various roles in different games. This midfield is at the heart of Pep Guardiola’s gameplan, and is responsible for creating the most unconventional yet flexible footballing sides of all time.
5. Squad Depth
Jose Mourinho rightly said a couple of years ago that four teams could win the Premier League, and two of them were Manchester City sides. This year’s heroics suggest that it still stands true. This season has unarguably been the weirdest of footballing seasons. Games were coming thick and fast, rivals suffered due to injuries, bio-bubble created a suffocating atmosphere, covid-19 cases threatened to postpone games.
This season was about adapting, reforming and performing. Pep Guardiola’s side adapted to it quite well as they put in quality performances on a domestic as well as continental level. Huge credit for this goes to the massive depth that Pep has at his dispense. Pep has received plaudits for his rotation policy and that has been instrumental in keeping his side up and ready for (and after) the big games.
Broadly, these have been the major factors leading to Manchester City’s success. However, one shouldn’t ignore a more subjective aspect of this. Manchester City are in their maiden Champions League final owing to a massive performance against the Parisians in the semi final. According to SC, this was the standout performance.
Considering that PSG had overcome defending champions Bayern Munich, this was a formidable opponent. City’s ability to switch between a 3-2 and a 2-3 shape depending on how many forwards the opposition leave up the pitch has helped them keep out even the most potent counter-attacks in Europe. PSG often looked to catch Manchester City on the break, just like they did to Bayern. However, it appears like Pep had foreseen this, and the system he created against PSG completely nullified the threat posed by Kyllian Mbappe and Neymar Jr. Dias’s heroics, coupled with brilliant positioning by the fullbacks and precise passing helped Pep’s side keep PSG at bay.
Conclusively, what Pep Guardiola has built is a side most teams across Europe wouldn’t want to face. Win the Champions League or not; built out of collective effort, unprecedented flexibility, technical accuracy and all-rounded strength, this side has in it to break into the list of some of the finest sides in football history.