Jamie Scott is back another superb team analysis, this time focussing on Pep Guardiola’s asymmetry at Manchester City
Manchester City have been in scintillating form this season. This iteration of Pep’s project in the blue half of Manchester resembles something of an endgame on both an individual talent level and on the tactical level. They are capable of generating high quality chances sustainably in each game, and suffocate teams with their use of possession in combination with a strong counter-press. They have added Erling Haaland to a world class team and look genuinely unstoppable this season.
While their form may be ominous, if unsurprising to many, the tactical make-up of the side has ascended to impressive and nuanced levels. City play in a largely asymmetrical manner, yet their principles are holistic and universal across the team. This juxtaposition poses an interesting topic for discussion and this article aims to explore this topic and draw out the key facets of Pep Guardiola’s unique system.
Intro: City, Pep, Principles of play
Manchester City are consistent in the fact that their nominal formation (starting line-up) resembles a typical 4-3-3 formation, using a #6 flanked by two #8s in midfield. Out of the two #8s, it is often Bernardo who has the greater proclivity to drop to aid build-up and ball progression. Cancelo and Walker usually invert as fullbacks in the progression phase, meaning Rodri is rarely a true lone-pivot.
In terms of Guardiola’s overarching philosophy, there is quite an emphasis on the zones of the football pitch: the wide zone, the half-spaces, and the central zone. The umbrella term “positional play” (or JDP for short) is somewhat applicable here, and Guardiola generally encourages his team to stick to JDP principles such as having a maximum of two players occupy each vertical channel, or always having at least one player occupy each of the five lateral zones at any given time.
As a result, Manchester City play like a team in control of their game. Each individual has a strong awareness of their surroundings, and they can make quick and decisive decisions in possession due to the tactical clarity a JDP system under a high-quality coach affords. So, it is interesting that within the all-encompassing JDP system that City adopt such an asymmetrical approach; each flank seems to be its own tactical ecosystem, where varied methods of achieving progression and creation are observable. The tactical distinctions are clear, yet City are still adhering to their universal JDP-derivative approach.
Section 1: The Right Hand Side – Accessing the final third with in-to-out possession funnel (Walker), wide triangles/combinations/rotations, KDB in the half-space, and finding third man runners in the cutback zone
On the right hand side, Manchester City play in a repeatable manner: they are always looking to progress from the build-up in an in-to-out manner. While this derives somewhat from Walker’s natural passing angles (the ‘whipped’ line-breaking type pass), it is also a product of the structure that Guardiola aims to set his side up in. City often create a ‘possession funnel’, which offers a number of checkpoints from back to front. Ideally, City make a single pass from the right centre back or Walker directly into the front line, but finding the #8 between the lines can be seen as an intermediary option.
Due to the space afforded to players in the wide zone, finding this player (who has most recently been Phil Foden) offers security in possession; the ball reaching the winger can be seen as a trigger for established possession in the attacking half for City.
Once they have established possession in the attacking third, Manchester City can begin their attempt to generate their archetypal chance-creation methods. On the right, this typically involves creating wide overloads in order to access high-threat zones. If City are afforded space in the attacking third, De Bruyne can be devastating by making those whipped crosses from the half-space.
Teams rarely offer City space in this zone however, so to increase the volume of occasions City can access threatening zones, they use rotations and overloads to distort defensive structures, in order to prise gaps to access the high-value attacking zones.
The essence of using the wide triangle is to allow City to increase the number of times they can access the high-threat creation zones. City’s game suits the natural angles of the players to a tee: Foden’s proclivity to receive and drive inside opens up spaces for De Bruyne to overlap or underlap and whip in those venomous balls in for Haaland to attack. In the last month, De Bruyne has assisted goals against Sevilla, Aston Villa, and Wolves in this exact manner. When afforded space in the half-space, De Bruyne has also created a plethora of high-threat chances – the perfect example of this is the cross for Haaland’s second goal against Manchester United.
The means of creation are very specific on the right wing, but the overarching ideology is to access zones which suit the individuals, allowing them to create. It’s about manipulation the opponent, threatening to attack danger zones, forcing them to concede control in low priority zones. And City are capable of creating in a multitude of these zones – but the key is the volume of occasions that can access these zones, and their framework of positional play and wide rotations allows them to do this.
Section 2: The Left-Hand Side – Use of wingers down the line, Foden on strong left foot, Grealish with gravity, and Bernardo/Gundogan attacking space in depth from #8 position, all of which opens space for Joao Cancelo in the half-space to create.
Down the left, City use a very different means of playing. While the winger on this side varies (it is sometimes Foden who is on his strong foot down the line, as is Bernardo), Grealish appears to be Guardiola’s first choice option here. Bearing that in mind, the left side becomes an interesting tactical environment, especially given Cancelo, like Grealish, is stronger on his right foot. It’s interesting to note that when Foden played on the left, his movement down the line offered a threat in-behind, and defensive lines pre-emptively sank to deal with this. This, in turn, opened the half-space for Cancelo, who reaped the benefits all season, with time and space to create on his stronger right foot.
City have yet again transcended the previous tactical standards they set from the previous season, and their dynamics on the left are even more fruitful than before. With Grealish having a similar proclivity to attack down the line to Foden, but with higher ball retention and gravity than Foden (gravity being the ability to attract attention and suck defenders in), City pose a greater threat into depth (which opens the half-space for Cancelo).
Grealish can also cut inside, particularly when Bernardo Silva plays as the left-sided #8; this is because Bernardo offers underlapping seam runs between the centre-back and full-back to offer threat from depth. These rotations are nowhere near as metronomic as on the right (in fact, its even a push to call such movements rotations as the players all have distinct roles here), but the patient play and movements do still aim to distort the opposition’s defensive block, in order to grant City repeated access to high-value chance creation zones, which suit the individual’s natural game.
It isn’t an oversight to say that Pep merely deploys his players in a way that simply optimises their strengths, but the tactical framework is certainly the aspect that makes this play so repeatable. There are few teams in the world that can access high-danger zones such as the cut-back zone or the half-space so frequently, in a manner which favours their players so strongly.
Discussion + Conclusion: How these differing approaches actually hinge on very similar principles, and creation is systematically implemented by Pep, even if on face value the means are different.
The nuanced means of chance creation on either flank for Manchester City are distinct, but the net effect is the same: City have a relatively symmetrical xT map by comparison to the asymmetry of their tactical play.
Manchester City look to generate optimal angles for their players to create from, on either flank. An obvious contrast is Cancelo whipping in-swinging crosses in from the left, while De Bruyne whips out-swingers from the right, but each player is able to play their natural game. Gundogan at #8 attacks the box in his trademark fashion, and Foden drives with the ball on either flank to draw defenders away from the half-spaces (on the left) or wide zone (on the right). Bernardo peels away into the wide zone on the left, shaping to whip balls in or carry into the cutback zone, while Kyle Walker underlaps in his direct and speedy fashion, and so on.
Similarly, City utilise predictive threat to open downstream opportunities for themselves to create from. An example from the right side includes using the wide triangle, which aims to overload the opposition and access the cutback zone, forcing the opposition to prioritise defending that mode of attack. The downstream effect is that the half-space is then opened for De Bruyne (typically) to make his trademark cross. In a similar vein on the left, City use predictive threat down the line through Grealish’s carries from left wing and/or Gundogan/Bernardo’s underlapping seam runs to open the half-space for Cancelo. Conversely, if teams focus on defending the half-space, City will murder them with the runs into depth. It’s a tactical game of cat and mouse, except it’s a game where City not only hold all the cards, but they wrote the rulebook.
The end result from City’s progression and creation play, is a plethora of chances for the world’s best finisher Haaland to gobble up; little more needs to be said there other than just how startlingly efficient he has been thus far in a sky-blue shirt.
While it may be plainly obvious to say that Manchester City are elite on a tactical and individual level, and by extension this comes as a result of their principles of play, the way they mesh distinct tactical facets to achieve the same effective outcomes is truly interesting to see. The satisfaction of watching them dismantle top class defences week in week out is just an afterthought at this stage.
Header image credit: Shutterstock/Vlad1988