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Talking Tactics: How Guardiola adjusted Man City system for midseason surge

Pep Guardiola was unusually candid after Manchester City beat Chelsea 3-1 on Sunday evening, discussing his tactical plans in an uncharacteristically open way. To do so was revealing in and of itself: Pep, wringing his hands after a strained first half of the 2020/21 season, was at pains to provide justification for a strategy that is finally beginning to bear fruit.

"We are a team that has to play in a certain rhythm, we can't play when everything is up and down, up and down, up and down," he said, after suggesting his team are not capable of counter-attacking quickly like Tottenham Hotspur or Liverpool. "We have to play our rhythm, a thousand passes, passes, passes and at the right moment attack."

On one level this is an obvious, and perhaps even over-simplified, description of the tactical philosophy that City have deployed since Guardiola's appointment in 2016. But it hints at a tweak in style brought on by the unique variables of pandemic football.

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the rhythms of the Premier League. A truncated pre-season, an exhausting fixture list, and a lack of time for coaching in the week has seen the division regress tactically.

Pressing, the most important aspect of the modern game, has dropped dramatically at every club (bar Leeds United) while pretty much every team is playing in a relatively disordered manner, with minor positional errors rife both on and off the ball. Even Liverpool, so ruthlessly organised under Jurgen Klopp, are fanning out in haphazard formation in matches or meandering into zig-zag defensive lines.

Without adequate coaching time, and with body and mind badly fatigued, the division is nothing like it was 12 months ago - hence the chaos at the top. Hence the unpredictability that has left just a seven-point gap between first and tenth.

But perhaps Man City are bucking the trend, and as they begin to surge up the Premier League table it is starting to look as though Guardiola has adapted quicker than anyone to the new normal.

Man City have the best defensive record in the division by some distance, partly because of Guardiola's occasionally-infuriating cautiousness this campaign. He has consistently fielded Rodri alongside Ilkay Gundogan and, setting City's line much deeper than in the past, has slowly felt out the rhythm of matches, leading to low-scoring games and plenty of dropped points.

His team have been obsessed with possession, with sideways passing, drawing criticism for their bluntness; for playing tiki-taka without purpose.

But suddenly that approach looks like a stroke of genius: where other managers have ploughed on with their usual strategies, inevitably falling short and making mistakes, Guardiola has slowed things right down to cope with the unique demands of 2020/21.

It should come as no surprise that one of the most obsessive students of the game has spent the last few months quietly observing and tinkering; quietly solving the riddle as others give in to the madness of the division.

Guardiola is obsessed with control. He wants every variable accounted for, every blade of grass immaculately covered. He is a control freak who seeks to reign in the chaos and unpredictability of football, which helps explain why he has doubled down on those core principles of possession in the face of the pandemic: the most unsettling, order-disrupting event in Premier League history.

And make no mistake, his tactical shift is significant.

"I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka," then-Bayern Munich manager Guardiola told Marti Perarnau in the book Pep Confidential. "It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal."

Since then, Guardiola has only moved further away from "passing for the sake of it", introducing sharper and more direct elements at Man City to adapt to the physicality of English football.

That quote, then, shows the scale of the shift that now sees Guardiola describe his team as having to make "a thousand passes, passes, passes".

We can begin to view Man City's poor start to the season in a new light. Perhaps Guardiola was simply recalibrating; studying the effects of Covid-19 and quietly adjusting accordingly, taking his time to analyse the variables and come up with a system that still leaves him, and his players, in control.

They are now four points off top with a game in hand and undefeated in eleven. Nobody looks as composed as City do, and nobody else appears to have understood how to avoid conceding high-quality chances through these gruelling winter months.

The madness of 2020/21 means the narrative is changing almost every week, with Arsenal and Chelsea the latest clubs to suddenly be analysed entirely differently by pundits based on just a couple of results. That makes it almost impossible to predict who will put a string of results together to emerge as frontrunners for the title.

But that madness also means anyone playing with control and order stands a very good shot. Guardiola has slowed City right down, has embraced the tiki-taka he used to despise, and in doing so has put Man City in the driving seat with over half of the season still to play.



Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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