The Premier League has been a baptism by fire for Pep Guardiola, who took control of Manchester City at the beginning of the season. His team currently sit 5th in the league, and recently lost 4-0 to 7th place Everton. As the press, smelling blood, has become increasingly antagonistic towards Guardiola, his growing frustration is apparent, culminating in press-room blunders like this:
“In football, like in basketball and tennis, you have to put the ball inside the net and to stop the opponent from doing that.”
Claims Guardiola has been “found out” are so far based on points totals alone, which we know statistically can be misleading when it comes to longer-term outcomes. Narratives in football change from week to week, particularly in media coverage of the Premier League. But amid all the talk of where City sit in the league table, there have been few attempts to explore what Guardiola has attempted to tactically implement in his new side.
One change is that Manchester City are far more effective in how they limit opposition possessions. This tends to be a mark of a team with an organised and vigorous ‘press’, where the defensive goal is to reclaim possession of the ball as quickly as possible.
In the Premier League, Liverpool and Tottenham tend to be more known for their defensive press, and this translates well in the length of the possessions that they allow. Last season, they were top in the league respectively, with City allowing the fifth shortest possessions. This campaign, however, Guardiola’s team are second only to Liverpool.
This has resulted in City conceding the fastest possessions in the league, with each possession being 0.5 m/s faster on average than last campaign. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the type of system – if you are hurrying your opponent on the ball, you are forcing them to attempt to attack quicker in the hope that this results in them losing the ball. Against some teams, this may play to their strengths: Leicester of last season had the shortest possessions in the league, and attacked the 4th fastest. Tottenham and Liverpool concede the next fastest possessions, and are also the teams with the most similar defensive system. Both Tottenham and City concede noticeably more touches in their own box per possession, though, than Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who are remarkably proficient in this measure.
Guardiola has turned City’s defence into the second best in the league in terms of the quality of chances conceded. Per Michael Caley’s expected goals model, the best in the business, they should only have conceded 15 goals. Over time, if City’s defence continue giving up the chances that they do, we would expect them to concede less than they have.
City’s attack functions similarly to last season’s. They are top of the league in length of their possessions since Guardiola took over, but they were already second under Manuel Pellegrini in 2015/16. One small difference is in the distance travelled per possession through ‘carries’—dribbles that aren’t classed as opposition player take-ons (credit to Tom Worville who was the first to develop the metric). Though Manchester City this year and last year travel a near-identical distance per possession, Guardiola’s do roughly three metres more of that with carries.
City also tend to create shots with passes from the central area outside of the box, known as “zone 14”, with slightly more of an emphasis on this area this campaign. Guardiola is known to be a big fan of cut-back crosses, describing a fast-paced ball across the near post as “half a goal” in Pep Confidential, and those who have watched City this season will recall how often Kevin De Bruyne provides these passes.
Like their defence, City’s attack is the second best in the league according to the quality of the chances that they create, albeit in a fairly tight pack of the elite attacks of the top 6 teams compared to the rest of the league.
Overall, Guardiola’s changes have been predominantly in the way Manchester City defend, implementing a stronger press with an emphasis on limiting opposition possession. Despite a hard start to his life in England, the reality is that he is far from having been “found out” – his team top the league in expected goal difference, the combination of expected goals for and against.
The biggest problem for Guardiola is the level of competition in the Premier League. The quality of his squad relative to its opponents is much worse than at his previous clubs. While in Germany and Spain, there were no more than two title-challenging teams, this season’s Premier League arguably has six teams competing for one title and four Champions League spots. Growing pains will be costly: City’s aging squad – mainly its defence and midfield – is in need of a complete overhaul.
Although one could argue that Guardiola has nothing to prove, transforming City is undoubtedly his greatest challenge yet, mainly because of the lack of breathing room between performance and output. His attitude in press conferences suggests that he knows this, even if he doesn’t know the rules of tennis.