Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has adapted to world’s most popular league and it’s little to do with controversial goalkeeper transfers, the resurgence of the maligned Yaya Toure or even hoofing it into the stands.
The secret behind Manchester City’s upturn in form is all about the way they press.
Time and time again between November and January, Man City would lose the ball high up the pitch, their counter-press would be beaten and suddenly the opposition would be running 3v2 at City’s exposed centre-backs and struggling goalkeeper.
A successful counter-press protects defenders from these moments. By killing off the counter-attack at its root, the possession team are able to go again with their own onslaught, forcing their game upon the opposition. Free from fear of the consequences of losing the ball, the attacking team are free to take risks in the final third—and this is where quality chances come from.
So what’s behind this sudden high-pressing click? Well there’s no doubt that sticking with the same formation and, nearly, the same eleven players for several consecutive games helps settle a team. Guardiola has come under scrutiny for over-‘tinkering’ with his team this year.
And of course, as is always the case in the English game, there are many who will point to a change in mentality. City’s strong performance and near result at home to Spurs would no doubt have given the City players some confidence in their abilities and the strength of the system. Or perhaps Guardiola found some way to motivate his men behind the scenes. Arms around shoulders, alleviating diet restrictions or maybe screaming and shouting at failure.
There’s also plenty to be said for new boy Gabriel Jesus’ defensive contribution. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher ran clips of Jesus’ pressing highlights on Monday Night Football before turning to comparing his and Aguero’s running stats.
But I think the biggest difference is a change in technique. In the 4-0 loss to Everton, City won 13 interceptions. That scoreline was reversed a couple of weeks later against West Ham, a game in which they recorded only seven interceptions. While there’s been a decrease in interceptions as City have improved, other defensive stats have picked up; 42.9% tackles were successful against Everton whereas 59.1% attempts were successful two weeks later.
That, it seems, indicates a move to a more Premier League brand of pressing. Guardiola has been noted for his use of a ‘pass-lane orientated’ pressing that focuses on tricking the opposition into giving the ball away. Perhaps City are now throwing away subtlety and looking to simply take the ball when they want it.
Tottenham prefer to force the opposition long as well, but they justify that with their very physical midfield and defensively outstanding centre-backs.
City press Everton high but Everton are able to work around the press with long and high balls up to Lukaku and individual pieces of skill. pic.twitter.com/B1c6TN9I7z
— Nathan (@TTTactics) February 17, 2017
City don’t have that, or at least don’t have that yet, so they have to be more like Liverpool, who are hyper-aggressive in taking the ball off the opposition. While Liverpool do share City’s defensive vulnerabilities both in terms of personnel and the capacity for their press to fail them, Liverpool’s issues stem from their lack of creativity against defensive teams—a strength for City.
City's new front line bully West Ham's defence off the ball and immediately attack while West Ham are out of shape. pic.twitter.com/pLrNTyqrQ1
— Nathan (@TTTactics) February 17, 2017
So by taking a Klopp-like pressing style and combining that with City’s ability on the ball, Guardiola has found a balance which allows him to play his own creative brand of football in a league which poses such high physical demands.
With Guardiola’s system now in full flow, City are surely only one successful summer transfer window—with focus on full-backs and central midfield—away from being able to challenge for the title.