In the wake of his brutal defeat to Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal matchup, plenty has been written about Pep Guardiola‘s tactics and selection. The Spaniard has failed to hoist the Champions League trophy since 2011 with Barcelona, and hasn’t even brought a team to the finals since departing La Liga.
But despite his European ups and downs, there is no contesting Guardiola’s league success. Since signing on to lead Barcelona in 2008, he will secure a seventh league title in his 10 years in charge in La Liga, the Bundesliga, and the Premier League. That is a mind-bogglingly dominant run.
His squad tinkering has taken flak in European play when margins are slim, but across a full season of league play, Guardiola’s ability to not just boost his squad depth but use it to perfection is spectacular. However, most importantly, Guardiola’s tactical flexibility has seen him deploy his players in various roles while still putting them in good positions to utilize their best qualities and minimize their weaknesses.
Starting at Barcelona, Guardiola popularized the tiki-taka style of play, dominating possession and forcing the opponent to take risks or be slowly choked to death. Still today, there are elements of that in his tactical setup at Manchester City, but his stop at Bayern forced him to change his style, the beginning of his flexibility.
In Germany, Guardiola tweaked his Barcelona tiki-taka tactics that featured bombing full-backs and a single holding midfielder in Sergio Busquets. The Spanish team filtered the ball out wide and then pinched back in with inverted wingers, a formula many fans now know well. However, in his first year at Bayern, that changed over the course of his first Bundesliga campaign, with his full-backs instead pinching early and often acting as quasi-midfielders. This often saw his wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery alone on the touchline, sacrificing width but controlling the center of the field, a new way to choke out opponents.
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A central switch was particularly useful when midfield players like Thiago Alcantara and Bastian Schweinsteiger missed significant time due to injury, but it also allowed players like Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze to focus less on retaining possession in the final third and more on deadlier off-ball movement, something the top German attackers have perfected in the last decade.
Over the years at Bayern, he continued to deploy this strategy successfully thanks in part to the versatility of Philip Lahm and David Alaba. Now at Manchester City, things have again adapted to his squad. While he has returned to overlapping full-backs and a single holding midfielder, he has often asked his #8 (Kevin De Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan) to drop significantly deeper, especially against pressing teams. While this ultimately failed against Liverpool in the Champions League a few days ago, it had seen success against Liverpool earlier in the season in the 5-0 win, plus the 4-1 victory over Tottenham where they suffocated Spurs.
To help break a press, City has gone to a vertical passing strategy not seen in the Guardiola tiki-taka style of old. For example, in the Tottenham win, Sergio Aguero was seen often receiving passes up the middle near the midway line (or even before it) where he then would lay back off to a central midfielder or winger. Seven of Aguero’s 10 completed passes in that game went backwards or square into the middle third of the pitch. This can cause havoc in the central areas, seemingly bypassing the midfield, creating space for the CM to then burst forward on the ball, ultimately forcing the opposing center-backs to stop the push and allowing the striker to sneak in behind.
This stop-start method of squeezing through the center of the pitch proves Pep’s ability to adapt in league play. While it still has yet to translate to European play – with Pep’s confidence in his squad depth potentially detrimental in a tournament with small space for error – it has led him to league success unlike any other manager over the last decade. With Manchester City on the cusp of one of the most dominant runs in Premier League history, his mastery of the competitive English top flight in such a short time is truly impressive.