Uncertainty to Complete Dominance: A Pep Guardiola Tactical Masterclass

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The 2020/21 Premier League season will be one to remember. Not only will this season be remembered for the records that were broken (such as being the shortest Premier League season in history, or Harry Kane becoming the third player in Premier League history to lead in both goals and assists), but the fact it was the season which had the most teams leading the title race for at least a day (with nine). Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Leicester City, Everton and Southampton all enjoyed spurts of being top of the Premier League table.

With the COVID-19 pandemic not allowing any fans, a congested schedule, and the revealing of the European Super League, it is hard to argue that this season will be remembered as one of the hardest seasons to get through, let alone win the whole damn thing.

For Manchester City, however, Pep dealt with these situations one after the other with a cool bald head, even with pundits claiming he would not maintain the job while they were sitting in the bottom half of the table during November. Pep took his team and transformed it to be a completely new Goliath in the world of football, and with his masterclass performance in tactics, he was able to claim the Premier League title once again.

Scenes started to do the rounds on social media with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, with one of his staff singing emotionally to Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. The manager of the ‘Citizens of Manchester’ having a cigar and enjoying the title celebration was well deserved.

Pep often tells his players that it's their abilities that will win them trophies when in fact the 2020/21 Premier League title was earned from Pep’s managerial abilities, heavily leaning on tactics. After the defeat to Spurs on 21 November that left them in 11th place, some thought it was the end of Pep at Manchester. But the Spaniard had other plans. Here are the tactical changes Pep used that eventually earned him his third English top flight title in four years:

The first change happened just after the 2nd game of the season. The 5-2 defeat to Leicester City had changed Pep’s mind about his team’s defensive solidity and he wasted no time at all in bringing in a CB a day later, that being Ruben Diaz. There was something missing in the heart of the defence since Vincent Kompany left City after their last title win in 2018/19, and after one season with no title, it was clear someone needed to fill that void.

Just like when Liverpool heavily relied on Virgil Van Dijk in their title-winning season, City needed to find their own cult hero in the heart of their defence. Ruben brought in qualities of composure, leadership and stability that helped John Stones be reborn and formed a formidable partnership between the two. Once they formed their partnership, they were able to keep 12 clean sheets in 18 matches between Boxing Day to the end of February.

However, it would take time for Ruben to turn himself into one of the best defenders in the Premier League. He was coming from Portugal in the midst of a pandemic and his new team was already in the midst of their campaign.

Underwhelming performances from strikers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus soon had the team playing with a false 9 more often, a tactic Pep has used in the past. He needed to shuffle his attacking options around to create the perfect balance of attack with the right amount of speed without a proper number 9.

After finishing 1-1 against West Brom, where Pep allowed the fullbacks to join in the attack and allowed midfielder Kevin De Bruyne to move up during attacking phases, the manager knew it was time to rebuild his attacks. Against the team struggling in a relegation battle, Pep threw everything at West Brom, but was only able to get one goal despite having 26 shots and 7 on target.

What really affected the attack was the absence of David Silva, who left the club at the end of the previous season. The little magician was known for creating the tempo which allowed Manchester City to achieve 100 and 98 points in two seasons. He would increase or decrease speed and tempo when needed to provide the other attacking players space and time. Pep tried to lean more heavily on Kevin De Bruyne at the start of the season.

Before Christmas, 33% of the expected assists came from De Bruyne, but by the time of Manchester City’s draw against West Brom, it was time to look to someone else to relieve the burden off the Belgian. Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden were the men Pep turned to.

Firstly, Ilkay was used to being part of a two-man block in front of the defence to help break up counterattacks and build up play from the back when they had David Silva. However, Pep needed Ilkay to become the next David Silva and the German did not disappoint. Given some attacking responsibility, Ilkay was able to more than double his expected assists after Christmas, but he added even more with goals. He was able to score thirteen goals in the league alone, a personal best in his career.

The German’s defensive responsibilities were given to Oleksandr Zinchenko along with the CB partnership of Diaz-Stones that was improving with each match. He would help Rodri in the midfield on attacking phases to give his team control of the ball which Pep constantly craves.

Secondly, was the breakout season by Phil Foden. At the start of the season, he was a commonly-used substitute, but by the end of the season, he was one of the first names on the team sheet. With more time, he started to move on the same level as the other starting players. Phil would become one of the best players in controlling and capitalizing on the rhythm of play. An important match against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter finals saw this rhythm in action.

After going down a goal early, Manchester City rallied back with Phil dominating the pace of the attacks. After a masterclass (some might say lucky) goal from De Bruyne, the game was even. Phil was controlling the game with controlled passes to teammates which later earned Manchester City a corner and gave them the lead with a goal from the edge of the box.

Pep’s tactical changes in the midfield and forward players brought out an even pace of attack throughout all of his players. Kevin De Bruyne was now only the 2nd highest player in expected assists with Phil now leading the stat. Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva all had expected assists between 5-24%.

After the tactical changes, the same players were between 14-21%. This created more problems for the opposition as they now had to focus on more than just Kevin to stop Manchester City’s attacks.

The perfect example of these three tactical changes of Ruben Diaz, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden was the first game of the new year in 2021 against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea FC. All three were in the starting lineup and City's attack started to find its rhythm early with goals from Ilkay, Phil and Kevin within the first thirty-five minutes.

In the second half, Manchester City controlled the game to its end, only conceding a goal in stoppage time. The victory over Chelsea helped them move into 5th with multiple games in hand. Pep’s masterclass tactics worked, and he knew he could push on to challenge not only England but Europe as well.

The victory over Chelsea was only the beginning. Manchester City’s dominating period reached 15 successive league victories following the 1-1 draw with West Brom on 15 December. For the rest of the campaign, they would only lose 4 games in the Premier League, including two of those which happened in May, with the title already in their grasp. Including all competitions, Pep’s success was at 35 wins out of a possible 40.

Source: Dave Thompson via Reuters

It may have been the easiest title Pep has won with Manchester City based on points. With all the outside factors affecting the league, Pep was able to tactically change his style of play and formation to win the title better than any other manager.

With a fourth English League Cup secured and an upcoming battle against Chelsea in the Champions League final, Pep was able to balance and rotate the squad effectively. He successfully replaced City legends like Vincent Kompany for Rubian Diaz, David Silva for Ikay Gundogan and Sergio Aguero for Phil Foden.

Pep is the third manager to rebuild his first title-winning squad and continue to win titles after Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, proudly sitting amongst Premier League royalty. Taking the crown of England, Pep set off to conquer Europe against Chelsea’s new manager after the midseason sacking of Lampard, tactical mastermind, Thomas Tuchel.

Unfortunately, Pep over-thought the Champions League final, costing him the trophy his club craves so dearly. Pep decided to neither start Rodri or Fernandinho and go ahead with Ilkay Gundogan as the only holding midfielder, allowing 5 other players to focus on a mixed false 9 attack. However, this would be the first game out of sixty matches in which Pep decided to take this route with his midfield, the third different route he managed against Chelsea.

Being a tactical mastermind in this beautiful game can either make you look like a genius or a madman. Pep may have been mad in Europe, but he is still a genius, and for that he is crowned the champion of England for a third time in his five years as City’s manager.

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