In his eternal quest for full control of football matches, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola may well have found what can bring his team to the closest point to achieving his goal. Last season after a win over Brighton & Hove Albion at the Etihad, French broadcaster RMC asked if he was satisfied by the low expected goals (0.16) of his opponent.
“I am happy, but it can always be better,” Guardiola responded. “The objective is to give nothing to the opposition. No shot, no chance, nothing. To control everything. But, you know …” The Catalan coach didn’t finish his sentence, but made one of his usual faces as if to say, it is impossible to control everything.
It might be impossible, but he will never stop trying. Every evolution of his Man City team since he took over in the summer of 2016 has been geared towards control. Controlling the ball, controlling the tempo of the games, controlling the emotions, controlling the performances and controlling the opposition. Whether it was with a false No. 9, like in the Brighton game with Phil Foden serving as the attack’s point of reference, or with a full-back coming inside to play in midfield, as Joao Cancelo did in that same Brighton game, Guardiola was always trying.
He has come pretty close.
Guardiola is the greatest coach of his generation, among the greatest ever, and he continues to think, to tweak, to experiment. Now, the latest stage in his quest for control is what we have been seeing since March: a back four made up entirely of centre-backs, primarily Ruben Dias, John Stones, Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake.
In terms of full-backs in the City squad, Oleksandr Zinchenko joined Arsenal last summer, Cancelo went to Bayern Munich on loan in January, Rico Lewis played a bit after the turn of the year but is now mostly on the bench, and Kyle Walker had a few games as a sub before returning to the XI but much more in a centre-back role than a full-back one. His job is more to defend than to attack.
At the heart of this innovation is a desire to defend better. Centre-backs are pure defenders; they don’t have the defensive compromises of full-backs, who are often converted wingers. If your centre-backs have the technical quality and some decent pace, they are perfect for what Guardiola is putting together. Fielding four of them means more balance, more solidity and more stability. City don’t risk getting exposed because none of that quartet is tempted to go forward too much. And this setup enables Guardiola to use Stones in midfield, bringing an extra body to the part of the pitch where the game very often is decided.
Guardiola has found the perfect mix. He now has his five defenders (those four plus Rodri, the traditional midfield anchor) and his five attackers (Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne, Foden or Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez or Bernardo Silva, and Erling Haaland or Julian Alvarez). The reason he let wingers such as Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling leave the club is because he wanted to transition from players who take risks with the ball, and subsequently risk losing control, to players like Grealish and Bernardo, who have less pace but are safe in possession.
Now, Guardiola can control the four phases of the game: in possession, out of possession, attacking transition and defensive transitions. With the four centre-backs and the 5-5 split between defenders and attackers, City have everything to control the game when they have the ball, when they don’t have it, when they attack and when they defend, too.
Remember the defeats against Manchester United at Old Trafford and at Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the season? The first used a back four with Cancelo and Walker, and the second featured Lewis and Walker.
Earlier in the season, Guardiola used a back three with Walker, Dias and Aymeric Laporte, with Bernardo used as a central midfielder in possession and a more left-sided defensive player out of possession. That was part of the process. This tactic had good moments but it didn’t fully convince the boss because City were dominated for the first 45 minutes at Arsenal playing like this and drew 1-1 at Nottingham Forest, too.
The key moment of change seems to be the Newcastle United win at home on March 4 that featured a strong collective performance, including not giving much to the opposition (5 shots, 1 chance, 0.43 xG). It was followed by an impressive 1-0 win at Crystal Palace a week later with a Stones, Akanji, Dias, Ake back four again and an opponent starved of everything (4 shots, 0 chances, 0.21 xG). The same defence was used against RB Leipzig four days later, with a better outcome (7-0) and similar stats.
The best demonstration of this new City and Guardiola’s new vision was the masterclass against Liverpool. Despite Mohamed Salah scoring early, the Citizens were in total control of the ball (they scored four times with 2.96 xG, 17 shots and four big chances) and of the opposition (who only had one shot of 0.06 xG after the goal in the 17th minute).
Even though Bayern had 2.19 xG in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg at the Allianz Arena, the new setup is working for Manchester City, there is no doubt. In the 10 matches (Premier League and Champions League) that Guardiola has played with his four musketeers in defence, only Bayern have had more than 1.0 xG.
To make it work properly, though, City couldn’t lose any attacking productivity — and they haven’t. City just need seven goals in their remaining three league games to equal their goal tally from last season (99); they scored 83 goals in the 2020-21 campaign, 102 in the previous year and 95 the one before that.
The underlying stats compare well with last year, with almost the same amount of shots on target (6.0 against 6.7), more big chances created this season in 34 games so far (97 against 87 in the whole of last year) and similar possessions won in the final third (5.8 per game currently and 6.3 a year ago).
With a back four of centre-backs, Manchester City are more balanced and more solid defensively while still being as effective and threatening in attack. Now they’re on course for an incredible treble.
Man City’s new back four makes them more dangerous than ever