Aside from playing beautiful football and winning lots of trophies, one thing that Pep Guardiola has brought to Manchester City over the past five years is pre-line-up announcement anxiety.
Every City fan knows the feeling in those moments before the club announces the team news on Twitter and you’re usually left wondering who Pep is going to drop or what strange decision he’s going to make.
However, an hour before the kick-off of City’s 1-0 win against Leicester, we experienced something new. For the first time as City boss, Guardiola named the same starting XI for the third Premier League match running.
More often than not, Pep’s tinkering has paid off, but his new penchant for consistency suggests he may have overcome his greatest weakness as a coach.
City’s 5-0 dismantling of Arsenal before the international break marked the first time since 2017 that Guardiola had named an unchanged starting line-up for a league game. That time, City had crushed Stoke City 7-2, but Guardiola never repeated the trick in the almost four years that followed.
The fact that Guardiola has chosen now – a time when some of City’s stars are still looking to regain match sharpness having taken a break following Euro 2020 – as the opportune time to ditch his infamous rotation policy for a set XI is very interesting.
The biggest criticism often levelled at the Catalan tactician is that he has a tendency to overthink team selections, and that his constant squad rotation disrupts momentum.
In the past, particularly in the Champions League, he has opted to try and spring a surprise on the opposition rather than sticking to his guns.
In 2020 for example, he adopted a 3-5-2 formation against Lyon that his players clearly weren’t comfortable with, while in May’s Champions League final, he failed to name a defensive midfielder in his side for only the second time all season.
It’s still early days of course and sterner tests will no doubt lie ahead, but his newfound consistency in team selection suggests an attitude of ‘this is how we line up, and we’re not changing for anyone’. Pep himself said after the Norwich win that, from now on, those that play well will start the next game.
But why has Pep suddenly had a change of heart in his sixth season at the club?
Previously, not even a man-of-the-match performance would guarantee a player’s place on the team sheet the following game, but a disrupted pre-season campaign might explain why that has changed.
If you have a squad that has spent the summer apart and so haven’t had long to get back up to speed, it makes sense to find an XI that works and to stick with it.
Heavily rotating the side at this stage of the campaign would only serve to disrupt things further – better to gradually reintroduce players whose pre-season was non-existent, like Kevin De Bruyne, John Stones and Phil Foden.
Another benefit is that it will keep everybody on their toes. Previously, City players knew that whether or not they were playing at their best, they would likely still get rotated. That can breed complacency, as we saw in the disappointing title defence of 2019/20.
Now though, there is a real incentive for those in the starting line-up to keep performing in order to retain their place, and for those on the bench to train even harder and force their way into contention.
There might also be an element of necessity. Guardiola has always stressed the importance of freshening up the squad between seasons to keep his team evolving and thus making it difficult for opponents to guess his starting XIs.
While City did complete the British-record transfer of Jack Grealish, he was the only fresh face to arrive at the Etihad Stadium over the summer. It’s fair to say that Guardiola would have liked at least one more.
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Sticking with a preferred XI, raising the training levels of those out of the side and putting pressure on those in the team to keep performing, might just be Pep’s plan B for freshening things up and introducing a new level of competition within his squad.
As the season goes on and the games pile up, it’s entirely possible that Guardiola will revert back to his team-rotation ways of old. For now, though, he looks set to continue with his new ‘you’re in until you’re out’ philosophy.
Maybe, just maybe, the days of Pep the over-thinker are over.
Do you think Pep’s new approach to team selection is a good thing for City? Follow our new City Fan Brands Writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.