Why Pep Guardiola’s innovative tactical tinkering makes 2023 his most impressive Man City title yet

2018 was the year of the Centurions and that relentless front-three of Sterling-Sane-Aguero. 2019 was the year Manchester City fought off Liverpool to win an unprecedented domestic treble. 2021 saw Pep Guardiola use a false nine to take City to new heights, and 2022 added the inverted full-back to Guardiola’s ever-evolving tactical playbook.

If each of those four Premier League title wins earn a chapter in that book, then 2023 will need an entire volume of its own.

Guardiola has developed his tactics on a game-by-game basis, from integrating Erling Haaland to solving the small issue of playing half the campaign without a recognised left-back. As City march on to try and complete the treble, it feels that Guardiola has his most complete squad when it comes to versatility, adaptability, and playing football in the Guardiola mould.

ALSO READ: The inside story of how City fought back to beat Arsenal to the Premier League title

After a full season without Sergio Aguero, and the majority of the year before playing without the Argentine legend, City had become used to playing – and winning – without a striker. The likes of Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez all took it in turns to play in the middle of a front three, and it seemed to suit the style of midfielder in the squad to play without that focal point.

When a player like Haaland arrives, though, you have to play with a number nine. And you can’t ask a goalscorer like Haaland to come deep and play it short – or not immediately, anyway.

From pre-season, it was clear how City would ask Haaland to play. When Jack Grealish got the ball on the left and crossed to the six-yard box in a stormy Lambeau Field in Green Bay, just seven minutes into Haaland’s debut, the sliding finish was a sign of things to come. Even Haaland’s close-range miss in the Community Shield was encouragement that he will always be in the position to convert crosses in the box.

A majority of Haaland’s record-breaking 52 goals have come from first touches or rebounds, while all but one have come from inside the area. When plotted on a map of the pitch, most of Haaland’s shots, and goals, come from inside the imaginary lines running perpendicular from each post. That’s no coincidence – because he always finds a way to be there.

After two years of finding other ways to score, City had a new focus – get the ball into the box from wide, or from deep, and let Haaland do the rest. Back-to-back hat-tricks in the Premier League in August were followed by a derby hat-trick in a near-perfect attacking display over United in October.

For a while, it looked like good, old-fashioned, wing play would be City’s characterising tactic of the season. During a period in September and October, De Bruyne and Foden were forming an effective partnership on the right-wing, overlapping one another to take turns in assisting for Haaland. Grealish was growing in confidence on the left, and slowly increasing his assist rate too.

Other partnerships were evolving, like the unlikely Rodri ball from deep to Mahrez out wide, resulting in an encouraging number of goals or assists for the Algerian. While there were curious criticisms of Haaland’s all-round contributions, his record-breaking start to life at City ensured that his teammates were content with doing all the work in the build-up for Haaland to score at the end.

In the new year, the discussion over Haaland’s overall involvement came up again, especially when he was marked out of the Champions League away game in Leipzig and looked visibly frustrated at not getting enough service. That came after a poor miss at Nottingham Forest, and Haaland had gone on a run of one goal in six. Guardiola, though was unconcerned.

“We cannot forget we play a lot, years, without a proper striker, Sergio, Gabriel [Jesus], false nine,” he said. “We don’t pay more attention there, now with the one we need a little bit more.

“We need a lot of control, people don’t want to take risks. If you put the ball inside with a lot of players is a risk pass. It’s perspective, if we get the ball and he has seven players with him, I play the ball there [wide]. Now wheres Erling? Six players [on him] – so I play the ball here [wide] instead.”

Haaland responded with a goal at Bournemouth, and after a blank against Newcastle, would score 15 in his next seven – including five in the home win over Leipzig. As the season wore on, Haaland was also starting to get involved more, with his performances against Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Fulham in particular standing out for his effectiveness in coming deep, dragging his centre-backs out of position, and allowing De Bruyne or Grealish to run into goalscoring positions.

When people ask how can a 52-goal striker get better, adding those assists – in a similar way to Harry Kane at Tottenham – is clearly the way. Maybe next season, the all-round Haaland role becomes Guardiola’s next tactical project.

Goals galore – now more assists please, Erling!

As well as the evolution of Haaland’s role in Guardiola’s system, City have also had to contend with a year of disruption at full-back.

With Aleks Zinchenko’s departure confirmed during the pre-season tour of the US – where he had originally been with the City squad before swapping Houston for the Arsenal tour in Orlando – Guardiola was left with Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo as their only recognisable full-backs.

Marc Cucurella was lined up to replace Zinchenko, but City refused to go over £45m, before Chelsea spent £60m just to be sure. Neither valuation has stood the test of time, and City will be thankful to Chelsea as they have emerged better without Cucurella. Cancelo began the season as first-choice left-back, inverting inside as he had done the previous two campaigns, scoring two well-taken goals and adding five assists in a decent start to the campaign.

After City beat West Ham on the opening day of the season, David Moyes sighed in his post-match press conference at City’s tactical switch of playing both Walker and Cancelo as inverted full-backs. “Tactically they changed,” he said. “Walker and Cancelo either side of Rodri, they played with no full-backs. We hadn’t prepared for that because we hadn’t really seen it but was really difficult tactically to deal with it.”

Guardiola, though, clearly wanted more from Cancelo as the season wore on, and after the Portuguese’s clumsy red card against Fulham put the three points at risk, other options emerged at left-back. Nathan Ake was the natural replacement, after starting the season well in central defence, and he continued his form on the left.

On the other side, teenager Rico Lewis emerged as the season’s surprise package, playing in the Carabao Cup against Chelsea and scoring on his first Champions League start against Sevilla on top of some encouraging Premier League cameos. After the World Cup, at the same time as Cancelo’s slump for club and country, Lewis would start against Liverpool, Leeds, Everton, Tottenham (twice) and Arsenal.

Lewis caught Guardiola’s eye in pre-season, and rose to every challenge against tough opposition thrown at him. Most notably, Lewis could do what Kyle Walker and Cancelo couldn’t – cover both right-back and defensive midfield roles at the same time, having been trained in that position for a decade through City’s academy.

U18 Head coach Ben Wilkinson has told MEN Sport that he always knew Lewis could reach the first team, and stood out among his academy peers as a player who took information on board quickly. His rapid rise, almost bypassing the under-21s, couldn’t have been predicted though, and Guardiola recently said City’s success this season has been in large part to Lewis’ impact.

Pep Guardiola has been delighted with Rico Lewis’ emergence at Manchester City this season

“It’s thanks to Rico, helps us to understand how to be better,” Guardiola said earlier this month. “Without Rico this season, the step we make would have been different. The moment he makes us fluid, after that Kyle realises, John in that position is exceptional. Other players have things Rico doesn’t, like experience. This is what the team grows in many cases.”

With Lewis forcing Walker and Cancelo out on the right, Ake was making the left-back position his own after the World Cup, yet it was still an almighty shock when he left on transfer deadline day for Bayern Munich amid reports of a falling out with Guardiola – something both player and coach have denied.

What Guardiola has said, though, is that he only wants ‘happy faces’ from players not in the starting XI, pointing to the likes of Ake and John Stones – and later Walker – who have all won back their places after being left out. Without Cancelo, Ake stepped up as first-choice left-back, but when he picked up an injury Guardiola ‘had an idea’ of a midfielder who could replace him.

Step forward Bernardo, who took the inverted left-back role to a new level with his brief stint in defence, particularly impressing at Arsenal. Defensively, he wasn’t perfect, but his move to left-back seemed to spark an overhaul of how Guardiola wanted his defence to play.

Bernardo Silva was at the heart of Guardiola’s tactical tweaks

By this point, Walker had proved himself again, playing at right-back after Lewis had shown the levels required to play there. Guardiola had tried Stones and Manu Akanji as right-back cover before the World Cup, with Akanji better defensively in the role, and Stones better coming inside next to Rodri as an inverted full-back. This time, Walker was inverting alongside Rodri on a regular basis as well.

Guardiola has used one inverted full-back for some time now, but with Ake on the left – and sometimes Bernardo – he was able to play with two, and since the new year City have regularly played with a back two or three in possession. In recent weeks, with Ake injured again, Akanji has moved over to the left and complemented Walker’s evolution into a ball-playing, cross-field-passing quarterback.

“Sometimes [the way] the team evolves depends the opponents and the problems they create to you,” Guardiola said this week regarding City’s tactical developments this season.

“You cannot play all the time, six, seven seasons in the same way for two reasons. First, you have different players and when you play with false nine or Erling Haaland out to defend and attack is completely different. And second, the opponents don’t defend the same way because they know you, they discover secrets of the quality of players you have.

“I would like to stay one system with the same players for seven years and the opponent doesn’t realise and always we are in perfect shape and perfect condition but it doesn’t happen.”

In effect, City have been able to add two – or even three – players from defence into midfield when on the ball, with all capable of knowing when to drop back into the back line to avoid an overload in defence. Stones’ performance against Real Madrid, pushing into midfield from centre-back, was a masterclass, and showed how far he has come since Guardiola’s early-years experiments of playing as a defensive midfielder.

In Stones, Walker, Akanji, Ake, Laporte and Lewis, Guardiola has a defence that can all play multiple positions, are now fully capable of inverting into midfield, and adapting from game-to-game depending on Guardiola’s plan to face each individual opposition. At times, it feels like Guardiola finally has a squad full of players who don’t need to be attached to a single position, instead knowing what each role in the team requires.

His 2023 Premier League title, therefore, could be the best of the lot – because it has been made entirely in Guardiola’s image, and carried out as if there were 11 Guardiola’s on the pitch.

Or maybe ten, plus Haaland.