Home → Elite → Football → Performance Analysis Football Wyscout Performance Analysis How Guardiola Turned City's Season Around With Space Manipulation 13 May, 2021 8 Min Read By L'Ultimo Uomo @lUltimoUomo With Man City now crowned as Premier League champions, we look back at how Pep Guardiola drove the tactical change that led his team to triumph. During Guardiola’s 13-year coaching career, concepts like the functionality of players over their role, collective participation, different variations of ball possession and the value of transitions have all become part of the way we think and imagine the game. We’re talking about a manager who’s been an unbelievable driver of change. Not only has he led consistently successful teams, winning loads of trophies, but he has also changed the archetypes of how we think about the game in terms of strategies and tactics. One of the most fascinating things about Guardiola is his ability to suddenly shuffle all his certainties. Guardiola comes up with a new, innovative, unpredictable solution all at once, just like an illusionist keeping the audience’s attention on a decoy while getting ready for his big coup de théâtre. Every time we think we have seen everything – or that his ‘overthinking’ is limiting the performance of his team, a new masterpiece arrives. The worst-ever start of the season of his career led Guardiola to call some aspects of his Manchester City into question. Not by setting aside everything he had tried and the existing dynamics with the team, but rather moving a few tiles in order for the whole mechanism to work smoother, creating new dynamics and either getting new ideas together or bringing old solutions back. For example, the usage of the inverted fullback, the ‘false fullback’ leaving its classic position to play beside the central midfielder – or in the ‘half-space’ – has been one of the most distinctive traits of his team. But it’s not a brand-new concept as he already used it when at Bayern Munich. The choice not to play classic strikers is one of the oldest strategies of his career and the even more radical choice of playing two ‘false nines’ had already been tried with Manchester City before, during the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 match against Zidane’s Real Madrid. During that game, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne started from a central position to then lie deep beside Casemiro and avoid the Blancos’ pressure. With tonight's win, we've broken the record for the longest winning run by an English club in European Cup history! (7) ���� #ManCity | https://t.co/axa0klD5re pic.twitter.com/YvwKFwtOpJ— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 4, 2021 The Shape of City As said, the double false nine’s first appearance dates back to February 2020, in a very different context than this season: Beside De Bruyne and Silva, there were Gabriel Jesus and Mahrez, with Walker and Mendy behind them. Because of the players’ characteristics, both the exploitation of the external channels in the last meters and the rotation in central areas turned out to be less flexible than what we’re seeing today. “I didn't like the way we were playing. In previous seasons the wingers were wider and higher so we came back to our principles,” said Guardiola. “I felt having the wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and the quality of the players do the rest. When we have the ball, we run less.” This is probably the best way to start when trying to give a more concrete shape to City’s improved performances: a team that, regardless of their ability to move the ball and occupy space, had reached a deadlock in their offensive dangerousness, hence having defensive problems too. Guardiola’s solution started from the symmetrical occupation of width, with the two high wingers no longer having to always keep the feet on the touchline, but also being ready to attack the space by running internally. The founding principle around this idea is the manipulation of space, that is the ability to create and occupy spaces in an irregular and dynamic fashion. This is an aspect that Guardiola himself reiterated in a post-match interview with Sky Sports Italy after the UCL semi final against PSG: “We get to the penalty box, we’re not already there”. To support this philosophy, Guardiola gave up on playing a pure striker (even if they were associative players, perfectly integrating into his system, like Gabriel Jesus and Agüero) and the central space of the attack was entrusted to De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva. We can’t use one single system to describe City: When they press high, the positioning recalls a 4-2-2-2; when they defend with a lower block it looks like a 4-1-4-1; when they attack, they build up the play with a diamond (3+2 or 2+3) either with one or both fullbacks on the midfielder line, or sending both in advanced lateral positions (asymmetrical), as did against PSG. You could try to summarize all of these transformations in a 3-2-3-2 system, others with a 3-2-2-3 or even 3-3-1-3. But it’s probably unnecessary to agree on which system is more approximate. Creative ability to manipulate space Starting from their internal positions, De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva try to move according to the defenders’ behavior to overload a certain area or lure an opponent out of position, in order to have more space to attack behind the defensive line or to create isolation on the weak side. They also play with other teammates, trying to support the build-up. De Bruyne offers a solution to Walker by opening wide. Mahrez, in a more advanced position, can unmark himself behind PSG’s left fullback. False nines can move in the space between full-backs and center-backs, stretching towards the external channels if they can get the full-back’s attention to free up Mahrez or Foden, or towards the central ones to create chances for an internal attack, maybe with a quick give and go. With this great mobility, it’s natural that the tasks change within the same play. So it can happen that Foden, Mahrez or Gündogan also find themselves playing with these same concepts in mind once their teammates move. The whole point, though, is that City try no to occupy the center attack immediately. De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva in extra-wide positions, Foden and Gündogan central. The individual interpretation is tied to the teammates’ movements: if De Bruyne, Silva, Mahrez or Foden – or whomever else – find themselves in very wide positions and the team needs a central invasion, Gündogan is often the one taking care of this task. The German is having the most prolific goal scoring season of his career and had the most chances of freeing himself in the last third especially in the games when the space beside Rodri (who usually lies deep to cover) was occupied by one or both fullbacks. These are not strictly codified plans: Within a more/less permitting positional tactic depending on the match, the players have significant freedom of interpretation. In City’s own half, every situation is more defined, but what happens in the offensive half is always very challenging to read for the opponent. The ball runs back to Gündogan, who bolted on the left. De Bruyne is in the left half-space, Bernardo Silva is already on the right flank. The center is empty. There are matches and situations when De Bruyne and Silva can both lie deep to play beside the opposing central mids, or in front of them, either one at a time or both at the same time. In these instances, they can pick the area of the pitch to occupy. City can here also decide which opponents to lure and which spaces to free for future developments of the play. Here, we see De Bruyne and Silva even wider than the two wingers, who tend to run towards the center. Cancelo has space to overlap. Here, Silva receives and he’s free to turn behind ‘Gladbach’s first line of pressure, while De Bruyne has moved wide to create an overload on the wing. De Bruyne and Silva position themselves in relation to the two players in front of the defense, creating either a diamond or a square, depending on the situation. Other times, City keep a central link on the opposing line (who can also play the false nine role, on his own) together with two wide wingers. Or it can happen that only one of the two strikers plays as false nine, with the other one lying deeper to support the midfielders. Sometimes, it’s Gündogan himself to start from the center attack instead of coming from the back. Bernardo Silva moves in the right half-space, De Bruyne occupies the center and he’s ready to stray on the strong side, Gündogan open on the opposite side. When both De Bruyne and Silva move towards the same side of the pitch, City usually looks to consolidate possession to free space on the opposite flank. This dynamic proved to be useful even when Cancelo is playing on the left, allowing him to switch play upwards with his right foot, finding a running teammate on the opposite side of the pitch. Foden moves centrally, the fullback upwards. De Bruyne and Silva both overload the right-wing together with Mahrez. Gündogan is just behind, ready to support or attack. In all of these variations, other than by Gündogan’s dynamism and Cancelo’s creative interpretation, the constant is given by Silva and De Bruyne’s ability to manipulate space. But why has Guardiola betted so radically on this duo, to the point of benching a player more direct to attack spaces? First and foremost, they are two players at their respective peaks, playing at an incredible level. They also became critical in moving the ball upwards and in determining the build-up of the play up to the very last meters. Most of all, though, they are two players very comfortable in managing possession in tight spaces in the central area of the pitch. They don’t have problems in running back or wide if that’s what they need to avoid pressure. Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne are versatile players: they can receive the ball and turn, play with the teammates, protect the ball. And most of all, they acquired a crucial spatial awareness that allows them to anticipate the next move. They’re two offensive playmakers who operate in different areas, directly and indirectly influencing the success of the play. But nothing of this would work if City haven’t acquired the ability to constantly change attitude on the pitch. A tangible example of this happened in the first leg against PSG. After the inconclusive first half, when Guardiola decided to play the full ack wide, bringing Gündogan back beside Rodri, trying to move possession – and therefore PSG’s defensive phase – in the center of the pitch to have more space on the wings. The influence that Foden and Mahrez had on the more internal channels made the difference. The recent matches in the UCL knockout stage haven’t maybe portrayed a correct image of this team’s offensive potential, but it’s not easy to remain unenthusiastic when watching such an impressive demonstration of fluidity and adjustment. Guardiola restarted from an aspect that could give more stability to the whole structure – wide wingers – but the heart of the tactic was the emptying of central spaces, according to the type of opponents and matches. There’s the positional structure to keep attacking effectively, there are the position swaps but if possible, everything is even more fluid and less readable for opponents. Once again, Guardiola took a step back to take three forward and he can now try to win a Champions League final with Manchester City. START your 15-days Wyscout free trial now.VISIT L’Ultimo Uomo website.