The Season So Far
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City career started in terrifying fashion, with ten straight wins in all competitions, a flurry of goals, brilliant football and headlines declaring the arrival of a new superpower. Then things went wrong following the commencement of Champions League, as the reality of playing a game every three days and getting thumped by Barcelona left City bruised and sapped of energy. A surprising and morale-boosting win against Barça at the Etihad reminded the world just how could they can be, but the impression remains that they’re punching frustratingly below their weight.
A strange inability to keep clean sheets has put pressure on them unnecessarily, and although Sergio Agüero is delivering the goods as ever, the output of Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling has slowed noticeably and David Silva seems to be tiring slowly but surely, as he did around this time last season. Unless the defence tightens up and Agüero’s teammates start to lighten his load, City’s 2015-16 could collapse like a house of cards. That said…
The Season Ahead
…still could be absolutely sensational. Hopes and expectations understandably went through the roof when it was confirmed that Guardiola was on his way to the Etihad, and although the season has been up and down so far, Manchester City remain among the favourites to win the Premier League. Lest we forget, Guardiola has won six league titles in his seven seasons as a top-level manager, and City’s budget is laughably gigantic, but the quality of their football and the gulf between them and the vast majority of other teams is unbelievable. If they get back to their best, things could get bloody.
As ever, Guardiola has favoured a loose 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system with a base of 3-2 in possession and extreme levels of positional interchange. In one moment it can look like a 4-1-4-1, a few seconds later it becomes a 3-4-3, and in the next phase of play it’ll be something like a W-M. The truly striking things about this are that: 1. his teams make it look so damn easy to do this, and 2. this way of playing isn’t just the pretentious affectation of a philosophising pseud, much as the British press wishes it was, but an unstoppably effective way of dominating games and scoring goals.
It’s now eight years since Guardiola’s incredibly complex and eye-catching interpretation of juego de posición (positional play) was first shown to the world, and in some ways it feels like he’s been around forever, and yet it still seems like almost no-one has reacted sufficiently to his ideas or caught up with him as he sets the pace. Frankly, Guardiola’s teams seem to play a different, better sport to everyone else.
Their most obvious and most decisive strength is that they always seem to have the ball. They’ve averaged 60.9% possession so far this season, the highest average in the Premier League and the fifth highest in all of Europe. They have the third highest pass completion rate in the division and play a markedly more attacking style than Manchester United and Chelsea, the only team whose rates are higher. Only Liverpool have completed more passes in total.
Of course, Guardiola isn’t respected as a coach purely for the way he drills his teams to play with the ball, but how he sets them up to play without it, too. His intense pressing game at Barcelona revolutionised football just as much as the artistry shown by the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi, and his Bayern team played with exactly the same hunger, even with the previously famously workshy Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry among their ranks. This desire was obviously missing as Manuel Pellegrini’s reign came to a close.
Already there has been a noticeable step up in City’s work-rate when they need to win possession back – although it must be said that they were so passive and lethargic in these situations last season that just about any change would’ve been an improvement. They now make 17.1 tackles per game, 13.5 interceptions and 10.1 fouls per game, while blocking 7.8 passes per game: not especially high figures in and of themselves, but when we consider that they’re doing more off the ball than Sunderland, West Brom and Burnley despite having 15-20% more possession on average, we can see just how much pressure they’re putting on the ball on the rare occasions they lose it.
All this adds up to extreme levels of domination: Man City have taken 17.6 shots per game on average and faced 8.7; they’ve hit the target 5.9 times per game while their own keeper has been worked 3.1 times per game; 37.7% of their shots on target have been goals, while 70% of shots faced have been saved. In short: Man City are Muhammad Ali and their opposition is, generally speaking, a punch bag.
There is still the suspicion that things haven’t quite clicked for Guardiola at Manchester City. One of the reasons is that his defence is so obviously unsuitable for the task at hand. John Stones will be an excellent player one day but isn’t right now, while Nicolás Otamendi can be extremely rash at times. Vincent Kompany can’t stay fit, while Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Aleks Kolarov and Gaël Clichy are all the wrong side of 30 and slowing down fast. Claudio Bravo, while a highly decorated and more than capable goalkeeper, hasn’t integrated in the unit and can be easily riled and made to make a mistake.
In short: this giant has a glass jaw. Chelsea have the quality to break it, and shouldn’t be afraid of trying.
It’s almost impossible to predict Pep Guardiola’s tactics for a big game, prone as he is to springing a surprise or tearing up Plan A after 15 minutes and trying something completely different. That said, he usually prefers a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 and his starting lineup has been fairly stable up to now, so Chelsea will have prepared for something like this.
As for Chelsea’s XI… do you really need to be told?
You’d have to be some kind of massive idiot to try and call this game. I absolutely will not.