Last season, Liverpool were defensively very
impressive. They conceded 22 goals, the fewest in the Premier League, and one less than Manchester
City’s 23. Superficially, with the outstanding Virgil van Dijk at its heart, Alisson at its
base, and two rapidly improving full-backs on the flanks, defence was an area in which
Liverpool could claim to be City’s superior. Expected goals tell a slightly different story,
though. While Manchester City did concede one more goal, their xGA figure was 25.9 compared
to Liverpool’s 30.0. In other words, Liverpool conceded fewer goals
because their goalkeeping performance was superior, or because the opposition’s shooting
was wayward. But purely in terms of not conceding chances, City were better. Their extraordinary
run of just three goals conceded in their final 13 games of last season essentially
won them the league, a spell that included five 1-0 victories.
There are various reasons for City’s defensive record. The most obvious component is their
focus upon possession play – they averaged 64% of the ball last season, 4% more than
any other side. The Spanish obsession with possession is evidently a good defensive tactic.
The performance of the national side during their three international triumphs in 2008,
2010 and 2012 was exceptional – in 10 knockout games, they kept 10 clean sheets.
Guardiola’s coaching philosophy is different; his sides are less cautious. City are excellent
at preventing the opposition from passing the ball into their third of the pitch. On
average, their opponents played fewer than 50 passes per game that ended up in City’s
third of the pitch, the lowest figure in the top flight.
How they rank compared to their top-flight opponents is shown in the bar chart below: That doesn’t quite tell the whole story,
though, because Guardiola’s emphasis upon possession play means City are, in theory,
vulnerable to two types of attack. First, counter-attacks: because City push
so many players into attack, they leave space behind them for opponents to exploit. Second,
set-pieces: because the side is packed with small, creative players, City can find themselves
overpowered when defending dead ball situations. But Guardiola has focused heavily upon making
his side secure in these situations. His experience in Germany altered his coaching
philosophy significantly. During his year-long sabbatical in New York before taking charge
of Bayern, Guardiola spent his time watching the Bundesliga, scouting future opponents
and getting to grips with the nature of the division. His main takeaway was simple: German
sides, compared to Spanish sides, were lightning-quick on the counter-attack. Almost every side could
break from one end to the other within a few seconds, and therefore Guardiola would have
to format his side in a different manner to Barcelona, where his full-backs would relentlessly
scamper forward on the overlap. In response, Guardiola developed his innovative
system of bringing his full-backs inside into narrow positions, becoming temporary central
midfielders when Bayern had possession. It helped, of course, that Philipp Lahm and David
Alaba were technically excellent and had risen through Bayern’s academy as midfielders.
While initial analysis focused upon how their positioning liberated other players – the
midfielders could push higher up the pitch – its greatest benefit was in terms of defensive
transitions. When Bayern lost possession, Guardiola’s back four were close together
in a solid, narrow block, and could re-form the defensive line quickly.
In Manchester, Guardiola has attempted to replicate that approach. Hampered in his first
year by an imbalanced squad, he has now successfully replicated the strategy – albeit with a subtle
change. Benjamin Mendy has often been injured and his most common deputies, Fabian Delph
and Oleksandr Zinchenko, are both natural central midfielders. On the other side, Kyle
Walker lacks the ball-playing skills to play that role. Therefore, whereas at Bayern the
full-backs drifted inside, meaning the side looked like 2-3-2-3, Walker has been used
as a third centre-back rather than a third central midfielder, and the system is 3-2-2-3:
three defenders, and two players shielding them.
(Here’s an example from the 3-1 victory at Southampton in December. This is the usual
way City formed the 3-2 structure last season, with Zinchenko drifting inside from left-back
alongside Fernandinho. That leaves three defenders – Danilo, who was deputising for Walker,
plus Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte.) Because of that solid base, City didn’t
concede a single goal in a counter-attacking situation last season.
If City’s defensive structure in possession can be described as a way of guarding against
opposition attacks, their pressing can be considered an attempt to proactively stop
them. Guardiola has made pressing a central part of his philosophy since his Barcelona
days, and while the identity of various managers – particularly Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio
Pochettino – is more entwined with the tactic, Guardiola still remains the pre-eminent authority
on retrieving the ball in advanced positions. City won possession in the opposition third
on 203 occasions last season, more than any other Premier League side. Their opener against
Fulham in March, scored by Bernardo Silva, was a good example of their proactive pressing,
and how players position themselves intelligently to intercept passes.
When centre-back Maxime Le Marchand passed right to Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Fulham’s right-sided
defender had two obvious passing options – to the central midfielders, Andre-Frank Anguissa
and Tom Cairney. David Silva immediately pressured Fosu-Mensah,
while also cutting off the passing angle into Anguissa. With that option not available,
Fosu-Mensah tried the more ambitious ball, into Cairney. But De Bruyne had pushed up
the pitch, racing to intercept. He found Sergio Aguero, who played the ball onto Bernardo
Silva, racing down the right, who scored. It’s worth emphasising that the two players
who applied pressure and forced the turnover, Silva and De Bruyne, are City’s two creative
midfielders, the type of players traditionally allowed freedom from defensive tasks. Under
Guardiola, however, they are among the hardest-working players in the side.
However, City’s pressing is different from that of Liverpool. Klopp’s pressing is designed
to ensure that the opposition concede possession inside their own third, therefore creating
goalscoring chances. Liverpool want to trick the opposition into playing risky passes inside
their own third. Although City are happy enough to intercept
the ball in advanced positions, they’re more focused on pressing so intensely that
the opposition don’t even try to play their way out, and instead hoof hopeful passes downfield.
For Klopp this isn’t useful, because it denies Liverpool the chance to counter-press
and create a chance. For Guardiola it’s fine, because it allows City to build possession
from deep again. He expects intensity from his attackers. In
the 3-1 victory over Manchester United last August, Riyad Mahrez failed to make a recovery
run after possession was lost and received a prolonged telling-off from Fernandinho.
Almost immediately, Guardiola substituted the Algerian. An intriguing statistic from
last season’s Premier League is that, while City attempted the fewest tackles in the division,
they had the highest tackle success rate. It characterises a key distinction: City’s
defensive patterns aren’t quite as demonstrative, but their function is more efficient.