Pep Guardiola & Manchester City: Pressure Makes Diamonds

Ardfern (Cropped)
Better late than never, but here’s a look at Manchester City against Arsenal on Wednesday night – and Pep Guardiola’s old, but not outdated, tactics.

No one would disagree if someone said that sport is about evolution.

It’s about taking what those have done before you, what people are doing now, and building upon those ideas to make something better. To make something that is all conquering and unbeatable. To make something that beats even the ideas you based it upon.

Pep Guardiola has done just that, building upon the ideas of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and, especially, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

It’s no secret how much of an impact Cruyff had on Guardiola – his famous quote is: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”

In short, what Pep does is based upon what Cruyff did. In turn, what Cruyff did was based upon what Rinus Michels, his manager at Ajax in the 1970s, did. That great Ajax side played a 433 that turned into a 343 – dominating possession and dropping a midfielder into the defence (essentially having three backs).

Cruyff did the same at Barcelona when he was in charge – playing a 343, and controlling possession with a greater number of midfielders than the opposing team. This was dependent on the fact that Cruyff’s team had, in essence, two diamonds. These diamonds helped create passing angles for both the back three and the midfielders.

The player at the tip of the diamond (in this team, Guardiola) that involved the back three, would also form the base of the diamond in the midfield (although incredibly narrow in the first one, it is seen in the two images below):

The outside centre backs would eventually sit as wide as they could (along with the wingers, who didn’t play as conventional wing backs) which made the pitch as big as possible – an advantage when attacking. This formation also helped the central midfielders in-between the lines, placing them in the inside left or right positions, allowing them to find space.

So getting to Guardiola.

He did a similar thing when he was Barcelona manager. He created a back three when on the ball by spreading his centre backs (Piqué and Puyol or Mascherano) out incredibly wide, and dropping Busquets in-between them to make a three, which is useful against teams playing two strikers (below):

With the two full backs in the wide areas of midfield, it makes a de facto 343. He did something like this at Bayern Munich, letting Thiago or Philipp Lahm come deeper and sit between the centre backs, or by completely inverting his full backs into midfielders during the build up.

What’s this got to do with Manchester City on Wednesday? This provides a little bit of context before diving into how Guardiola set his team up.

Namely, decades later, the same tactical ideas still prevail.

Where this is going may well be obvious to some. City, of course, set up in a 433 formation to start (below):

This 433 is what City held when they were defending.

The principle that Guardiola subscribes to, is that of making the pitch as big as possible when attacking and as small as possible when defending. The same principle as Cruyff.

This is done with City’s press as it prevents the other team starting comfortable build up play. If they don’t win the ball back instantly, they stay in this 433 formation – making sure the opposition have no space to exploit.

But what was noticeable (when considering the 433 becoming the 343) was what City did in possession.

In the pivot role, Gündogan still picked the ball up from the two central defenders – either Laporte or Garcia. But he wasn’t alone. Kyle Walker also stepped into midfield several times.

This let Laporte step up into the same horizontal midfield level as Walker, just behind Gündogan. By inverting a full back Manchester City had made a diamond that started at the defence (below):

That image also shows the advantage of doing so. Aubameyang has come inside and followed Walker, which, although not seen, has given Mahrez on the right acres of space. But if he didn’t come inside, City would completely overrun midfield. It’s done again here:

The space this movement created led to Manchester City’s first goal. That and David Luiz.

Mahrez and De Bruyne had swapped positions. Mahrez was in the inside right, and De Bruyne was wide, which, due to Aubameyang cutting infield to follow Walker, meant he was in plenty of space. This space allowed him to get his head up and put the ball in the box that Luiz didn’t properly clear. That mistake led to Sterling scoring (below):

As mentioned, Guardiola wants the pitch to be as big as possible when attacking. The wide men become so important in this. If Walker is inverted, De Bruyne or Mahrez need to be in that position on the right hand side to spread the defence out and create more space for others.

On the other side Mendy was the one staying wide. This came into effect with Manchester City’s first goal. Mendy’s width meant Sterling was free to come inside, allowing him to get into the box and score.

With Walker in midfield, Mendy needed to be hugging the touchline, providing width and creating space (an example of this below):

But was it specifically designed to be a diamond starting at the defence?

This becomes unclear with how the midfield was shaped at times.

The reasoning may be more to do with sheer numbers as opposed to certain shapes, but the foundation that Cruyff laid is still there. Outnumber the players in midfield to dominate the ball, all while making the pitch as big as possible. This photo shows Manchester City have the numbers – but it’s hardly a diamond (below):

You can note that Saka may be closing Gündogan down, negating their numerical advantage in midfield. But if he does, again, Mendy will be in space – as De Bruyne was with the goal.

Walker stepped into midfield to essentially create a 343. Gündogan was at the tip of the defensive diamond and – with Silva and De Bruyne in the half spaces – at the base of an attacking one. That formation would look something like (but not exactly depending on positional interchanges) this image below:

Although not using the exact same system, Pep has built upon an idea used in the 1990s, which itself was built upon an idea used in the 1970s. It’s one of those things that once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. Once it’s been done, it cannot be undone.

History repeats itself. Maybe because time is a flat circle. Or a flat diamond.

Hopefully this made sense – I thought it was amazing that the same ideas from the 1990s are still being used today. I’m only writing about football right now because it’s all that’s going on, but, who knows what the future may hold. If you want to see any videos on tactics, this is a great watch and super informative in regards to the real ins and outs of Cruyff’s system.

Liverpool’s Constantly Moving Goalposts

(Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
I don’t mean literal moving goalposts. That’s not why they’re 22 points clear. I mean that for some reason, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool’s recent success always seems to be good, but then not good enough.

When Jurgen Klopp walked on to the pitch in Madrid for the last Champions League final, Liverpool had lost every final he’d taken them to. They hadn’t won a single thing.

At that time he’d only won one cup final as a manager – a 5-2 win over Bayern Munich in the 2012 DFB-Pokal with Borussia Dortmund. Klopp had lost 6 of his 7 appearances in major cup finals (I’m not going to list them all, look at them yourself).

And (rightly so) questions were asked of Klopp and Liverpool. Could they win anything? Could he win anything? Football teams (and pets) seem to take on the personality of their managers (and owners), and Liverpool had taken on Klopp’s image of the ‘nearly men’ – and taken on all the good stuff too, the power, the pace, the passion, you know it all.

But they hadn’t won anything. That’s why that final against Tottenham Hotspur was so important. (Side note: it was important for Mauricio Pochettino as Spurs hadn’t won anything either, and with far less appearances in cup finals. Look where he is now)

Lo and behold, Liverpool win the final. Cue scenes on Merseyside, hailing Klopp as a genius, Virgil van Dijk’s Ballon d’Or campaign, and so on and so forth. The tables had turned, and so they should have – the collective monkey was off everyone’s backs.

They also finished with 97 points in the league that season and still came second to Manchester City’s 98. (Side note: They had 0.02 less Points Per Game than City that season. What a mad season)

Pep’s Manchester City had amassed 198 points in two years, and they were absurd totals to try and beat. Again, Liverpool were football’s nearly men, letting a 10 point lead over Manchester City slip last year seemed to make them bottlers again – not cup final bottlers, now they’re league bottlers.

Did the goalposts begin to move? How can you be bottler if you’ve won a trophy? But still, letting City win after being 10 points clear is a fair criticism – if you want to be champions, you can’t let that happen. I would argue that Klopp just needed that first trophy to give them lift off, but again, fair point.

97 points would have won you the league in all but the last two Premier League seasons, by the way. Klopp’s work was brilliant, but not quite brilliant enough. But still, everything seemed set up for them to make a run at the league the next season.

Now here we are in February 2020. Liverpool have basically won the Premier League. All that’s left is for them to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. The number of Premier League records they can break is endless (again, read them yourself, it’s mind boggling). Klopp has built possibly the greatest team the Premier League has ever seen.

But in my eyes, people are moving Liverpool’s goalposts.

The metaphorical ones. Every time they seem to accomplish something, it’s all of sudden a case of “yes that’s great, but what about this“. They became the first English side to win the Continental Treble when they won the Club World Cup in December. “Yes that’s great, but what about the English treble?”.

Well, they’re certainly good enough. The league is already a formality to be quite honest, and they need only three more points to match Manchester United’s title winning treble team, and fourteen to match Arsenal’s Invincibles. There’s still 38 more points up for grabs.

However, ask any fan, of any club, in any league – if you can guarantee them a league title and nothing else, they’d bite your hand off.

But still, the goalposts were moved.

Liverpool should be winning the treble. They’ve already won the league, concentrate on the cups – win everything. “Liverpool must win the treble to be remembered like Man Utd’s 1999 heroes.” Like Example said, “Don’t give me that, that’s a load of tosh.”

Apparently being the best Premier League side of all time isn’t enough to be remembered.

Yes, they’re good enough as I’ve already said, but what Liverpool seem to have to do to impress everyone seems to constantly change.

They’re obviously 1-0 down in the tie to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, but bigger comebacks have been made in that competition. They’re still in the FA Cup, despite Klopp taking criticism for fielding the youth team, and not showing up to game. It’s not like they’ve just completely fobbed all of those competitions off for the league.

Liverpool haven’t won the league in about 30 years. They should go for it. And they have. But why do they have to go from only having to win one thing, to winning everything – in less than a year? Why do they have to win the treble? I’m not saying don’t go for it, I’m saying everyone needs to stop changing what Liverpool have to do to become a great team.

I understand why people say it, but Liverpool are team that could dominate for a decade, not just one year.

Why do we have to move the goalposts? Why can’t we just set them down, take a seat, and enjoy what we’re watching?