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Pep Guardiola: Tactical Focus

TALKING TACTICS: Pep delivers orders on the touchline

TALKING TACTICS: Pep delivers orders on the touchline

Pep Guardiola arrives in Manchester with an unrivalled reputation for tactical innovation in the modern game.

His teams play the beautiful game but there are systems and principles behind his work that need to be adapted to City and the Premier League?

We investigate a few of the tactical pillars Pep’s sides have been built on and speculate on how they might be applied at the Etihad Stadium.

2-3-5 Pyramid

Teams hunkering deep with numbers behind the ball looking to soak up pressure is an inevitability when you’re in charge of teams like Bayern and Barcelona.

To counteract this, Pep has experimented with a 2-3-5 formation with two centre halves, one box-to-box midfielder, two wing-backs who drop in to provide protection centrally when defending, two no.10s (playmakers), two traditional wingers and a central striker.

This is a system that can be traced back as far as football’s earliest days in the late 1890s and it was further popularised when Uruguay won the 1924 and 1928 Olympics games with it, as well as the World Cup in 1930.

The main difference which has allowed the system to work in the modern day is the reliance on passing triangles made possible by the high technical abilities of Pep’s players, as well as the intensity in winning the ball back quickly high up the pitch to guard against the counter.


When Guardiola joined Bayern there were thousands of newspaper stories linking the German giants with his former players at FC Barcelona.

As it turned out, they only brought in one player from his former side, Thiago Alcantara.

That was because Pep wanted to work with the materials he found in Munich – after all, they had just won the treble.

Phillip Lahm had played in midfield before as a youngster but when Guardiola took over in 2013, he was only seen as one of the world’s best full-backs (if not the best).

It certainly raised some eyebrows when Guardiola opted to convert Lahm into his “pivote” – the man in front of the defence - but he proved to be a revelation in the role for Pep’s first two seasons in Germany.

"He is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level,” Guardiola has said.

Pep had form for this positional conversion from his time at Barcelona when he transformed Javier Mascherano from one of the best midfielders in Europe to one of the best defenders.

Will there be another unlikely positional shift for one of the players he finds in Manchester? Start your speculating now!


THE CONDUCTOR: Pep orchestrates from the sidelines


Premier League blend…

Many expected Pep to attempt to transplant the ideals he impressed upon his all-conquering Barcelona side when he arrived at the Allianz Arena in 2013 but what he did was far more interesting.

Pep had no interest in duplicating a winning model in Munich but instead soaked up some of what made the Bundesliga great and utilized the characteristics of his existing squad to create something new – a blend of his own ideas on positioning and domination of the ball with the Germanic physicality and athleticism.

Although there were clear traces of his Barcelona in his three years at Bayern – the single pivot in front the back four (the “Busquets role”), the false nines and the (nominal) full-backs playing as wingers, there were new ingredients in the mix, including an increased emphasis on wing play and crosses into the box.

It speaks volumes for Guardiola as an outward looking man that he sought to first understand a new footballing culture before absorbing it and utilizing it in his own team’s play.

Now we wonder whether he’ll do the same in the English Premier League to create his next big step forward.

Dominating the centre…

After Bayern beat Arsenal 5-1 in November 2015, Pep said: “What I want, my desire, is to have 100% possession.”

As touched upon above, domination of the ball has been central to Guardiola’s gameplans at Barca and Bayern.

At the Camp Nou, the home team’s strangulation of possession hit unprecedented levels with Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta the chief trio of practitioners as Barca rotated the ball as well as their positions to move around their opposition.

Just don’t mention tiki-taka in earshot of City’s new boss…

Although that’s the term that was often applied to Pep’s team, it’s one that he takes issue with, or at least when it’s used to describe keeping the ball just for the sake of it, or as a defensive measure.

Dominating the middle of the pitch is about more than technical short passes to Pep, it’s about winning it back quickly too, pressing with an intensity and never giving the opposition time to target vulnerable areas.

The False 9

Pep was not the first manager to deploy a false 9 – the first recognised usage of a withdrawn striker was in the 1930s when Austria’s “wunderteam” fielded Matthias Sindelar in the role.

80 years later, it was May 2 2009 when Pep first deployed a false 9 as Barcelona took on Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

If Guardiola was not the one to invent the position, he certainly redefined it and brought it into the 21st century when he put Lionel Messi into the role for the El Clasico, ten minutes after kick-off.

The idea came to him on his traditional day spent in his office on the day before a match where he analyses his opposition and concocts his masterplan for the upcoming game.

He opted to put Messi into the no-mans-land between the Real Madrid midfield and defence and played with no recognised striker.

It proved to be a masterstroke, leaving Christoph Metzelder and Fabio Cannavaro unsure on who to pick up and how far to step out of their defensive line.

Metzelder later said: "Fabio and I looked at each other. 'What do we do? Do we follow him to the midfield or stay deep?' We didn't have a clue."

The false 9 phenomena was reborn – a tactical idea which has been used frequently by a number of coaches since, including Vincente del Bosque with his all-conquering Spain side and even City under Manuel Pellegrini who used James Milner and Kevin De Bruyne there.

Guardiola went on to use the plan on occasion with Bayern too, fielding Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller there, although it’s just one of many strings to his bow.

Watch Guardiola's unveiling live on www.mancity.com this Sunday from 2.30pm and hear his first words as Manchester City boss.

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