The Importance of Guardiola’s fullbacks

If there was one contrast that marked the difference between Pep Guardiola’s underwhelming debut season at Manchester City, and the rip-roaring, 100-point, title-winning sophomore season, it was the difference in fullbacks. In 2016/17, he had four aging full-backs who neither understood the new system nor had the energy to keep up with the technical nature of possession and style. On the right side, Pablo Zabaleta (32) and Bacary Sagna (34) were slow, aging relics from a bygone era, while on the left side, Aleksandar Kolarov (31) and Gaël Clichy (31) proved to be liabilities both with and without possession.

With the blockbuster signings of Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker, City brought in two players that not only have incredible pace, but are also confident on the ball. Mendy loves to get forward and is constantly looking to overlap and send in early crosses — and while Pep loves this, his intention with his full-backs were a bit different last season.

In particular, last season, Pep wanted his full-backs to tuck in and almost act as two central defensive midfielders, a strategy which preserved City’s dominance in possession. The superiority is largely due to the fact that the midfield is overloaded, and goes back to the full-backs tucking in. With Fernandinho further up the pitch, and with the two central midfielders and wingers providing width, with Sergio Agüero/Gabriel Jesus occasionally dropping in to create space, the fullbacks would tuck in to provide passing options in possession. The amount of numbers they had in the center of the pitch would severely outnumber the opposition, thus facilitating their ability apply pressure and win the ball back. In addition, with fullbacks tucking in, City could force the opposition to resort to either playing long balls over the top to an isolated striker, or playing short distance passes which allow the midfielders and other players to recovery more quickly and recover possession.

Going back to Mendy — like I said, Mendy loves to bomb forward, send in venomous crosses, and overlap with the wingers — this profile comes in sharp contrast with the tucking-in philosophy. He’s not as confident in the center of the park as Fabian Delph is, for instance. However, last season, City sorely missed the Frenchman’s creativity, and were Delph/Oleksandr Zinchenko. While they were no Mendy, they provided a bit more defensive solidity (or at least Delph did) and were good enough on the ball which allowed them to tuck into the center of the park. We’ve already seen some defensive struggles from Mendy this season, and he has to improve on his decision making and confidence in possession in the middle park if he truly wants to become a Pep-style full-back. However, considering he is top of the EPL in assists right now, Pep and the World Cup winner will find a solution sooner rather than later.

Looking at this impact on our formation/overall tactics, the inverted full-backs essentially gives the look of a 2-3-2-3. Based off what it looked like last season — Nicolás Otamendi/Aymeric Laporte/John Stones/Vincent Kompany the back two, initiating attacks or passing it off to Fernandinho to make that first pass. Fernandinho acting as a defensive midfielder in that next line of three with either Delph/Mendy and Walker/Danilo as the defensive wingbacks or whatever you’d like to call it. Next, we have the incisive/attacking/creative midfield role. These two positions are Guardiola’s favorites and are given the freedom to roam, linking the defense with the attack and creating space for attackers. Pep has a huge amount of trust in them as this is a very important role to the team, especially considering we have world class players in this role – Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, and İlkay Gündoğan and Bernardo Silva to also fill in this role. Finally, we’ve got our front three. Last season, it generally was Sané/Sterling on both wings and Bernardo/Jesus would fill in on the wings and for Agüero. Sterling is a unit of his own–perhaps the most undervalued player on the team. His movement, runs, and intelligence off and on the ball are incredibly important to City’s build up and chance creation. He will be inevitably important for us moving forward. Sané and Bernardo are a bit unique in themselves, but Sané, like Sterling, loves to run at defenders, and is equally important in our chance creation.

By: @ballondebruyne

Photo: Man City via Getty Images