June 27, 2023
Man City rivals have two options to counter Pep Guardiolas latest tactical evolution
Pep Guardiola’s formation shift halfway through last season guided Manchester City to the treble, but over the summer teams in the Premier League will no doubt be working out ways of playing against it. Signed in Guardiola’s first window, John Stones’ trajectory means he can now be seen as the typical beneficiary of the glory-filled Pep era. Being a level-headed and slick defender who has a fantastic range of passing and is eternally confident on the ball, Stones always was in many ways the archetypal Guardiola player. But the former Everton man has often endured spells out of the team in his seven-year stint playing in the blue half of Manchester, where his patience must have been tested. Sometimes this was a result of persistent hamstring injuries which have bothered Stones in recent years, other times he missed out on account of Pep’s strict rotation policy and occasionally he has just been out of favour at City . In the 21/22 season he played just 14 times in the league and was often left on the bench or out of the squad entirely. READ MORE: City plans after Mateo Kovacic may not please transfer obsessives As someone who has bought into Guardiola’s philosophy, Stones was rewarded last season with regular playing time and was the subject of an inspired tactical shift made by his manager. In the home fixture against Liverpool on April 1, Manchester City’s starting lineup consisted of four centre-backs - Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake, Manuel Akanji and John Stones. Far from an elaborate April Fools' joke, this was a calculated move by Pep to get the most out of Stones’ talents. City, who were still some way adrift of then title favourites Arsenal, came from behind to win 4-1 in the game with many pointing out Stones’ strong performance in the middle of the park. And so in midfield he stayed as City thumped Southampton, Leicester, Arsenal, Fulham and West Ham on their march to the title. He was deployed in the role in City’s victories in the FA Cup and Champions League finals and was widely considered to be the man of the match in the latter. Stones is now a nailed-on starter for Gareth Southgate’s England and an integral part of the most successful club side in recent times. But there is no doubt that City’s rivals will be formulating plans to combat Guardiola’s unexpected tactical shift this summer. There are more than a few routes they can take. One option, which admittedly may only be possible for sides near the top of the table, is to try and match City’s system. Arsenal, for example, have the luxury of several ball-playing defenders who could potentially form a three-pronged partnership at the back to mirror City’s. If they end up signing Declan Rice, as is rumoured, then the England man could play a similar role to Stones in the Gunners’ midfield. Rice’s strengths are quite similar to Stones’ and this could be an interesting prospect in the clashes between last season’s champions and runners-up in the upcoming season. It would be far too simple to suggest that by simply mirroring City’s formation, rivals will be able to neutralise everything that makes Guardiola’s side the best in the world. But it could potentially help to eradicate the control in midfield which City gained from unbalancing sides towards the end of last season. Another option, which is more accessible for sides who might not have the quality of players available to Arsenal or Liverpool, is to follow the example set by Brentford last season. Thomas Frank’s men completed a remarkable double over City in the league, with one win before Guardiola’s tactical shift and one win after. Brentford’s strengths, an ability to withstand concerted spells of pressure and playing very direct counter-attacking Football, exposed City’s weaknesses. If the treble winners are not firing on all cylinders at points in the upcoming season, this could be an approach taken by teams who have forwards willing to run in the channels to stretch City’s often quite narrow midfield and backline. Regardless of whether Pep persists with Stones in his ‘new’ position, it goes without saying that City will again be incredibly difficult to beat next season. Expect some managers to attempt ingenious solutions to counter City’s new style, whether that be matching their formation or knocking it long to a big man adept at playing with his back to goal.
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