On Saturday Pep Guardiola took control of Manchester City for the first time in a competitive tie, winning 2-1 at home against Sunderland. A great deal has been made of Pep’s arrival in the North-West of England and there has been much speculation about the sort of futuristic football he will bring to the world’s wealthiest league.
A lot has been said about whether he will be successful in applying his tactical innovations in a league where the game is often played with the sort of thunderous pace and intensity usually reserved for a horse race, but where strategic forward-thinking is often shunned.
Clearly the Spaniard has had insufficient time to fully implement his ideas in Manchester, and does not yet have all his players available, but on Saturday lunch-time there were clear signs of his influence, especially in City’s shape when they were in possession of the ball.
As Sunderland retreated towards the edge of their own penalty area Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy moved forwards and inside, towards the space Fernandinho was occupying in front of John Stones and Alexsandar Kolarov. This is something Pep Guardiola has done previously, using David Alaba and Phillip Lahm in the same way in some games for Bayern Munich.
Guardiola likes his wingers to stay wide and his central midfielders, in this case Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, to move up in support of the central striker, so it makes sense to have the right- and left-back move inside to cover the space they vacate.
The blue’s formation was variously drawn up as 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1, and on the few occasions that Sunderland managed to wrest back possession and break towards Willy Caballero’s goal that was probably about accurate but when they were attacking (most of the game) it was nothing of the sort.
When they were in possession City’s formation became a 2-3-2-3, which can be clearly seen in the two images below, taken from the build up to the penalty that gave them their first goal:
In effect Guardiola used two different formations at the same time; employing the defensive stability of 4-1-4-1 when Sunderland had the ball but the attacking threat of the 2-3-2-3 when his own team were in control. This fact is essential.
The 2-3-2-3 is certainly very different to how most teams play the game currently. In recent years teams have tended to play with (inverted) wingers moving inside towards a lone striker and full-backs pushing up to provide width; but does different necessarily mean new? Perhaps football has finally come full circle.
The 2-3-2-3 (or W-W) was initially conceived in the 1930s by Vittorio Pozzo and was a natural development of the 2-3-5 formation that dominated world football for at least thirty years from the 1890s onwards. Pozzo altered the 2-3-5 by withdrawing the inside forwards, who had traditionally played up alongside the centre-forward, making them into providers rather than finishers and allowing the half-backs to play more defensively.
The metodo, as the W-W was known in Italy, was hugely successful, with Pozzo leading the Azzuri to consecutive World Cup victories in 1934 and 1938.
However, the 2-3-2-3 (and 2-3-5) fell out of fashion owing to various other tactical innovations, principally the spread of the W-M formation first introduced by Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield and Arsenal, and then of the Hungarian style and 4-2-4 in the 1950s and 60s.
The 2-3-5 or 2-3-2-3 came to be seen as defensively weak compared to the W-M which utilised 3 backs and the four-backs system most teams use until today. Offensive verve was sacrificed for defensive stability.
Combining the attacking potency of a 2-3-2-3, something that was never called into question, with the solidity of a back four when out of possession seems eminently sensible then.
A wealth of modernisations have followed Pozzo and Chapman’s moves away from the first definitive football formation but it appears Guardiola has almost gone back to where it all began.
Using the old position names City were playing: Stones and Kolarov at full-back; Clichy at left-half, Fernandinho at centre-half, Sagna at right-half; Nolito and Sterling as the right and left wingers, De Bruyne and Silva as withdrawn inside forwards and Sergio Aguëro as the centre forward.
Historically the most important position in a 2-3-2-3 was the centre-half. He had the job of initiating attacks, carrying and distributing the ball to the forwards and covering the defence when the opposition were attacking, making him the fulcrum of the team.
In City’s new version of the formation this role is handed to Fernandinho. The former Shakhtar man is much admired by Guardiola who commented in pre-season that the Brazilian “can play in 10 different positions, because he has the quality to play wherever. He can play there [in defence], he is quick, aggressive, intelligent and strong in the air. He has the quality to create good build-up play and can play a forward pass.”
In Pep’s eyes he is exactly the sort of all-round player and athlete that this position demands and if they continue with this formation Fernandinho will be central to City’s chances this season.
This attacking shape also makes excellent use of the Manchester club’s three best offensive talents. Playing as inside-forwards De Bruyne and Silva are both pushed into more central positions rather than one or both of them being forced out wide. The fact that they are slightly withdrawn also puts them into space between the defence and midfield from which they can pick out passes to the wingers or to Sergio Agüero.
Agüero will surely thrive off having two advanced wide men who can pull the ball back to him and two creative players in behind, both of whom have the ability to play defence splitting passes for him to run onto.
Neither Sagna nor Clichy are able to provide endless overlapping runs of modern full-backs such as Kyle Walker, Seamus Coleman or Dani Alves so it seems logical to have two of Sterling, Nolito, Jesus Navas and Leroy Sané providing the team’s width.
Perhaps there will be times when Guardiola deploys Kolarov and Zabaleta at left- and right-back and they are charged with making overlapping runs but when Sagna and Clichy are in the team it appears sensible to use their superior defensive abilities in half-back roles and get as many talented attacking players as possible in their most dangerous positions.
After Chelsea drew 0-0 with West Ham in January 2014 José Mourinho accused Sam Allardyce’s side of playing “football from the 19th Century”. It was meant as a slight against Allardyce’s perceived defensiveness but it was an historically inaccurate one.
Football in the 1800s was a brazen attacking game and maybe Guardiola is looking to the past for inspiration and ideas on how to break down the packed defences that his City side will undoubtedly face this season. Maybe Pep has looked back in order to move forward; as any politician worth his or her salt will tell you there are many useful lessons to be learnt in the annals of history.