Pep Guardiola has done an awful lot to change football over the course of his career, both as a player and more famously as a manager. As a player, he was part of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ that won four La Liga titles on the trot, as well as the European Cup. As a manager, he brought Cruyff’s style back to prominence and even elevated it to a whole new level. His track record at his three jobs so far is quite remarkable. 14 trophies at Barcelona in four years; seven trophies in three years at Bayern Munich and eleven trophies so far at Manchester City in what will be seven years in the summer. That’s 32 competition wins in 14 seasons of active management (remember that he took a year out after leaving Barcelona). That is a simply remarkable level of success in a comparatively short amount of time. Put it this way; Sir Alex Ferguson won 38 trophies in 26 years at Manchester United. That’s only six more trophies with 12 years more of management. Now, of course, that is just one part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarkable lists of achievements. He had managed three clubs and the Scottish National team before he moved to Old Trafford. But that fact that Guardiola has nearly matched his Manchester United haul surely puts him as one of the most successful managers.
But now, I think Guardiola has changed football again. The lineup he put out against Liverpool on Saturday is something that he has been working on all season, and Saturday’s result was the best example of it working that we’ve yet seen. What we saw was a fairly typical 3-2 block, three central defenders and two midfielders, sometimes referred to as a ‘double pivot’. Any side that plays a three-at-the-back system will almost invariably have this. But rather than having wing-backs to maximise the width of the pitch, Guardiola started Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez as out and out wingers. This turned a fairly standard 3-4-2-1 into a rather bizarre looking 3-2-4-1. Guardiola often does his best to make sure that there will be an even split of players between defence and attack. So, five in attack and five in defence. This formation emphasises that split right off the bat. But what was particularly genius to me was Guardiola’s selection choices. Because every player that he chose to start the game against Liverpool was capable of falling back into his standard, go-to formation, the 4-3-3. If they wanted to shift to a back four, during Liverpool counter-attacks for example, it was so easy. John Stones could simply step into the back line from his nominal defensive midfield role, while Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake could push even wider to become the full backs. Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan would then be able to drop into more traditional midfield roles. I think what it ultimately boils down to is Guardiola wanting to get his best attacking players in positions where they can be most effective, while still being able to put up a coherent and effective defence. Guardiola has sometimes been accused of overthinking his tactics in important games. But this is a process that the City manager has been undertaking this entire season. It might look unusual on the teamsheet, but if you have the players to pull it off, it can be hugely effective.
City simply tore Liverpool apart; the only slight blemish on their performance was the fact that they conceded a goal, but that was against the run of play. Apart from that, they were able to comfortably deal with anything that Liverpool tried to put together. Liverpool are not the side they were a couple of years ago, but even so this was one of the best performances of the season, and showed the rest of the league that this title race is not over just yet.