PSG vs Manchester City: Pep Guardiola’s striker-less formation has made Man City even better
When it really matters, Manchester City are now playing a slightly different way. The rise of Phil Foden and City’s incredible strength-in-depth in the attacking midfield positions have given Pep Guardiola the option to pick a striker-less formation, giving him what he values more than anything in football: complete and suffocating control of the ball.
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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have evolved into something subtly but intriguingly different over recent months, with the phenomenally talented Phil Foden allowing the Spaniard to revert to the style he favours most.
Against Tottenham Hotspur in Sunday’s dominant League Cup final win, Guardiola named a side with no recognised striker… and it worked almost entirely as planned (the lack of first-half goals aside). But it wasn’t the first big game where Pep has utilized such a system. In fact, in all three of City’s most recent Champions League matches – the second leg against Mönchengladbach and both quarter final games against Borussia Dortmund – City have started without either of the squad’s strikers (Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero) on the pitch.
In a style reminiscent of Guardiola’s Barcelona side at their peak – when Lionel Messi, David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Pedro would constantly move roles – City now seem to prefer a starting XI for their biggest matches without a traditional centre-forward leading the line.
Against Spurs that took the shape of Foden and Kevin de Bruyne operating as almost dual false-nines, pressing the centre-backs when City were out of possession and then dropping into pockets of space between the lines when their side did have the ball. However, that was a slight and possibly one-off tweak to the tactic. Guardiola’s usual preference for this striker-less evolution of his City side has been to have Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne operating in those central positions, with Foden drifting into dangerous areas from the left and Riyad Mahrez doing the same from the right. Add in the emergence of Joao Cancelo as a playmaking force from left-back and it all leads to one thing – using control of possession as both an attacking ploy and a suffocating defensive tactic.
It would certainly be no surprise to see City deploy a similar strategy against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday evening.
"The best balance is to have the ball; if you have the ball all the time the balance is already there," Guardiola said ahead of the meeting with Mauricio Pochettino’s dangerous PSG. "We are going to concede counter attacks and we are going to concede chances against PSG – it's impossible (not to), they have a lot of weapons.
"In these kinds of games we want to impose our way on our opponents. The way we enjoy to play is to have the ball, when you have the ball and use it in the right moments and right positions then the team is balanced. Not because we are defending more or deeper, that's not true. It's the way you play with the ball and create stability in the team. That's what we are going to try to do."
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Those are comments that effectively sum up the Guardiola philosophy: when you have the ball you have control.
It’s the tactical style that saw Spurs limited to a paltry 0.04 expected goals in Sunday’s cup final.
And it’s the same approach that Sir Alex Ferguson famously described as like “getting on a carousel”, when his Manchester United side were left looking dizzy and toothless by Barcelona back in 2009.
Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola (L) and former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Image credit: Reuters
One of the few criticisms that Guardiola has faced since that stint at Barcelona almost a decade ago, is that he can overcomplicate things in the biggest matches. But so often he has done so when in search of control in central midfield.
Take the last-eight loss to Lyon in the Champions League last season as an example. In that fixture Pep broke from his usual norm, starting both Rodri and Fernandinho in midfield alongside Ilkay Gundogan. But by looking to sure things up and prevent the counter-attacks it took away from City’s strengths, and the change of style ultimately failed to stop their opponents on the break in any case, with the French side running out shock 3-1 winners.
"Of course, Lyon beat us on the counter-attack and with just two or three mistakes we were done,” Guardiola said. “I’ve learned from my experience in this competition that the closer you stay to who you are, the more chance you have to get through.”
Pep Guardiola speaks to Manchester City's Phil Foden
Image credit: Getty Images
The rise of Foden as a first-team force has given Guardiola even more options to play that way, and even more flexibility in how he does so. The English youngster’s ability to play through the middle or out on the left offers so many possibilities, allowing Pep the opportunity to rotate out the slightly off-form Raheem Sterling without losing much in the way of incisiveness, or playing both together (as he did at Wembley on Sunday) to link up to devastating effect on the left flank.
With Guardiola there is always a chance he will spring a surprise, so Jesus or Aguero could indeed start in Paris on Wednesday. However, the temptation to do so will be dampened by the fact that City have a perfect record with their striker-less formation since the turn of the year, while a recognised striker (Jesus) has started all three of the club’s losses in 2021 – against Chelsea, Leeds and Manchester United.
In all likelihood, Pochettino and PSG should be preparing themselves for a dizzying evening on the Manchester City carousel. It’s going to take something special from the likes of Kylian Mbappe or Neymar if PSG are to find a way off.