Friday, March 1, 2024

In Manchester City win, Pep Guardiola unleashes his latest tactical wrinkle, playing fullbacks like fullbacks

LONDON — When it comes to fullbacks, Pep Guardiola has tried it all. His right and left backs have been wingers, inverted midfielders, spare center backs. This season, it would appear, Guardiola has reached his most radical approach yet. In a dreary 1-0 fourth round FA Cup win, his fullbacks were, for the most part, fullbacks.

After all the inversion of last season, the fullbacks moving inwards as a central defender stepped into midfield, City lined up at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in a fashion that has become rather familiar this season as Pep Guardiola has adapted to the frequent absences of John Stones, Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland. Bernardo Silva might have had license to drift wherever the mood took him, but this was what most would understand to be a relatively orthodox 4-3-3 out of possession, the standard 2-3-5 in attack formed by the wide forwards drifting infield and the full backs attacking down the flanks.

On the right, Kyle Walker was in his element. A few yards away from what was his old stomping ground, the former White Hart Lane, the City captain rolled back the years, the one man flank who can fly to the byline and be back to snuff out a counter in the blink of an eye. Destiny Udogie has dealt manfully with some of the toughest assignments in the Premier League since arriving in England this summer. Within six minutes he was sent sprawling to the deck when matched up with Walker, whose low cross forced the best chance of the first half, Guglielmo Vicario spilling Phil Foden’s low flick before an offside Oscar Bobb bundled home the rebound.

At the other end it took the best part of the first half for Timo Werner’s new team mates to genuinely believe it was worth even testing Walker’s qualities in a foot race, almost every pass for a break out seeing Spurs go right rather than unleash the German V8 on the other side.

Perhaps that was not all that surprising, because while Walker looked largely at ease with his assignment, Josko Gvardiol had greater issues managing the left hand side. He might be the second most expensive defender of all time, one with a fair bit of experience at fullback (more from his days at Dinamo Zagreb than RB Leipzig), but no one is going to confuse the 22-year-old with what Guardiola tasked him with being on Friday. 

His attacking game in particular is not yet mature enough to really pose questions of opposition defenders, and it was notable how prepared Pedro Porro and his teammates were to sag off the Croatian when he had the ball in the final third. There were flashes that might convince you that, given a preseason to learn the role, there could be something in this, particularly an outside to in run early in the first half to claim a Phil Foden flick. But for a solid intervention in his own box by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (another infrequent sight), he might have tested Vicario. Still, when a City attack ended in a Gvardiol shot, something had gone right for Spurs.

He looked no more at ease when defending the left flank either. Spurs consistently looked to hit the space Gvardiol had vacated with quick passes and though they exited the FA Cup with a solitary shot to their name, there was more than one occasion where they were a better Johnson cross away from really testing Stefan Ortega, a trying night for Gvardiol only easing when City’s press ratcheted up to its best level late on.

Gvardiol might have struggled, but it is fair to offer a mitigating case. The expectation on his arrival was that he might offer a higher grade version of the hybrid defensive role today’s match winner Nathan Ake was deployed in with such aplomb last season. There is nothing about his form since the $97.8 million move to the treble winners that suggests he cannot be that. It is just not what he is being asked to do. Perhaps that will change when Stones, among the substitutes tonight, is able to feature more regularly. Equally if this is going to be the default approach when a 29 year old with an increasingly checkered injury history is unavailable, might an actual left back make a radical alternative for City? After all if any squad can afford to carry another body it is the one with, officially at least, $899.9 million in revenue and bumper profits.

Equally Gvardiol’s travails were merely the grain of sand in an otherwise perfect mechanism. There might have been a few nervy moments on the counter, but City were good value for their first win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium long before Nathan Ake bundled Kevin De Bruyne’s corner across the line in the 88th minute. Early and late in this contest, their press suffocated a Tottenham side whose ambition to play out crashed into the technical limitations of Hojbjerg. 

All that seemed to be stopping them from winning this game was that particular hoodoo that this ground seems to hold over the world champions. Julian Alvarez, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne delivered baffling misses as the tension ratcheted up in the second half, but the latter’s introduction along with Jeremy Doku brought just too much pressure and energy, trapping Spurs in a position where all they could do was concede possession back to their visitors. After fluffing his lines with a shot just before, De Bruyne’s unerring delivery towards the goal line asked too much of Vicario, who could not impose himself as Ruben Dias defended his ground. His appeals for a foul were baseless as Ake responded first to the bouncing ball, hooking City into the last 16.

There may be work to do to get Guardiola’s winning machine firing at maximum efficiency but there usually is at this time of the year. It tends not to matter for much in a few months’ time. For now, City are just where they need to be.

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