Pep Guardiola’s search for control

Going back to Pep Guardiola’s early years at Barcelona, there was one thing his teams sought the most. Not possession, but control. Control of how the game flows, forcing the opponent into unfavorable decisions where their share of the ball is lessened and their players moved out of position to create space for Guardiola’s teams. Without the ball the opponent can’t create chance and with space his side can create.

The ongoing defensive lapses at Manchester City hinder this type of control. Whether due to individual mistakes or organizational problems, the end-result is that there is little to no control. At any time during the game you can feel that the opponent can create and score.

Therefore despite the attacking prowess, there were always lingering doubts about the probability of anything happening. Certain control of the game is what Manchester City missed, and against Arsenal there was glimpse of it again.

Asked after the game what was the element of the game that pleased him the most, Guardiola’s response wasn’t short but they key sentence perhaps was this: “We were able to defend ninety minutes without the ball”.

So what was Guardiola talking about ?

Individually, City’s defenders were well positioned, clean of mistakes and timed their interceptions excellently. Kyle Walker and Ruben Dias could be singled out, but the eleven players on the pitch made it hard for Arsenal. Suffocating them while being ready to recover if Arsenal played past the first line of defence.

Structurally, City’s shape was fluid defensively and offensively (more on this later). The defensive shape depended on the position of the ball and Arsenal’s players. In case Arsenal were in the middle third of the pitch, City moved into a 4–4–2 compact block.

If Arsenal were in the first third and were trying to build up, City’s shape was more of a 3–3–4 with Joao Cancelo going into midfield and the rest of the defensive line stretching to mark Arsenal’s front three. Arsenal’s build up is a key part of their game, and stopping it was important to minimize Arsenal’s chances. Moving Cancelo in midfield neutralizes Arsenal’s option in their left channel where Bukayo Saka or Ainsley Maitland-Niles position themselves. Meanwhile, the front four of City cancels out Arsenal’s build up ideas of using their deep midfield duo and wide center backs to reach their full backs.

Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero were mainly focused on blocking passes into Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos. At times helping with the pressing of David Luiz and Gabriel, but making sure their pressing angle denies the pass into Xhaka or Ceballos if they are deep on the edge of the box.

That leaves the task of pressing David Luiz and Gabriel, who normally position themselves wide of the box to have a passing angle into Arsenal’s full back, to Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez.

Foden and Mahrez however didn’t press head on, they had to angle their run to also block passes into Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin.

An example early on illustrates the aforementioned scheme. Foden is pressing David Luiz, while Aguero and Sterling are central to keep tabs on Xhaka and Ceballos. Meanwhile, in the bottom left of the screen you can spot Saka waiting to present himself in the left channel.

Cancelo however is ready for that and before Gabriel makes the pass he is close to Saka. Near the ball, Mahrez is again cautiously closing on but keeping in mind Tierney who is out of the picture. Sterling and Aguero are never caught in this, because their main task is to deny passes into Xhaka and Ceballos.

The presence of Cancelo all over Saka forces the latter into a pass to Tierney. The normal conclusion could be that Arsenal reached their full backs as planned, but it’s not the case here. Tierney isn’t free of pressure due to the proximity of the City players near by and the stretched back line of Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and Walker means that Arsenal’s front three are covered. Tierney’s ball here was heavy and Ruben Dias collected easily.

In a further example you can see City’s front four in position. Sterling and Aguero are near Ceballos and Xhaka…

…but when the ball is played into Gabriel, it’s Aguero who presses. The angle of Aguero’s run puts Ceballos in his cover shadow, taking that option off the table. Whilst that is happening, the rest of City’s players are in position as explained earlier, leaving Gabriel with no option but going long.

Walker was always in position making it tough for Aubameyang to receive the ball. Aubameyang here misses the ball and City collect easily. The stretched back line of City was left in a 3 v 3 scenario, but they were always prepared for it rather than reacting to it.

From this pressing scheme City also managed to create a threatening chance in the first half. Mahrez, Aguero and Sterling are minimizing Gabriel’s options here. Mahrez’s angled press is blocking the pass into Tierney while placing a ticking timer on Gabriel. The other duo meanwhile are blocking the central options.

Then the option of Saka is also taken out by Cancelo’s constant presence in the right channel. The Portuguese defender manages here to intercept the ball starting an offensive transition…

…which then leads to a passing combination between Sterling, Aguero and Foden, putting the latter in-front of goal. This was the perfect goal to round up City’s impressive pressing scheme, but Bernd Leno kept Arsenal in the game with his right foot.

A view from behind the goal earlier when Gabriel had the ball shows us how Cancelo was starting his run even before the pass was played and how high Foden is, ready to press David Luiz incase the ball was switched over. That advance positioning from Foden allowed him to receive the ball in a dangerous spot when City won the ball back.

Offensively, City’s shape was akin to a 3–3–1–3 with Cancelo moving inside and the back three stretching across the field. Rodri frequently dropped to support Ruben Dias, but also to lure in the press from Arsenal’s midfield to vacate space for Sterling.

Cancelo’s inside position also forced Saka inside, resulting in Arsenal keeping the 4–3–3 in both offensive and defensive phases. The major consequence was isolating Mahrez against Tierney.

Finding space behind Arsenal’s midfield and isolating Mahrez were the key points that City’s attack revolved around. In the first example here you can see Xhaka alert to Cancelo’s narrow positioning as the ball goes back to Ederson.

Once the City attack resets again, both Ceballos and Xhaka are tracking Bernardo Silva and Cancelo respectively.

Leaving space behind them that could be exploited by Sterling. City’s 3–1 shape in midfield gives them an extra man against Arsenal’s midfield. The important thing to note here though, is that Saka now shifts his focus exclusively on Cancelo who is going inside the pitch rather than out.

Ake found Sterling and now all is in place. The space Sterling had allowed him to receive the ball comfortably and Saka’s inside positioning to track Cancelo leaves Mahrez completely free out wide. Mahrez created a heading chance for Aguero from this position, but the Argentine’s header went over the bar.

City’s midfield diamond was constantly stretching Arsenal’s midfield to create space. Aiding that was Aguero’s movement in and out of the midfield.

Bernardo found the free Sterling, then Cancelo made a run behind Saka forcing Tierney to go inside leaving Mahrez free.

In 10 seconds City penetrated Arsenal’s block and found Mahrez in a free space out wide. Had Mahrez scored from this chance it would have encapsulated City’s attacking plan perfectly.

Cancelo was the key in freeing Mahrez as his runs moved Saka…

…either keeping him in midfield as explained earlier or like in this scenario where Cancelo’s runs drags Saka, vacating space for Mahrez to take a shot.

In the build up to City’s goal it was Aguero dropping while Sterling made a run forward. That Sterling run forced Ceballos deeper, thus stretching the Arsenal midfield.

Now when the ball was played to Mahrez out wide, the Arsenal midfield trio was scattered. Xhaka was pressing Rodri, Saka moving with Cancelo and Ceballos dragged back into defence by Sterling. The gap in midfield was utilized by Aguero in a change of roles between him and Sterling.

Aguero then proceeded with the ball, playing in the wide option on the other side which is Foden. Foden’s shot rebounded and it was Sterling who put it into the net. The early run from Sterling put him in an Aguero-like position and the pause in his run was totally out of Aguero’s book.

Tactically, City were intriguing. The different principles dictated the shapes and for each part Guardiola had a trick.

Surprisingly City had a strange balance in them. They created chances despite not being numerous, but their individual defensive performance and their defensive structure off the ball felt solid.

This allowed City control. Control that Pep has been seeking for a while in an age where chaos excels. The opponent’s similar philosophy might have helped, but can Manchester City control the chaos ?