If you were wondering whether Pep Guardiola had thrown Manchester City’s Treble-winning game plan out of the window this season then Wednesday’s approach at RB Leipzig was a reminder that their next iteration is not so gung-ho after all.
With Arsenal coming up on Sunday, and Rodri back on the sidelines, it is a very timely reminder indeed.
The early weeks of City’s season have been characterised by speedier attacking play than even last season, with Guardiola cramming vibrant threats like Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez into the team alongside Erling Haaland, and sometimes with Jeremy Doku too.
Considering Guardiola delivered the Treble — and indeed every other trophy in his career — with a more balanced which offered his side more control over matches (think Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva, Xavi etc), it was quite a stark change of direction.
Guardiola admitted that he and his employers had decided to pursue ball carriers in the summer transfer window, adding variance to the pass-oriented style that conquered world football.
Was this the new-look City? Not quite.
The ball carrying makes complete sense, as it allows them more solutions to break down deep, compact defences, and it will continue to have a place in the team this season and beyond. But there will be a time and a place for it.
The biggest surprise in the early weeks was that Guardiola had thrown all of his most direct players into the same team at the same time — and it still delivered victories.
But it turns out he did not have too much of a choice. In a press conference on Tuesday he made a very simple point about City’s defeat at Wolves at the weekend that hinted at that.
“The basis of what we did last season was (John) Stones, Rodri, Bernardo (Silva), (Kevin) De Bruyne, (Ilkay) Gundogan, (Jack) Grealish, and they weren’t there,” he said.
Wolves at the weekend was essentially a bridge too far for City: all of those players Guardiola mentioned, bar De Bruyne, help the team control a game with short passes, lots of touches. Patient football. They do all of that so De Bruyne and Haaland’s direct threat can be fully harnessed. It is City’s yin and yang, their balance and it is what last season was based on.
But Saturday was a bridge too far because, without Rodri, they simply ran out of players who could stamp that kind of authority on a game, and the replacements — excellent footballers all of them — are built for something else.
Guardiola’s line-up on Wednesday, and therefore what he wanted from the game itself, was to slow things down again, to wrestle back control. He could have played Foden, Alvarez, Doku and Haaland again, but he did not.
Already this season, when discussing City’s new-found speed in attack, he had said that if he wanted more control he would use Mateo Kovacic or Rico Lewis in attacking midfield, rather than Foden or Alvarez, say, and that is exactly what he did with Lewis on Wednesday.
Instead of Doku’s direct dribbling threat, Grealish was back on the wing to show his qualities in keeping possession. Bernardo was back on the wing, and in the middle at times, floating around making the ‘extra pass’, as Guardiola refers to it, that makes City that bit more solid.
And the way Guardiola explained all of this after the match left no doubt about how he still wants these matches to go, and most likely how City will tackle the trip to north London on Sunday.
“We didn’t concede (many chances) but the times we allowed them to run on transitions… oh my god,” he said of Leipzig. “They are so fast. That’s why we wanted (to stop that), like we tried to do here last season in the last 16 when the people were so annoyed and asked why we didn’t play quicker.
“Always I have the feeling that when you take 15, 20 touches, passes in every action in attack, something good is going to happen, something good. In every action if Jack touches the ball, and then Bernardo, and then with Jack, and then with Bernardo, when that happens in the same action, many good things are going to happen and today we did really, really, really well.”
It was telling that he harked back to the 1-1 draw here in February when there were indeed complaints about City’s alleged sloth in possession, and when he made no substitutions partly because those he could have brought on would have been too direct in their actions — like Foden and Alvarez.
He was and is more than happy with that type of performance, usually away from home, and if we are looking for a blueprint for the rest of the season then we should expect more patience than pace.
City were comfortable 3-1 winners in the end but even had they not found the two goals towards the end you can be sure Guardiola would have been very happy with how the game went, given how they blunted Leipzig’s threat, by and large, and could focus on winning their two remaining home games to finish top of the group.
“How did he do that!? Check that out again!” 🤯
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) October 4, 2023
There is every chance (although these things are never guaranteed) that he will try to repeat the trick at Arsenal. The challenge will be to do it without Rodri, who is not banned for European competition but is domestically.
He is very much the hub of that midfield but, unlike at Wolves, Guardiola will surely use players like Grealish and Bernardo to bring a bit of order. And quite possibly Lewis, too.
“He played good, huh?” Guardiola said. He beamed as soon as Lewis’ name was mentioned. “What a player. What a player. 18 years old. I’ve been a manager for 14-15 years, training unblievable players, and to find a player like him in the pockets, how he has to move into the spaces, he’s one of the best I ever trained, by far.”
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) October 4, 2023
Only last week Guardiola admitted he can get a little carried away with his praise (he said Matheus Nunes was not, in fact, one of the best players ever, which he had said after City beat Sporting 5-0 two seasons ago), but he has already earmarked Lewis as one player who can give his side extra control, and the academy graduate showed that — and the attacking edge that has to come with it — in Leipzig.
And so to Sunday’s big game. Does Kovacic come back in? Will Stones be available? There is a good chance that even Guardiola is not sure yet.
But the blueprint is surely laid out: control is back.
(Top photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)