The genius and brilliance of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has been widely discussed. Their success could possibly come to represent a historical shift in Premier League tactics. In its simplest terms, Guardiola’s positional play is based upon specific field markings with key principles and zone rules, where the primary outcome is effective possession play to penetrate the opposition effectively in order to arrive in the penalty box with controlled possession and numbers to attack the final pass or cross.
Without being privy to Guardiola’s specific model, it is possible to guess at potential zone rules based on match analysis. For example, given the number of goals his teams create from the half-space positions, it is possible one rule is to always occupy the left and right halfspaces. (The halfspace being the two outer channels of the centre section that is divided into three vertical lines).
Another possible rule is if another player moves from the wide zone into the halfspace, another player must take that position in the wide lane. A familiar example of this is when Fabian Delph moves infield from left-back, with this movement often accompanied by the movement of the left-sided #8 in City’s 4-3-3 formation moving into the wider zone in which Delph started.
One rule that seemed particularly obvious in City’s 4-1 win over Tottenham was the starting positions of the front three whenever Ederson (the goalkeeper) had possession. As highlighted on Twitter, Sane, Sterling & Aguero started extremely high, deep inside the opposition half.
Gonna write something on Man City's set up at goal kicks, which vs Spurs was something like this.— James Nalton (@JDNalton) December 17, 2017
Ederson is really providing an extra dimension for this team, and he occasionally does some goalkeeping too. #MCFC pic.twitter.com/UFXhM38Wks
If we refer to Guardiola’s field, this might have been a rule of occupy at least four vertical blocks when the goalkeeper has possession (blocks being the small rectangles running vertically down both touchlines in the diagram at the top of the page).
To put the build up moments in the context of Guardiola’s grid:
Here, we can clearly see how the front three of City take up positions more or less according to the rule described above. Naturally, the wording of the rule might have drawn attention to the orientation of Tottenham’s defenders. For example, noting Aguero’s offside position on the blindside of Eric Dier, it is possible Guardiola included the following detail: get on the blindside of the nearest centre-back and stay on the blindside if you are not able to directly receive the ball.
It is worth noting that a similar outcome could be achieved without explicit zone rules. A more general task for players to recreate this situation could be ‘make the field as big as possible, even if that means your starting position is offside’. Alternatively, the task could be ‘try and pin the opposition back four as far as possible, to create space between the midfield and defence‘. Whether coaches use explicit zone rules, or key principles, or specific tasks, the key is the coaching process – that is, that the players understand what the coach wants them to do and why. Clearly, Guardiola has improved the players understanding of his complex zone system, and they are now able to bring it to life on the pitch. A team could achieve the same picture above through an entirely different coaching process, without any zone system, but only if the coach is clear and consistent in their own specific teaching process.
In the case of City, this rule – occupy 4 blocks when the goalkeeper has possession – proved crucial to their ability to play through Tottenham’s press. As Ederson has a tremendous range of distribution, he was able to find players positioned high up the pitch with long, lofted passes, bypassing the first and second lines of pressure that we can see in the image above.
The video below shows one example of Ederson bypassing the Spurs press to find one of the front three players.
As we can see, when the pass is made from Ederson to Sane, that is the cue for De Bruyne to immediately move forward into a position where he can receive the lay-off, now in a position facing forward between the lines of Tottenham’s midfield and defence. With Aguero and Sterling still high, De Bruyne has two forward passing options, both of whom are pinning the Spurs defence back, and making forward runs to receive a penetrating pass receive in behind.
In this example, Ederson plays a clever ground pass into the feet of De Bruyne in a similar build up situation. When De Bruyne drives forward with the ball, we can actually see Aguero move back into an onside position, with the two wingers still wide and in positions where they are pinning back the Tottenham back four. This is crucial, as it prevents them from moving forward to pressure De Bruyne, creating that space for him to be able to move the ball into. Suddenly, City have gone from having the ball inside their own penalty box surrounded by Spurs players, to attacking with control deep inside the opposition half.
We can see more benefits of Guardiola’s strict zone rules in another scene. Given Sterling and Sane typically stayed very wide, on the outside of Spurs full-backs, potentially another rule was to ‘always occupy the widest blocks when we have the ball’. (This is a common occurrence this season, most obvious in the Manchester Derby win, and their 1-0 victory over Chelsea). In the video below, we see De Bruyne attempt a first time pass towards Aguero, which is blocked. Immediately, he plays a no-look pass towards Sterling – almost as if he knew without looking that there would be a player there. It indicates that there is a rigid set of guidelines underpinning the fluidity that we see at face value.
Guardiola’s positional play framework will become inevitably popular as this remarkable City team continues to win over fans in their unstoppable run to the Premier League title. However, as discussed earlier, it is important to recognise the learning process City went through to reach this point. Last season, they obviously struggled to come to grips with the complexity of the zone rules. Now, with a clear understanding of Guardiola’s process, they are able to put his ideas into practice. Ultimately, in being guided by what are obviously some strict rules about occupation of spaces and areas of the pitch, City’s players are able to play with a degree of freedom knowing that players will be positioned in specific areas, and that the ball will arrive in specific areas at specific times. Perhaps that is what makes some of their enthralling football appear so easy – yet the learning process has been anything but easy.