Manchester City’s rotating back three builds on Pep Guardiola’s love of build up

The Catalan already has City clicking into gear. How has he done it?

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, so the narrative goes, proved technical could triumph over physical with a 2–1 derby win over Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.The media exaggerates, of course, but this was a victory achieved with very Guardiola-esque football.

City naturally dominated possession but also constantly looked for penetration, constantly circulating the ball across the pitch to find gaps in Manchester United’s defensive structure. Guardiola’s positional play philosophy is essentially distilled into possession with purpose.

The intention is not to move the ball, rather to move the opposition

Fundamental to this is the notion of clean build-up — where the ball is progressed smoothly from the back third into more advanced areas of the pitch. Guardiola sees build up as crucial to the clean progression of possession, arguing that in starting the play from deep positions, you provoke pressure from the opposition by inviting them forward, thus creating more space for midfielders and creative players when the ball arrives in their zone.

“Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean”

The cult of Guardiola first swept through football with his all-conquering Barcelona side of 2009–2011, who utilised what we today may consider the ‘orthodox’ build up methods. As explained in detail here, the back four splits across the full width of the pitch, with the full-backs getting high and wide, the centre-backs starting on the edge of the penalty box, and Sergio Busquets (#6, or holding midfielder) acting as the pivot through the centre of the pitch.

As Guardiola moved on to Bayern, so did his preferred build-up methods. In Germany, he regularly experimented with a back three, as well as the unusual ploy of central full-backs. This involved Phillip Lahm and David Alaba tucking into the centre of the pitch alongside Xabi Alonso (the #6), helping to overload the centre and creating vertical passing lanes from the centre-backs that increased Bayern’s ability to penetrate in build-up.

It was almost inevitable, then, when Guardiola first arrived at City that his first act at training was to teach the players how to build up.

In their opening match of the new Premier League season against Sunderland, Guardiola’s City appeared more of the Bayern school than Barcelona, with Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy tucking into central positions when City built up from the back.

Since then, they’ve gradually progressed to more orthodox roles, positioning themselves in high and wide positions to give the team full width in the first phase of build-up.

More interesting has been the movement of the back three (nominally the two centre-backs and Fernadinho, who has been the #6). While their starting positions are typical — the centre-backs split to the edge of the penalty box in the half-spaces, and Fernandinho starts central and in a position behind the opposition first pressing line — they constantly adjust this shape according to the movement of the player in possession.

Remembering that the overall team task is for the back third players to a)invite pressure from the opposition and b) get the ball into players positioned behind this line of pressure, the centre-backs have clear player tasks to dribble the ball forward if there is space in front of them.

Importantly, though, they will not dribble if the #6 is not in a position to provide cover by moving in behind the centre-back to maintain positional stability.

John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi are more than happy to follow these instructions. Stones, in particular, is very comfortable (too comfortable for some) at driving forward into the midfield zone.

His calmness on the ball made him an immediately obvious fit for Guardiola’s City, and it’s no surprise they shelled out so much for him — he’s obviously not worth £47.5 right now, but he’s worth £47.5 in terms of his potential, and more importantly, in terms of how well he fits into Guardiola’s ideology.

The same argument applies for newly signed goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, albeit without such a hefty pricetag. Guardiola doesn’t personally hate Joe Hart, he just wants a keeper who can pass. A keeper who can distribute the ball accurately from those deep positions, understands the value of supporting the player in possession from behind to enable a quick back-pass option and can immediately switch the point of attack is invaluable — basically indispensable- for Guardiola.

Returning to the derby against United, when a City centre-back drove forward into midfield, it meant either that he had loads of time and space on the ball; or, if one of the United central midfielders (Pogba and Fellaini) moved forward to apply pressure, it created space between the lines for De Bruyne and Silva.

Silva, in particular, manipulated this excellently. Knowing that his direct opponent (either Pogba/Fellaini) was very man-oriented, he sometimes dropped deeper into the same receiving line as Fernandinho, for the simple intent of receiving and bouncing a pass back to his teammate.

This had the desired effect of drawing the United midfielder up the pitch, creating space for either a) Silva to dart into to receive an immediate forward pass, or b) a teammate like Nolito or Sterling to drop into between the lines to receive. Unsurprisingly, the clever Spanish playmaker already has a clear grasp on Guardiola’s policy on provoking pressure to create space and enable clean ball movement.

Silva’s movement into deeper positions drew the man-oriented Fellaini forward and created space between the lines
Silva’s movement into deeper positions drew the man-oriented Fellaini forward and created space between the lines

This is all textbook Guardiola stuff, of course. Where it got really interesting was when the back three rotated. Against United, Fernandinho, Stones and Otamendi notably always maintained the overall positional structure, even if the personnel fulfilling each role was different.

To give one example, early on Stones looked to dribble forward into midfield. When it didn’t work, he circulated the ball back to Claudio Bravo in goals — but then moved centrally into the #6 position, as Fernandinho had already split to the other side of the pitch to ensure the half-space was still occupied.

Another example came when the ball was circulated out into the wide zone to the feet of a full-back. If the near-side United striker became man-oriented on the nearest City centre-back to the ball, they would push forward and drag the United player with them to create a long backwards passing option from the full-back into goalkeeper Bravo, who would then switch the point of attack.

It showed that City’s players understand not just their own individual positions, but also, the roles of their teammates, and overall, the principles that govern Guardiola’s vision of football.

Just four games into the season, that’s ominous stuff.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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