Defending with the ball – Inside Guardiola and Manchester City’s success

The criticism endured by Pep Guardiola in his debut season with Manchester City over his style of football and approach to defending has long been forgotten.

He has shown in back to back season’s that his tactics and methods, when carried out correctly, can dominate the English game and rewrite the record books in the process.

It was Manchester City’s humbling at the hands of Leicester City all the way back in December of 2016 that prompted pundit Robbie Savage to declare of Guardiola:

All I’m hearing is the word genius. Sort the defending out first. I’ve no idea what he’s doing.

This sentiment was being echoed by other pundits and former players as well. The Spaniard had arrived in England to much fanfare, and was lauded as the best coach in the world, but some sections of the English media and press were skeptical that his approach to the game would suit the Premier League and questioned his ability to organise a team defensively.

In Germany his Bayern Munich side had conceded the fewest amount of goals in each of the three league campaigns he presided over.

This wasn’t seen as a massive achievement though, as after all, Bayern were the richest and most dominant team in Germany, of course they were going to have the best defence.

When it came to the Premier League, his teams weren’t simply going to be able to pass the ball out from the back like they had done at Barcelona and Bayern Munich we were told.

In England the game is more intense and played at a much higher pace. It is Pep that will have to adapt to England, that was the general consensus on his arrival.

Guardiola’s approach to defending is based heavily on what you do when you have the ball. The best way to stop an opponent from scoring a goal, is to starve them of the ball.

If they don’t have the football, then they cannot hurt you with it. The more of the ball you have, the more in control of the game you are, and the more running the opposition has to do.

It is a brilliant way of frustrating teams and tiring them out. When you don’t have the ball, you have to work twice as hard.

Defending with the ball is a simple concept when put on paper, but one that seemed alien to the Premier League, and people in England had difficulty quantifying when comparing it to the more traditional means of defending.

Defence in England still meant big crunching tackles and clearing your lines with booming headers. Is it really defending if you aren’t stopping an opposition player with a tackle or a block?

This season, Manchester City have no player in the top 45 for making successful tackles in the League, even though they have kept the highest number of clean sheets.

This is a direct result of their opponents not having the ball. When it comes to blocks, it is the same situation, with no Manchester City player appearing in the top fifty for successful blocks.

Simply put, if you have the ball, then their is no need to tackle and opponent and their are no shots to block.

This idea of not defending in the traditional sense is what links the whole team together from back to front.

A goalkeeper can be just as important as a midfielder or striker when it comes to attacking the opposition and the same can be said for defending, as the striker or forward player becomes the first line of defence.

One of Guardiola’s first acts as the newly appointed manager of Manchester City was to buy a new goalkeeper that would be good with his feet, and be comfortable playing the ball out from the back under pressure.

For Bayern Munich he had Manuel Neuer, who was regarded as the best in the world at playing this role.

For Manchester City, he signed Claudio Bravo and sent Joe Hart out on loan. The thought process behind this decision had been right, unfortunately for Pep though, he overestimated Bravo’s ability with his feet and City suffered for it during his debut season.

This was quickly remedied with the arrival of the Brazilian Ederson at the beginning of the 2017/18 season and highlighted the importance of the goalkeeper when it came to starting attacking moves.

It was a similar situation when it came to his defenders. The centre backs needed to be able to pass the ball as well as the midfielders, and the full backs needed to be able to attack as well as wingers.

It all sounds so obvious now, but back in 2016, it was still a way of playing that was alien to some.

Two of Manchester City’s defenders, Aymeric Laporte and Kyle Walker, are in the top ten for successful passes in the League this season. This gives you an indication of just how much of the ball City’s defence have per game, but on their own terms.

When it came to the forwards, their was a question mark over Sergio Aguero. Did he run enough? Did he work hard enough off the ball? Would he be able to contribute enough defensively when it came to pressing high up the pitch?

Surely the fact he was the best striker in the Premier League warranted his inclusion, but in order for Pep’s system to work, everybody had to chip in defensively.

A team that presses together and maintains a lot of possession cannot afford to carry someone who is not willing to run. Messi at Barcelona is probably one of the only players in the world that is allowed a free pass when it comes to defending.

Aguero could adapt though, and he has become a more well rounded player for it.

He has amassed the third highest amount of shots this season in the league, which is an indication that the extra running and defensive duties he has picked up have not hampered the attacking side of his game.

In fact, by facilitating the system City use, it gives him more chances in the long run to score goals as the team has most of the possession and can attack more.

Players that are comfortable on the ball from the back to the front have allowed City to turn defensive situations into attacking ones in the blink of an eye.

No matter where on the pitch you win the ball back, their is always an opportunity to start an attacking move if your players are in the right position.

This can be from a forward pressing high in the opposition’s third or by a goalkeeper passing out from the back to a full back after an opponent’s attack has been snuffed out.

Manchester City have mastered this with ruthless efficiency over the last two seasons, which has seen them score a record number of goals whilst accumulating a record number of points.

Football is becoming less and less about the individual and more about having a team that can all play as one.

Guardiola has realised that this can be applied not only to the midfielders and forwards, but to the way a team defends as well.

Having so much of the ball and using it to it’s maximum potential has been the key to City’s dominance over the league in the last two seasons, and until teams find a better way to combat this style, Pep Guardiola’s men will continue to do so.

The Author

Philip Flanagan

A West of Ireland based football writer/blogger. You can find me daily over at The Bottomless pit of football.

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