Erling Haaland and Manchester City searched for balance
“He adapted quickly, but many times in previous seasons we played with a false nine and had an extra player in the middle. Now the extra player is in the box so we have to adjust something.”
In this answer, Pep Guardiola brought it all together. There was a heated debate about Manchester cityGuardiola’s playing style and recent selection choices all boil down to implication Erling Halland in a well oiled machine.
Those who know Guardiola say he has been trying since the start of the season to get the best out of Haaland without breaking the false nine-capture system that he has, over the past two years, achieved back-to-back. Premier League Addresses and a Champions League final (and almost a second).
In this context, Guardiola has two types of players in his team: stand-up players, who manage the rhythm of the game, and destabilizing players, who tend more towards attack.
Includes his players in control RodriAnd Ilkay GundoganAnd Bernardo SilvaAnd Jack Grealish And Riyad Mahrez. Factors that destabilized him include Haaland, Phil FootAnd Kevin De BruyneAnd Joao Cancelo And Julian Alvarez.
Guardiola formations, back to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have always been about finding the right balance and midway through the 2020-21 season, he found a winning formula with City running out of control – and that didn’t involve a traditional striker. Introducing Haaland to the team is one of the two main reasons that City in the middle of this season are still trying to find their rhythm (the other is world Cup rest time).
As Guardiola said, City are basically trying to play with the same level of control as the last two seasons, although their ‘extra man’ is now terrorizing defenders rather than linking play in midfield.
At the moment, it can be said that there is a more pressing issue. As Ilkay Gundogan said midweek, “Something is off.” He said after a very bad defeat in Southampton in the Carabao Cup.
Guardiola was happy with City’s performance in the 1-1 draw with him evertonThey said they were “alive” after the beating Chelsea In the FA cup Last weekend, but they faced Chelsea in the league last week and even worse against Southampton, where he said no matter which team he chose, he felt the result would be the same.
Gundogan hopes defeat at Southampton will be a “wake-up call”, and it just might be. Either way, getting players back to their best condition – both physically and mentally – after the World Cup has been an ongoing battle.
That’s the root cause of their current bad patch, which stretches back over the past two weeks, but the broader picture, one that has been relevant since the start of the season – and will remain so as long as Haaland and Guardiola remain at the club. How it all fits together.
Despite recent form, neither Haaland nor City have fared too badly in this period of adaptation. With 27 goals in 22 matches in all competitions, the Norwegian has exceeded all expectations. Even those who argued in the summer he would need a little time to find their feet looking stupid: He scored twice on his league debut and hasn’t stopped since.
Although the last matches have been disconcerting, City are certainly no worse off than they were this time last season – in the Premier League they have won more matches and scored more goals than at the same stage. They qualified top of their group in the Champions League and are still in the FA Cup.
The fact remains that Guardiola has been looking for answers all season and still is (while facing a World Cup hangover). Those close to him think he’s getting closer and closer to breaking it up, but this is a new town to those of the past two seasons. In this sense, they have taken a small step back in hopes of taking a giant leap forward.
Controversy over their style of play, often slow by design, existed before results began to lag. So the concerns haven’t always been about results — they’re about performance.
Guardiola tried many different ways to rediscover his control last season, and recent matches are a perfect example of that.
There are many ways he seeks control, and it’s not always as obvious as which team to choose – player instructions can change from minute to minute and different partnerships can have different outcomes – but perhaps the most obvious choice is, perhaps, his goal- one and the most exciting. To controversy in the stands and on social media is the widespread play of Grealish and Mahrez.
He has come to favor these two because they excel in four particular areas: they stay open on the flanks, they press hard, they rarely lose the ball and they understand when to speed up the game and when to slow it down (the “pause” element).
It cannot be emphasized enough how important slowing down the game is to Guardiola.
Guardiola said after the chaotic 3-3 draw at Newcastle earlier this season. In that game, City were attacking quickly and directly, but that was seen as part of their problem.
“But it’s difficult because Erling is going, Phil has this aggression to go,” Guardiola continued. “If Jacques plays there or Riyad or Bernardo plays on the right, they are more calm and help us to be together, and when we lose the ball we are there and they can’t run.”
If City attack spaces quickly and score (or at least get the ball out of play), they either won’t have to quickly regroup or they’ll have the opportunity to do so. The problem against Newcastle was that moves were either broken down or shots were saved and stayed in play, allowing Eddie Howe’s side to counter-attack. Because City had attacked so quickly, the midfielders and defenders did not have time to catch up and get into the right position to try to win the ball back.
It was another reminder to Guardiola of the importance of control.
If there is an opportunity to attack quickly he encourages it but there are strict instructions not to force it.
Indeed, once Guardiola leaves City, and concentrates on his referee and career in general, it will likely become clear that he has become more conservative in recent years.
If this were in the Marvel universe, the origin story for this shift in approach would be chaotic defeats and/or eliminations in the Champions League at the hands of Liverpool And spurs Between 2017 and 2020, and others in this period, as things got out of control and City suffered from counter-attacks.
He wanted to put an end to that, and the false nine system in early 2021 not only broke City out of relative stagnation around Liverpool winning the title, but gave City the control Guardiola wanted and achieved titles and progress in Europe.
Lost city Real Madrid In the Champions League semi-finals last season after losing control for three or four minutes at the end of normal time in the second leg. Guardiola’s reaction to this has not been to seek less control – by throwing caution to the wind – but to seek more. The Newcastle match is another example, while the last 20 minutes of Manchester City’s 6-3 win in October, when United scored twice, is another.
Guardiola will always be happier with a balanced game City not winning than an unbalanced one they do.
There have been calls for Guardiola to adopt attacking quality in his team, to allow Haaland, Foden, De Bruyne and others to break the streak and wreak havoc, and they will surely win games that way. Guardiola is not inclined that way. He believes how City played earlier in his reign, with Raheem Sterling And Leroy Sane On the wingers, it wouldn’t be as successful now because teams defend against them in different ways, limiting the spaces for these types of direct wingers.
Grealish and Mahrez are generally used against deep defenses because they have different gears in their game and know when to play fast and when to play slow, but Guardiola is constantly looking for new ways to dominate.
The starting line-up against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week, despite containing none of the players, was an attempt to find the perfect balance in a different way.
Foden, who has often been out lately (although fitness concerns around the World Cup have also contributed to that) included wide on the left, Cancelo wide on the right, Haaland in the middle and four midfielders behind them. It didn’t work out – Guardiola made changes at half-time and later brought in Grealish and Mahrez an hour later – but it was an attempt to strike the right balance in a very different way.
And that was the case again on Sunday when City faced Chelsea in the FA Cup. Foden played in midfield this time, something that has been posed for a long time but rarely seen. The balancing act was to brief the “Boza” players: he was in partnership with Bernardo, who had developed this understanding in recent years, and Rodri supported him, Kyle WalkerAnd Sergio Gomez And Emeric Laporte – Players are able to combine several short passes. It was the same at Southampton, where Foden was partnered with Gundogan, Bosa.
That Southampton game, and Gundogan’s comments afterwards, show that there are other factors at play at the moment, from fitness to behaviour.
In recent weeks, however, Guardiola has been criticized more than usual. Depending on your point of view, he’s either harnessing formidable attacking talents like Foden, De Bruyne and Haaland, or holding them back.
What works for a coach – and what gets results – hasn’t always been particularly fun to watch and fans have been craving something more exciting lately. It must be said that Guardiola will be more than happy with these ‘lackluster’ matches as long as City win, but he is looking for new ways to do it every game. More exciting solutions could, in theory, be just around the corner – although City fans will surely triumph at Old Trafford with Grealish and Mahrez slowing the game to a slow pace.
For now, the effects of the World Cup loom large for City, but the story of the season so far has been Guardiola’s attempts to retain the same control over matches as in seasons past, but in very different ways. No wonder it looks a little different.