Man City: How Pep Guardiola helped his players rediscover their old selves

Pep Guardiola's inventive tactics, Kevin De Bruyne's peerless quality, and Man City's rediscovery of their tempo, drive, and desire has transformed them into serious contenders once again

Pep Guardiola celebrates after Man City's win over Man Utd
Image: Pep Guardiola celebrates after Man City's win over Man Utd

Manchester City are contenders again. Two wins in three days have shifted perceptions. They are back.

A blast past Chelsea in the Premier League and more measured deconstruction of Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-finals has seen a huge shift. The results have not made the difference - the manner of them has. And it's ominous for the opposition.

City were unbeaten in their 10 previous games before their double header at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. It was hardly crisis point. But while there had been flashes of class in that run, overall the impression was of a side still searching for something. Searching for their old selves.

The fear, watching the Manchester derby draw in the league just before Christmas, was that elusive level they had reached consistently during their back-to-back title-winning seasons was now permanently out of their reach. Perhaps they had come to the end of the cycle.

In that drab encounter, City - like their hosts - seemed more intent on not losing than winning. There was no verve, no fizz, no excitement to their play. They managed just one shot on target in either half. It was turgid and a million miles away from Pep's entertainers of the past.

A draw at home with relegation-threatened West Brom a few days later seemed to signal there would be no short-term fix.

City have enough ability in their ranks to see off most teams, and so it proved in the games which followed - but it was not until this past week that we saw signs City are heading back to trophy-winning levels.

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Through a combination of tactical invention, individual quality, and renewed mental determination City have saved their season and, most importantly, rediscovered their spark.

Man Utd 0-2 Man City 1:58
Highlights of the Carabao Cup semi-final tie between Manchester United and Manchester City

What encouraged the third element - the apparent motivation refresh - is not immediately clear. "Sometimes that can happen," Gary Neville explained on his latest podcast.

"You don't know what's going to spark a season and sometimes it can be when you're at your lowest moment, and players are out, and you think it's going to be the most difficult, people just stand up."

Guardiola's systems and the talent of the players applying his plans during what Neville calls two "top performances" can be more easily seen.

Coping without Jesus and Aguero

Guardiola was forced to get creative when coronavirus in the camp meant he was without five first-team players. The outbreak had forced their fixture with Everton to be postponed and left Gabriel Jesus unavailable. With fellow striker Sergio Aguero still easing his way back to fitness, team selection was not straightforward.

Finding a way to win without an out and out forward is not a new challenge for Guardiola. He, of course, made the false nine famous with his use of Lionel Messi in a game against Real Madrid while he was in charge of Barcelona, and it is a system he has used at City multiple times this season.

But is it had not clicked like this before in the Premier League.

Man City without Aguero and Jesus in the Premier League (past three seasons)

Date Opponent Result
8/12/18 Chelsea 0-2L
25/06/20 Chelsea 1-2L
27/09/20 Leicester 2-5L
3/10/20 Leeds 1-1D
31/10/20 Sheff Utd 1-0W
19/12/20 Southampton 1-0W
26/12/20 Newcastle 2-0W
03/01/21 Chelsea 3-1W

City have started without Jesus or Aguero eight times in the Premier League over the past three seasons, with six of those occasions coming this term.

Ironically, the other two times were against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - both defeats.

This season, City had been without a natural striker in the heavy defeat to Leicester, draw with Leeds and wins over Sheffield United, Southampton and Newcastle.

The difference against Chelsea on Sunday was that rather than Raheem Sterling leading the line as an unconventional striker, it was Kevin De Bruyne stepping into the central role.

The brilliant Belgian, as part of a three with Phil Foden and Sterling flanking him, adapted to the demands of the role superbly, dropping deep out of possession to bolster City's midfield, and then breaking into dangerous areas when the visitors were on the attack.

He had 103 touches of the ball in City's season opener against Wolves when he was in his usual midfield position. Against Chelsea he had just 51 - but he was still influential, linking the players around him and letting off five shots, his second most in a Premier League game in 2020/21, including his finish for City's third goal.

With Foden and Sterling providing pace and width, Ilkay Gundogan added impetus with his passing from midfield - as well as his own goal threat - and at the back, John Stones and Ruben Dias, with Rodri ahead of them, maintained the solid defensive foundation which has been key during City's unbeaten run.

Jamie Carragher, during his Monday Night Football analysis of the game, pointed out how City had "come alive" after an early De Bruyne chance, pressing Chelsea with intensity and playing with belief as their hosts wobbled.

But if dipping Chelsea "seemed to go mentally," as Carragher suggested, Manchester United at Old Trafford were expected to be more resilient. And so it proved.

Man City went with Kevin De Bruyne (17) through the middle against Chelsea, before shifting him into the right channel at Man Utd, where Phil Foden (47) provided real width on the left. Defensively Ruben Dias (3) and John Stones (5) have provided a solid pace, whether as part of a four (against Chelsea) or a three (against Man Utd).
Image: De Bruyne (17) was up top against Chelsea, before shifting to the right at Man Utd, where Foden (47) provided real width on the left. Defensively Dias (3) and Stones (5) provided a solid base in both four-man and three-man defence

Changes against Man Utd

This was no copy and paste job from Guardiola - although once again his tactical tweaks opened the door for his rejuvenated City talents to impress, and ultimately reach a fourth League Cup final in a row.

The back four became a back three, with the ever-improving Joao Cancelo pushing into midfield alongside Gundogan and captain Fernandinho, who had replaced Rodri, and Oleksandr Zinchenko impressively tucking in to form a back three with Stones and Dias.

With Riyad Mahrez starting in place of Bernardo Silva and looking for space through the middle, De Bruyne shuffled into his favoured right channel. Sterling gave him width to his right, and Foden, way out and high on the left, stretched the United midfield and defence.

In the middle of the park the standout Fernandinho and Gundogan controlled the tempo, with the latter seemingly shifting City through the gears whenever he got on the ball.

They picked their moments, though. There was more patience in City's play, retaining 60 per cent of possession, compared with the 45 per cent they'd had in west London.

"We have to play in our rhythm, play 1,000 passes and attack in the right moment. We won titles in that way, more patient," said Guardiola after that Chelsea game - and City did that at United.

 0:27
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says it is impressive that his side has reached their fourth League Cup final in a row after beating Manchester United 2-0

The goals may have come from set-pieces but there was a re-found belief in the approach of City throughout the contest.

"Out of what would be adversity with the positive COVID tests, the game being cancelled, people potentially criticising them, they have clicked," said Neville.

Guardiola and City went into these two games knowing they had to win. How damaging a Premier League defeat and semi-final cup exit would have been for them.

But they came through them with more than just victories. They emerged with their former passion and purpose restored, and confidence in this enhanced approach.

There will be twists and turns ahead. Aguero and Jesus will be back fit and accommodated at times. Guardiola will no doubt tinker with the formation and set-up again.

But City have rediscovered the tempo, drive, and desire which took them to such great heights in the past. They are the ones to keep an eye on in 2021...

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