Pep Guardiola's unusual formula for defending the counter-attack
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 28/08/16 4:16pm
West Ham will look to hurt Manchester City on the break at the Etihad Stadium on Super Sunday. It was an effective tactic for the Hammers last season, but does Pep Guardiola have the formula for defending against the counter-attack?
Slaven Bilic's West Ham were one of the Premier League's surprise packages at the start of last season, storming to memorable wins against heavyweights Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in their first three away games of the campaign.
The Hammers averaged just 35 per cent possession across the three fixtures, but their electrifying counter-attacks made the difference as they put three goals past Liverpool and two past Arsenal and City. "If West Ham take the lead, teams have got a big problem," said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher at the time. "They're so good at counter-attacking."
Bilic harnessed the speed and directness of Dimitri Payet, Manuel Lanzini and Diafra Sakho, who would burst forward in unison after stealing possession in their own half. "The great thing from West Ham's point of view is the amount of people looking to join in and sprint forward," added Gary Neville.
Now, almost a year on from their last visit to the Etihad Stadium, West Ham return to Manchester aiming to cause City more problems on the break. The personnel are different, but Payet is expected to be fit, while the likes of Gokhan Tore, Michail Antonio and Enner Valencia are similarly well-equipped to play on the break.
It's a tricky prospect for Pep Guardiola, but City's new coach has already showcased an interesting method of dealing with the counter. He caused a stir when he asked Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna to tuck into central midfield in their 2-1 win over Sunderland, but while it was the first time the tactic has been used in the Premier League, 'inverted full-backs' have been a feature of his coaching career - and there is logic behind it.
"It's something we saw three years ago between Bayern Munich and Manchester United," said Carragher on the most recent edition of Monday Night Football. "I think there are three big reasons why he does it: to create one v ones out wide, to create space between the lines, and also to stop counter-attacks."
The idea against Sunderland was for Guardiola's full-backs to move into the middle of the pitch whenever City had possession, with wingers Raheem Sterling and Nolito pushing high up on the flanks to provide width, and midfielder Fernandinho dropping in between the two centre-backs to form a solid base.
It was an unfamiliar system for City's players, and it was totally new territory for Clichy and Sagna, who had to curb their usual instincts to charge forward on the overlap when City went on the attack.
"In the past, Gael Clichy would play the ball to his winger and he would try to go around him or do an underlap," observed Carragher. "What's interesting is to look at Clichy's head. As soon as he has passed that ball, he's checking what's around him, because he's got a disciplined role and that is to try and stop the counter-attack."
By moving inside, Clichy and Sagna were able to man-mark Sunderland's forwards. The likes of Duncan Watmore and Fabio Borini would wait to latch onto loose balls or clearances when the hosts' attacks broke down, but the positioning of City's inverted full-backs reduced the risk of being caught out on the counter-attack.
Guardiola's teams are chiefly known for their devastating attacking football and domination of possession, but this kind of defensive organisation is not unusual. "Before the Sunderland game, everyone was saying, 'isn't it fantastic that Pep Guardiola is playing all these attacking players?' said Carragher. "But this is a very, very organised coach both offensively and defensively."
Guardiola's players have clearly defined roles within the system, and even when City went on the attack against Sunderland, there was always a group of five light blue shirts taking up defensive positions behind the ball.
"It was like there were two different teams," added Carragher. "There was a group five who stayed behind the ball, and a five who stayed in front. But don't think the five who stayed in front were just doing what they wanted and running all over the place. It's very, very organised.
"This is not a manager who wants everyone flying forward. He wants organisation behind the ball defensively. Don't forget Pep Guardiola has had the best defensive record everywhere he has been in his seven or eight seasons as a manager. You'd expect Manchester City to be no different."
City's players are still adapting to the new regime, but it's no surprise to see they already rank top for possession, with 67 per cent from their first two Premier League games. West Ham will not be the last team who aim to hit them on the break, but with Guardiola's methods in action, City will be confident of avoiding a repeat of last year's defeat.
Man City v West Ham is live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 3.30pm on Sunday