Three tactical innovations behind Pep Guardiola's Man City success

Pep Guardiola - Feature

Manchester City are on course to finish the season with the most points and most goals in Premier League history, but what are the tactical innovations behind their record-breaking success?

Pep Guardiola's side, who take on West Ham live on Sky Sports on Super Sunday, have earned widespread plaudits for the thrilling playing style which has blown away their title rivals and taken them 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League table.

From the midfield makeover to inverting the full-backs, here are three key innovations which have helped Guardiola do it.

Midfield makeover

If someone had told you in the summer that Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva would play starring roles in Manchester City's season, it would have come as no great surprise. But what if they had told you that they would do it side by side in central midfield?

The use of two natural No 10s in a three-man midfield is unprecedented in the Premier League, where title-winning sides of the recent past have almost always used two defensively-minded players behind a forward-thinking creator, but Guardiola has turned the rulebook upside down, using De Bruyne and Silva in tandem ahead of Fernandinho.

It has been fundamental to their success. De Bruyne and Silva have excelled in their new roles, giving Manchester City unrivalled creativity in the centre of the pitch and allowing Guardiola to implement his playing style without any hint of compromise.

David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne celebrate Manchester City's Carabao Cup final win over Arsenal
Image: David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have provided 17 goals and 26 assists combined

De Bruyne was Mohamed Salah's closest competitor for the PFA Player of the Year award, with many feeling he was unfortunate to miss out on the prize, while Silva has enjoyed his most effective campaign yet, contributing goals and assists at a faster rate than in any of his previous seven seasons at Manchester City.

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It owes a lot to Fernandinho - a natural box-to-box player who has been outstanding defensively - but it is chiefly a credit to Guardiola. He has instilled tactical and defensive discipline in his two most creative players, and he has done it without curbing their attacking effectiveness.

It is a triumph of technical brilliance over physical toughness and it has taken City's football to another level.

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The Ederson effect

Manchester City wasted no time in bringing in a replacement for Claudio Bravo at the end of last season, with Ederson's £35m arrival from Benfica confirmed less than three weeks after their final fixture of the campaign. There was scepticism over the deal - the Brazilian was uncapped at international level and only aged 23 - but it has proved an inspired piece of business.

Ederson has earned plaudits for his shot stopping, bravery and speed off his line, attributes which have helped Manchester City keep more clean sheets this season than they managed in the whole of the last campaign, but it is with the ball at his feet that he has been most influential.

Ederson has the highest long passing accuracy of Premier League goalkeepers
Image: Ederson has the highest long passing accuracy of Premier League goalkeepers

Ederson's composure is such that, even when City are pinned back and under pressure, he is capable of finding the feet of a team-mate with the kind of reliability Bravo could not offer. According to Opta, Ederson has only misplaced two of his 624 short passes in the Premier League this season.

Most intriguing, however, is his long-range distribution. Ederson is capable of launching the ball deep into the opposition's half with remarkable accuracy. His long pass success rate of 50.9 per cent is the best of any Premier League goalkeeper, and it is all the more impressive when you consider he does not have a traditional targetman to aim for.

Guardiola has harnessed Ederson's long passing ability in a way that has never been seen before in the Premier League, as Ben Garner, a first-team coach under Tony Pulis at West Brom, explained in a an interview with The Times earlier this season.

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"The clever thing they do which I've not seen before is that the forward, Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, stands 20, 30 yards behind your defensive line, their centre halves will virtually be on their goal-line and they try to stretch you in every direction," he said. "If you press high, and everyone is locked in, they may try to kick that long one for the forwards straight away. If you drop off, they play shorter."

It presents another dilemma for the Premier League opponents scrambling to keep Manchester City at bay. When something as innocuous as a goal kick can be transformed into an attacking weapon, you know you are up against something special.

Inverting the full-backs

Guardiola's attempts to use Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta as inverted full-backs were mocked last year, but the tactic - which requires full-backs to tuck infield when their team have possession - has been a prominent feature of City's success this season.

Oleksandr Zinchenko and Pep Guardiola of Manchester City celebrate penalty shootout victory over Leicester in the Carabao Cup
Image: Pep Guardiola has used Oleksandr Zinchenko as an inverted full-back

The idea is to create extra passing angles in the centre of the pitch and open up space in attacking areas by confusing opponents and drawing their midfielders out of position. In the event that possession is lost, inverted full-backs can also offer protection against the counter-attack.

Kolarov and his aging counterparts struggled to meet Guardiola's demands last season, but City's new full-backs - in particular Kyle Walker, Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko - have had no such problems. It has allowed City to maximise their dominance of the ball, create space in attacking areas for De Bruyne and Silva, and provide added solidity from turnovers.

City's use of inverted full-backs has been most apparent in this season's Premier League meetings with Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge in October, when De Bruyne's goal gave City a 1-0 win, Delph and Walker's touch maps show that they rarely ventured forward on the overlap, instead occupying central positions as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane pinned back Chelsea's wing-backs on the flanks.

Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker played as inverted full-backs against Chelsea
Image: Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker played as inverted full-backs against Chelsea

The tactic was successful again in the return game at the Etihad Stadium, this time with Zinchenko in place of Delph on the left-hand side. Just as at Stamford Bridge, City's inverted full-backs had the most touches on the pitch, helping City to dominate the midfield and nullify Chelsea's attacking threat as they claimed another 1-0 win.

Watch West Ham v Manchester City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1.30pm on Sunday.

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