We all know that the tactical side of the game goes far deeper than formations and many people in the game scoff at how much stock some fans put into what shape a team is playing in. While we agree that you can’t truly represent a player’s role on paper, the formation is a convenient shorthand to discuss a coach’s strategy and the player matchups to expect throughout a match. Certain formations also facilitate broader tactical concepts more than others and offer an indication of wrinkles a coach may be looking to introduce. Pep Guardiola is not going to defer from his attacking oriented, possession based system regardless of the formation, but he’s been known to tinker with his shape to maximize the efficacy of his overarching philosophy depending on the opponent. We took a look at four shapes that we think he may deploy throughout the 2020-21 season.
Let’s start with the obvious, the good ol’ 4-3-3. This formation is the equivalent of playing it down the fairway for City, it’s the shape the team is most familiar with and the one we all wish Pep Guardiola had stuck to when he has an episode of overthinking. Does everyone remember the Champions League loss against Lyon? According to Transfermarkt, Guardiola rolled out a 4-3-3 in 39 of City’s 61 matches last season in all competitions and we can expect it to be the most used formation again this year. This structure works so well within Guardiola’s possession style of play because it encourages the passing triangles in the half spaces between the winger, fullback, and midfielder on each side that are so crucial in getting behind the defense. It also blends well with City’s natural tendency to build down the left flank (40% buildup down the left, compared to 33% on the right) to set up the big switch to Riyad Mahrez on the opposite touchline, where he can attack a recovering defense. The 4-3-3 requires the least amount of thought on which players to choose for the starting eleven. Assuming City bring in a starting-quality right sided center back this window, the only starting spot up for grabs is the third midfielder alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri (apologies to all the Joao Cancelo stans out there). We’re not breaking any news here, but expect a lot of lineups that look like this.
This formation can get lost in the shuffle of City’s positional fluidity because it is historically transitioned into from a starting 4-3-3, but the double pivot and narrowness gives it a compact feel that is unlike any other shape Guardiola utilizes. Their version of a 4-2-2-2 is very specifically designed as a low block breaker. The vast majority of opponents play in a very compact defensive shape against City and it is often hard to play through that congestion, as City are want to do. But the beauty of the 4-2-2-2 is that it doubles down on flooding the central channel with bodies and attempts to out-narrow a defense intent on keeping the play out wide.
The players in each bank of two need to have great connectivity for this shape to be successful, as the objective is to set up quick, one touch combination play in between the lines. It’s a high risk, high reward proposition, but if the ball movement is faster than the defense can collapse, there will inevitably be opportunities to slip one of the attackers up top in behind even the lowest of backlines. David Silva was literally built in a lab to play in the attacking midfield line of this formation so his departure makes this option less enticing, but Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, and Mahrez are obvious candidates to populate those roles and make this work.
The 4-2-2-2 does require the fullbacks to get upfield often and act as wide release valves when the defense has compressed to the maximum, paving the way for easy service into the box or seams to play through as the strong side defenders lose their shape recovering. Because of that, the only way this formation works is with Benjamin Mendy and Joao Cancelo on the field given they’re the only fullbacks on the current roster with any type of gravity. This formation may be used sparingly and could easily get confused with a loose 4-3-3, but there is no doubt Guardiola will intentionally resort to use this when he faces yet another frustrating low block.
A position largely popularized in the modern era by Lionel Messi under Guardiola during their time together at Barcelona, we’ve also seen Pep deploy this in his current reign at City. On paper, the false 9 position is nominally played within a 4-3-3 variation, but creates a unique formation due to the role given to the central attacker. So what makes it different from a normal striker? The false 9 entails a deep lying striker that frequently engages in between the opposition midfield and defense, often leaving central defenders in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. Do they track the striker, or maintain their position in the backline? Constantly focusing that movement in between the lines both either draws out opposing center backs or promotes ball circulation. From this deeper position, the false 9 looks to create triangles with their midfielders and wingers, who often cut inside to operate as more traditional attackers and expose space in behind the distorted backline. This shape ensures one of the passing options (in an ideal world) is always between the midfield and defensive lines where the opponent is most vulnerable. Because the false 9 does not lead the forward line like a traditional center forward would and is not designed to get on the end of crosses or through balls into the box, it can be operated by hybrid attackers à la Messi, Bernardo, Foden, and Sterling.
Pictured above is City’s starting XI against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup last season in a dominant 3-1 victory. Bernardo Silva can run for days and that work rate pulled United’s defense all over the place, linking up with De Bruyne, Mahrez and Rodri throughout. It was easily Bernardo’s most impressive performance (a worldie of a goal and an incredible assist to Mahrez from a deep position) in an otherwise down season and is evidence that he should be considered a leading candidate to operate as the false 9 when Guardiola goes to this formation. With Aguero still on the sidelines for a couple months from a meniscus tear, it might be a tactic that could be useful early and often, particularly against aggressive center backs who would fall for its trap.
For most clubs, this formation actually becomes five at the back, but it’s mainly three at the back for City due to the fact that they control possession in the majority of their matches. While Pep has rarely utilized this lineup in his tenure at City, there’s a chance it would have been his go-to had Mendy stayed fully fit from the jump. We saw it deployed the first handful of matches in 2017-18 when Mendy was an absolute force, providing otherworldly service into the box for a lethal partnership up front in Jesus and Aguero. This formation provides City a new layer to both their attack and defense we don’t see in the traditional 4-3-3 formation. It shifts the responsibility for holding the attacking width to the wingbacks, which makes more sense than ever now that Sane has departed and no traditional wide left winger remains.
This season, expect to see more of this formation for three reasons:
1. With Ake in the squad, he can provide another left footed option at either LCB or LWB. He’s not as dynamic of a wing back as Mendy is on his day, but it’s the depth that Zinchenko doesn’t offer as well.
2. City have two great wing back options in Benjamin Mendy and Joao Cancelo. Both players are expected to contribute in a greater capacity this season and this formation allows for that while still having cover in defense.
3. It provides some added defensive cover up the middle from the additional central defender without sacrificing the defensive assignments on the flanks in matches against sides with pace on the wings and through the middle, such as Wolverhampton with Adama Traore or Leicester City with Jamie Vardy. City can also rotate any of Torres, Foden, or Bernardo in the front two alongside Jesus, Aguero or Sterling without losing fluidity in the side.
Keep an eye out for this tweak in a season which will feature a lot of different games in multiple competitions over a short season. When you have a roster full of versatile talent and a mad scientist for a coach that considers every tactical angle, you can expect to see each of the formations discussed above. Based on Pep Guardiola’s track record, you can probably expect a few other concoctions as well because no stone goes unturned when that man creates a gameplan.