The evolution of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola has captured the minds of viewers across the footballing world. Short comings of the previous season have been not washed, but scrubbed away by a clinical, combative and callous winning machine. The jewel in the crown of Pep’s record breaking outfit is midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne. The 26 year old’s relentless hunger has been the driving force behind City’s incredible start to the season. However, if not for an unfortunate injury to summer arrival Benjamin Mendy, would the Belgian still be Pep’s all action orchestrator?
After a summer exodus at Manchester City, it was clear what position the manager wanted to improve upon – the full back department. The Spaniard had spent his first season in the Premier League, chopping and changing personnel, in an attempt to craft a solution in keeping with his ideals. The ageing foursome of; Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Aleksandar Kolorov and Gael Clichy, left a lot to be desired when it came to enacting Pep’s instructions.
With all four options being either sold or released, Guardiola was able to completely renovate his most important positional asset. The arrival of Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, outlined precisely what Pep expects from his full back options, not only to be comfortable on the ball, but having the endurance to facilitate both attacking and defensive transition.
The Free 8s
With an influx of attacking talent, many thought that Guardiola may be forced to make an early decision, on which one of his world class number 10s would be allowed to play in their natural position. However, the City boss had other ideas.
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Manchester City vs Brighton and Hove Albion
In their first game of the season City lined up in a 3-5–2 formation, with a twist. More often than not when using this system, the three central midfield players are expected to be hard working and industrious with a sprinkle of creativity – similar to the way Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, sets his side up currently.
In defiance of these stereotypes, City’s midfield would comprise of two attacking midfielders in David Silva and De Bruyne, and an energetic box-to-box midfielder in Fernandinho. On paper, this oﬀers very little defensive cover and could leave City short at the back in counter attacking situations. However with Guardiola’s ethos revolving around retention of the ball, he wasn’t about to let the occasional counter attack extinguish his intent.
Despite their early season success, De Bruyne seemed shackled by his positional shift. It was almost as if the lack of personnel in defensive areas, left the Belgian feeling responsible for providing the necessary cover. His deeper average position, coupled with his inability to utilise his creative vision, left City’s number 17 looking more like a cog in the machine than the driving force behind it.
Left for Delph
On the 23rd September, Manchester City were looking to extend their unbeaten streak to 6 games, when they hosted a struggling Crystal Palace side who were yet to score a league goal. Despite a comfortable 5-0 victory, City suﬀered a huge loss. New signing Mendy was replaced in the first half with what turned out to be an ACL injury, possibly keeping the social media sensation out for the remainder of the season.
A key element to Guardiola’s full back role is the provision of width, and with no natural replacement for the Frenchman, it was time for Guardiola to return to the drawing board. Just three days later Pep would unveil his solution, as the blue half of Manchester entertained Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk.
Man City vs Shaktar
How would Pep think his way out of this one? By starting the so far peripheral squad player- Fabian Delph – at left back, of course. If City were planning to create and transition attacks in the same way, this switch would be questionable. However, not only had Pep devised a fresh attacking impetus, but he had completely reshaped the way his team would recycle possession.
Without the ball, his side would hold in a standard 4-3-3 formation and whilst Delph may not be a natural left back, his tackling ability in one on one situations made him an adequate stand in. This shape would completely change when they regained their vice like grip on possession. As the ball is turned over and they begin to push up the pitch, both full backs would drift into central areas, releasing the creative duo of Silva and De Bruyne from their midfield birth.
Inverted full backs provide a platform to seamlessly distribute the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, creating spaces between opposition players. This allows their more inventive players to find that killer pass, making a telling impact in the final third with incisive passes, cue Kevin De Bruyne. As if paying homage to his days at Bayern Munich, this was Guardiola’s play, this is how he would maximise the abilities of one of the world’s most impactful playmakers.
Positional shifter to ring wing drifter
Mitigation of defensive responsibilities would lead you to believe De Bruyne was about to revert to a previous iteration of himself. A creative number 10 who’s passing ability and set piece delivery is almost unrivalled. Although these attributes are synonymous with the former Bundesliga player of the year, they are merely the more prominent facets of the diamond itself.
From the moment the Shakhtar Donetsk game kicked oﬀ, De Bruyne was in his element. Not only was he able to contribute in the final third, he was given free license to roam in search of the ball, fabricating a completely new dimension to City’s shape. This nature of his role oﬀers passing options; options that seem almost implausible to the opposition. His feral-like movement allows him to use his unwavering stamina and work rate to press the opposition when the ball is lost, an aspect that has been heavily identifiable with all Guardiola sides.
So, if you have one of the world’s most eﬀective creators within your team, what is the best way to maximise his productivity? Well, in addition to providing De Bruyne with the keys to City’s midfield, Pep went one step further by utilising a key attribute of one of the Belgian’s team mates – Raheem Sterling.
The Englishman’s ability to hypnotise defenders into following his canny movement, creates a void from where his run originated. This may seem too simple, surely tracking the runner or passing the responsibility across the back line, would be a rudimentary skill? If this was conventional movement, perhaps, but it is anything but.
Sterling’s propensity to alter his position evokes fear into the opposition. The 23 year old begins attacking transitions fastened to the touchline, as if he is a train unable to leave his chalk track. As the ball progresses through the thirds he is released from his secluded cell, allowing the forward to drift into central areas and create overloads. As well as adding an extra body in and around the 18 yard box, his movement forges the most important thing in terms of maximising the qualities of De Bruyne – space.
Kevin de Bruyne Heat Map vs Watford (3-1)
The run of Sterling oﬀers a deserted vacuum for City’s midfield engine to exploit. The second his winger begins to drift into central areas, De Bruyne springs into the void that is vacated. Though his statistics may say otherwise, there a few players in world football that can cross the ball with the velocity and precision of City’s conductor. His marauding runs across the pitch are all in aid of gaining precious seconds on the ball, enchanting it into areas few could think possible.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing
With worry surrounding the Etihad, Pep reacted in the only way he knew how. Not only did he replace a vital component, he improved the performance of what is becoming Europe’s most unrelenting structure. None of us know how City’s season would have progressed if Mendy’s injury hadn’t occurred, but it seems unlikely it would have entered the stratosphere in which it has, without the influence of City’s box oﬃce sorcerer.