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Tactical Analysis of Pep Guardiola


On his arrival at Manchester City, Pep had a few doubters about whether his style would work in the world’s “toughest league”. Could his possession hungry style work in the fast paced Premier League? This tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola will discuss the issues he faced, and how he turned it around.

If you watched his Manchester City side in his first season (2016/17), you might have thought they had a point. At the start of his Barcelona tenure, they sat in the bottom three with one point from six games. “Patience, we need patience”, he said. Guardiola went on to win 14 trophies in four years with the Catalan side. 

In his debut season in the Premier League, Man City never played badly. They achieved a 3rd place finish with 78 points (W23 D9 L6) and played some great football at times. Without the right players in key defensive positions however, his side often found themselves vulnerable to counter attacks. That 4-2 defeat to Leicester City in 2016 at the King Power springs to mind, with the famous quote “I’m not a coach for the tackles”. 

It was apparent that in their title winning season last year, this changed somewhat. By the end of the 16/17 season they had conceded 39 goals, whilst scoring 80 themselves. Compare that to last season where the Champions hit a record 100 points, conceding just 27 and scoring an incredible 106! It was the best defensive and offensive record in the league, with City keeping 18 clean sheets in that time too. 


You could argue that Leicester game back in 2016 was the turning point. Pep has always implemented the “six second rule” of closing down opponents as quickly as they can in order to win back possession. However, by playing such a high defensive line and without adequate defensive cover, City were often left exposed. Particularly from quick strikers like Jamie Vardy.

Guardiola isn’t the first manager to tweak his tactics since arriving in England. Jurgen Klopp has made some amendments to his style which has seen Liverpool push City all the way so far this season. 

Our tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola ties in well with our other content. Check out our article below on Liverpool’s new found maturity:

Thierry Henry was quoted in an interview about Guardiola’s play style and his eagerness to stop counter attacks:

“Something which is very important is that he loves to defend from the front in the opposition half. He is ahead of the game and he loves to try to set his team in a certain way to avoid a counter.

When you are on the ball, he is already thinking, ‘How can we stop them just in case they counter?’ That’s a big thing for him and in order to stay in the opposition’s half you need to do that and make sure the opposition don’t get the ball and make you run back 60 yards.”

It was evident that to execute this style successfully in the Premier League, Guardiola needed to alter something. 

The Inverted Fullback

The biggest change to their style of play from his debut season is the unorthodox positioning of his fullbacks. You could argue that it’s the main reason why they suffer a lot less on the counter.

Perhaps in his first season he didn’t have the personnel, which is a fair assessment after he spent a reported £126m on fullbacks alone in the summer of 2017. Out went club legend Pablo Zabaleta, as well as Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Alexander Kolarov. In came Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo. 

An interesting stat is the average age difference of those sold, to those brought in. The departing fullbacks averaged an age of 32 compared to a youthful 25.3 for the newcomers. Perhaps this is down to the task he had in mind for his fullbacks. They needed to be fresher and able to adapt their style. As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. 

What I love most about a tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola, is how bold he can be. It’s hard to say he is a revolutionary, it’s more evolution. Guardiola himself has called himself an “ideas thief”. The influence of former Barcelona coaches Johan Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal are evident, but it’s how he applies them.

For some (myself included), the role of Pep’s fullbacks was a bit alien at first. Out of possession they pretty much operate as a standard fullback. However, it’s in possession, especially as City tend to have lots of it, that they become interesting. 

Fullbacks helping to create a 3-3-4 shape:

Walker tucks in to form a 3-man defence. Mendy pushes up and in, forming a 3-man midfield. Sterling & Mahrez provide the width.

The positioning of both Walker and Mendy in the above image is very interesting. Kyle Walker tucks in to create a back three. Mendy pushes further up and central, into the position which Bernardo Silva has vacated. This central cover from the fullbacks means that Bernardo Silva and others, have much more freedom to affect the game in the more dangerous areas of the pitch. 

Bayern Munich

We first started to see this new type of fullback under Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern Munich. 

Bayern’s Typical Shape:

Tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola.

His deployment of Phillip Lahm as more of a holding midfielder, as opposed to a standard fullback, raised a few eyebrows at first. However, he managed to prolong the career of the German fullback. Pep taught him things he perhaps thought could not be learnt at his age. Guardiola was clearly delighted with his application and willingness to learn:

“Lahm is a scandal. He is super-intelligent, understands the game brilliantly, knows when to come inside or to stay wide. The guy is f*****g exceptional.”

Manchester City

It’s safe to say that if you’re a fullback at Manchester City, you need to be more than comfortable on the ball. The role of the fullback is more like a No. 6 when in possession. They push up, but sit narrow, as opposed to a typical marauding fullback who stays high and wide on the overlap.

City’s Typical Shape:

Tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola.

This creates almost a 2-3-5 shape in attack. You could split this into two blocks: Five in defence, and five in attack. It’s a contrasting style to Klopp or Emery for example, who like their fullbacks to provide the width. That’s not to say they don’t stray from their positions, however. Pep is the master of positional play and making sure there is always an extra number in possession. Hence why they practice Rondo’s all day long! 

As a result of this shape, City not only tend to find themselves having more passing options, but it also provides them with defensive stability. It comes as no surprise that they were defensively solid in their title winning campaign last season. Conceding just 27 in 38 league games, with considerably fewer goals conceded from counter attacks. Man City have been just as solid this season too. Their 10 goals conceded from open play, is the fewest in the league and is 2 fewer than Liverpool.

Positional Play

In ‘Juego de Posicion’ (Positional Play), the rule is to never have more than one player on the same line. So to achieve this, he asks the fullbacks to tuck in and play in a more central midfield position, or the “Half Space”. These are the areas highlighted in light blue in the image below of Guardiola’s football pitch: 

Pep’s football pitch:

The ‘Half Space’ highlighted in light blue – where the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne tend to work their magic.

With the fullbacks tucking in, it allows the wingers to spread high and wide. The two advanced midfielders can also drift into the half space (depending on fullbacks position). Or they can roam into an area of the field where they can create a spare man, or overload. It essentially allows Silva (David or Bernardo, take your pick) and De Bruyne to play higher up the pitch, with more freedom. 

They can attack the penalty area at will, because they sufficient cover behind them. Fernandinho, and the two inverted fullbacks help to prevent the counter attack and provide a passing option. This system is clearly working again this year. According to WhoScored.comMan City, along with title contenders Liverpool, are the only Premier League teams not to concede on the counter attack.

The Wide Men

As a result of the fullbacks playing in a more conservative role, the onus is on the wingers to provide the width in this system. When you watch Sterling, Sane or Mahrez for City, they’re almost like a throwback to the old days – chalk on their boots. They hug the touchline, spreading the pitch and making it as big as possible. This creates more space in the central areas of the pitch for the talented Silva(s), De Bruyne and Gundogan to do their thing.

One major difference to Guardiola’s wingers, and Ryan Giggs for example, is their willingness to attack the penalty area once the ball is in the final third. In the build up, the wide men stay wide, holding their positions as City look to create space. However, once the ball hits the final third, they are free to tuck inside and attack the box.

A perfect example of this is when one winger, Sane, has the ball, he will drive at the defenders and whip a low cross into the box. More often than not, his cross will find the other winger, Sterling, in the penalty box for a tap in.

It comes as a little surprise then that crossing is a major avenue to goal for Manchester City. They have attempted an average of 20 crosses per game this season, which is 4th highest in the league. 

Wingers Creating Space

This isn’t something new to Pep, however. At Barcelona he drilled it into his wide players that they must always keep their width until the ball hits the final third. 

Pedro (right) and David Villa (left) staying very wide, creating space in the middle for creative players: Xavi, Iniesta & Messi

The positioning of the wingers means that more often than not they are in space and have a ‘one v one’ with the opposing fullback. Once in these positions, they can take on their man and attack the penalty area. Manchester City do this well. They have completed 11.2 dribbles per game which is 2nd highest in the league.

The space that the wide men find themselves in, is largely due to the fullbacks tucking in. It creates a dilemma for the oppositions wingers who must either follow the fullback inside, or track the wide man. In either situation, it will result in a free man – see below: 

Robben staying wide on the right, becomes the ‘free man’ after Bayern create overloads on the left.

A quick switch of play and the wide man is in acres of space to attack the defending fullback. Philip Lahm has tucked inside and dragged opposing players with him. This has left Robben free to attack his man on the right.

Tactical Analysis of Pep Guardiola

Don’t Call It ‘Tiki-Taka’

It’s impossible to undertake a tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola without considering the sheer amount of possession his teams have. This season Manchester City have an average of 64% possession. That’s the highest in the Premier League and in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues. Their pass completion of 89% is also the highest in Europe, 0.2 more than PSG. 

However, Guardiola’s teams do not keep possession without a purpose. It has been well documented in the past that Pep hates “tiki-taka”. This style of football, made popular by the Spanish national sides of Luis Aragones and Vincente Del Bosque, prioritise keeping the ball over anything else. 

“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it” – Pep Guardiola 

Goals, Goals, Goals

Guardiola has backed up that statement on countless occasions. You only have to look at his teams attacking stats to see that he wasn’t kidding. Pep’s City side have found the net 79 times so far this season, the highest in the Premier League. Only PSG have scored more (86) in Europe, and one could argue that they play in a much less competitive league.

It’s hard to disagree that Guardiola wants to play football the right way. Keeping the ball on the carpet, passing and moving. The way the game was intended to be played. Manchester City have played an average of just 48 long balls per game. That’s the 2nd lowest in the League behind Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea side. Unsurprisingly then, they have made the most short passes in the division. City average 662 per game, which is 18 more than next best, Chelsea. 

If you like this tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola, check out our statistical analysis on Sarri’s Chelsea side below. Another manager who wants his team to dominate with the football.


A by-product of their possession, Manchester City have spent the most amount of time in the opposition’s third of the pitch. A league high of 35% to be exact. It’s 3% more than possession-hungry Chelsea.

Guardiola’s sides attempt to move the ball around with pace and intent in order to open up the opposition. Pep doesn’t employ a ‘shoot on sight’ policy, however. His players remain patient for an opening. Just 32% of their efforts on goal are from outside the 18 yard box. Only Burnley have attempted fewer. As a result, it’s not surprising to see that City rank 3rd in the league for shots taken inside the box. 58% to be precise. The remaining 10% of their shots are taken inside the 6 yard box. With attackers like Aguero and Sterling, getting them into the penalty area will more often than not, result in goals. 

Improving His Players

Pep was labelled “a chequebook manager” by some, and it can’t be ignored that City have spent a huge amount. Although so have Liverpool, Man Utd and Chelsea in that same period. The differing factor is the improvement on an individual level in this Manchester City team. Pep doesn’t just buy talent, he moulds talent.

It’s important when undertaking a tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola, to focus on more than just his play style. His philosophy also extends to off the pitch. Nurturing talent is essential to Guardiola and is perhaps down to his Barcelona DNA.

Raheem Sterling

One of his biggest successes has been the improvement of Raheem Sterling. From an inconsistent winger who’s game lacked final product, to one of the most prolific wide men in Europe.

Sterling currently has 15 goals and 9 assists to his name in the Premier League alone. That’s 24 goal contributions in 27 appearances. Nobody has contributed more. Only his teammate Sergio Aguero, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Liverpool’s Mo Salah can equal that. 

Raheem Sterling is a player oozing with confidence and class this season. His 2.5 dribbles per game (3rd highest in the league) demonstrates his willingness and belief to take players on. It’s no surprise that he is being tipped as a contender for Player of the Year. With everything that he has unfortunately had to deal with off the pitch too, it’s a testament to the 24 year old’s attitude and maturity. 

Kyle Walker

Pep Guardiola has also had a positive affect on the career of Kyle Walker. He was a speedy, marauding full back at Spurs. Although he perhaps lacked in the defensive department at times. Pep has improved his understanding of the game massively. Walker knows where to position himself on the pitch, when to tuck inside and when to make a more typical overlapping run out wide. 

Walker, Delph touch maps:

Both players are happy to tuck inside and play in the left and right half space, respectively.

His knew understanding of the game from a defensive standpoint has benefited the England national tram as well. Gareth Southgate has often deployed Walker as the right sided central defender of a back three. Watching Kyle Walker play now, he looks a totally different player. 

Again, like Sterling, maybe he has matured a bit also. He’s not overly concerned about getting forward anymore. Walker understands what his role in the team is, and executes it brilliantly. There’s no doubting his ability going forward, but he has now shown he has the discipline and quality to play in a deeper role. 

Concluding Thoughts

Pep Guardiola has turned this Manchester City team into true entertainers, scoring goals for fun. It can be said though, that it’s his innovative deployment of the fullbacks that make all this fluid, attacking football possible. They also provide the team with adequate cover for opposition counter attacks due to their ‘sitting’ midfield position as opposed to playing like more traditional fullbacks who can sometimes get caught upfield – a flaw in Arsenal’s system for example. 

Their role in the build up play is also crucial, providing an additional passing option in the midfield for City to easily recycle possession. The positioning of the fullbacks also mean that more creative freedom is given to the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, who can now play their game in more dangerous areas of the pitch. 

More Than Just A Coach

As well as his tactical innovations, Guardiola has got the best out of his squad and given players such as Raheem Sterling the belief that he can become one of the best forwards in world football. 

A simple tactical analysis of Pep Guardiola does not do the man justice. There’s so much that can be said about the man; his personality, his own sensational playing career, and his genuine love for the game. Whether we are fans of the Premier League, La Liga or Bundesliga, we are all so lucky to have witnessed a true genius at work. 

Més que un entrenador. 

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