There is a passage late in the the book Pep Confidential which is illustrative of Pep Guardiola’s strengths and weaknesses. Facing Manchester United in the return leg at the Allianz Arena, Pep has a sudden brainstorm: he’s going to set his team up to play a 2-3-3-2.
In this system, Pep would play Phillip Lahm and David Alaba in the deep three midfield spots with Kroos in the middle. But because Kroos likes to drift to his left and Alaba is allowed to go forward, Lahm is tasked with filling that midfield space in between the two center backs and the next row of (now 4) forward midfielders. Goetze starts in the free role and Robben and Ribery play on the wings. Ahead of them are Mandzukic and Muller.
Pep would say of this formation “I’ve never played like this… not even in my boldest days at Barca. It’s completely new for me too but it just seems right and they’re going to do it perfectly. I can see it in Arjen and Franck’s eyes.”
Pep prepares the team, running them through the new formation and how they are supposed to play. He sets up his B team to play Man U’s 442 and practices against how he thinks United will play. His men are deep into the season, they are Bundesliga champs, they are the defending Champions League team, they are well prepared.
They come out in that match soft. They don’t press spaces like Pep wants. They aren’t playing the way that Pep has begged them to play all season: 15 passes to get everyone in his team into position, and then attack like hell. I know that if you’re an Arsenal supporter, like me, you’ve seen this script before: one team has all of the possession, they are controlling the ball but not really penetrating, they are playing with just two defenders and those two defenders are standing around somewhere near the center circle. All the sudden, the opposition takes the lead off their first real chance in the game and suddenly the possession-based team wakes up.
Guardiola was blessed with a ton of attacking talent in that match but he still had to abandon the 2-3-3-2 and haul Goetze back into a double pivot role with Lahm. Bayern pull out the win after Mandzukic equalizes and Muller and Robben add on two more.
After the match, Guardiola spends the entire night thinking about what went wrong. He doesn’t blame his wacky system, or the fact that the 2-3-3-2 was introduced the week of the match. He decides that his players aren’t running enough.
In the next chapter he gives his players a big speech about how “if we don’t run we are nothing.” It’s meant to be a motivational speech to fire up his guys and get them working hard for each other on the pitch.
They lose the next match to Borussia Dortmund 3-0. And a month later they are knocked out of the Champions League on a 5-0 aggregate to Real Madrid. In the latter match, Pep sets the team up to play in a 4-2-4, a formation that has only brought him pain, but one which is emblematic of the man: it’s a passionate, attacking formation.
He didn’t pick the 4-2-4 because he thought it was the best formation to beat Real Madrid, he chose the 4-2-4 because he didn’t know what else to pick. He had become frozen in his tactical selection and overwhelmed by his own brain’s ability to present him with choices. He picked a team’s formation in a Champions League semi-final based on a gut feeling. And this was a formation that his team had only used once before, against Borussia Dortmund at the start of the season, and once which they lost to Borussia Dortmund.
Guardiola prepares his teams meticulously for matches, they have analysts prepare dossiers on the opposition, they train at speed, they practice Pep’s formations until they have them right. But he is prone to moments of fancy. Instead of setting up his team to play one or two formations throughout the season, Pep Guardiola is like a teenager on Tinder; spoiled for choices, swiping right on every formation, and allowing his moments of madness to undermine his meticulous planning and training.
Pep also demands an awful lot from his players. Lahm isn’t the exception, Lahm is the rule. He expects players to be able to play in two to three positions. Lahm can do it, he played defensive midfielder, right back, and on the wing expertly during Guardiola’s tenure. But how many other players in world football can actually slip right into three different positions on the pitch during a season? James Milner, to his great credit, has done the job with Liverpool but there are few players who have that level of commitment and tactical awareness.
Guardiola doesn’t like specialists. He’s not a fan of a guy like Aguero who is really only going to be able to play one way, as an out and out striker. This is a guy who averaged 30 goals a season for the last three years before Pep shows up and instead of finding a way to work Aguero into his team, he drops him. He’s seemed to have finally conceded the need to keep Aguero in the lineup, begrudgingly.
Guardiola has been guilty of this over complication and demanding too much from his players this season with Man City – a trend that started in his later days at Bayern and which has now continued unabated at City.
He started this season asking the fullbacks to drop into the middle of the pitch and play as midfielders in a modified 4-2-3-1. Clichy and Sagna did OK in that job but no sooner had they settled than Guardiola was off trying something different. They won all of their first 10 matches and then Pep tried a 4-1-4-1 against Celtic and ended the match in a surprising 3-3 draw. In the next match against Tottenham he starts out with a 4-2-3-1 but again had a weird tinker where he moved Kolarov from center back to left back, bringing Stones back in to the side. Kolarov scores an own goal in the 9th minute. Against Everton, the very next match after losing to Spurs, he switches to a 3-4-3. They draw 1-1. And then it’s back to a 4-2-3-1 for Barcelona, Aguero is dropped and de Bruyne is played as a false 9. City is absolutely lunched 4-0.
After that period of 10 matches where they won every game City went six straight without a single win. Guardiola was experimenting with lineups and personnel the whole time.
Guardiola had a similar (but different) problem with Joe Hart. Hart was the victim of Guardiola’s obsession with playing the ball out of the back. It’s a decent obsession to have, but if you fire an enormously popular dressing room figure like Hart, you better bring in a player who is at least as good if not better. Claudio Bravo has been such a disaster that Pep is now on to playing Willy Caballero as his starting keeper.
City’s erratic play is no surprise to me. The patterns are simply continuing from his time at Bayern. Marti Perarnau, the author, paints Pep’s tinkering and demands from his players in a glorious light. The 2-3-3-2 that Guardiola plays against Man U is depicted as inspired genius. In attack, this is true. City are the most creative team in the Premier League, taking more shots in the box than any other team and creating far and away the most “big chances”. But there are two ends of the pitch and the reality is that for most defenders in the Premier League, they need a system to play which allows them a platform of stability which the team can build on.
Guardiola’s players suffer from a similar problem to Arsene’s men; they tend to look disorganized and chaotic, especially in the first 20 minutes of matches when it looks like the players don’t “switch on” as we often say. Stats bear this perception out. In the first 20 minutes of Premier League matches this season, Wenger’s men are just +1 goal difference and Guardiola’s players just +2. Contrast to Chelsea who are +7 in that same period and Liverpool who are +8, with both of those teams scoring a League leading 13 goals in the first 20 minutes of matches.
Where both Arsenal and City make up for their slow starts is late in the game when their superior fitness and technique overpowers opposition. Arsenal have joint most goals (23) in the final 20 minutes and City are right there with them with 17. The Gunners and City also have a decent defense in the last 20 minutes, allowing just 8 goals for a goal difference of +15 and +9 respectively.
Contrast that to Chelsea, who have allowed a League best 3 goals in the last 20, while scoring the League’s third best 18. It’s still a +15 goal difference, like Arsenal, but I’d much rather see just 3 goals allowed and 18 scored than 8 allowed and 23 scored – it’s just easier to win when you concede fewer goals.
And that’s where Conte’s men have the advantage: unlike Guardiola who plays 10 different defensive formations throughout the season, often switching in mid game, Conte’s defense plays the same 352 in every match. And their defense is winning them the League, so far.