After their staggering dominance last season, Manchester City aren’t exactly in need of a radical overhaul of their system. The 4-3-3 they used to canter to the Premier League title suited the squad almost perfectly and was shown in their results.
The Citizens could, however, find replicating such success difficult. With opposition teams having had longer to study them, they could begin to find better solutions to counter City.
Pep Guardiola is a manager who always likes to tinker, and to find solutions to problems before they even arise. For that reason it wouldn’t be a huge surprise were City to use some tactical tweaks this season.
Here’s three things that could change the way they play:
It was somewhat forgotten as the season went on, but Manchester City actually started last season in a 3-5-2 formation. Some not brilliant performances and Benjamin Mendy’s anterior cruciate ligament injury meant Guardiola reverted to 4-3-3, and we rarely saw any three at the back variations as the rest of the season went on.
But with Mendy fit again 3-5-2 is likely to be back as a serious option for Guardiola’s team. Indeed Pep said before the Community Shield, “We’re going to use Mendy in different ways” confirming that three at the back was an option. Without Mendy last season City had no natural wing-back option on the left side.
How Manchester City could look in a 3-5-2.
With Aymeric Laporte also boosting the centre back numbers, and adding a left-footed option, a back three can be formed more easily. A 3-5-2 would make sense with the City squad as it could get both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus on the pitch and keep David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in their interior roles.
But it would be a struggle to fit their abundance of wingers into the team that way. A 3-4-3 could see the wingers play in inside roles, with fewer defensive responsibilities, similar to how Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian were used under Antonio Conte.
How Manchester City could look in a 3-4-3.
It's easy to see Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez, in particular, benefiting from such a system.
Whilst it would make sense to use Walker and Mendy as wing-backs, City could also theoretically play a three-man defence with no genuine defenders wide, like how they did in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final to Liverpool.
How Manchester City lined up in the 2-1 second leg defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final.
It would probably only make sense as an extra attacking system, but Laporte and Walker as wide centre backs would be able to defend in wide areas and are good on the ball, and it would allow Guardiola’s side to use more of their plethora of attacking options.
Bernardo used centrally
Bernardo Silva looked like a coup when he was signed from Monaco at the beginning of the 2017 summer, and his performances last term were perfectly adequate.
But, while being used predominantly as a backup wide player to Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, it felt like he was being somewhat wasted as a depth forward, when he’d looked like one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe at Monaco.
The signing of Mahrez looks like it could free Bernardo up to get better opportunities in the middle. While he might not regularly start over De Bruyne or David Silva, he can offer an alternative to either and offers something different.
Silva and De Bruyne are both predominantly passers, who set the tempo of the team and are capable of creating chances with almost any type of pass. Bernardo, on the other hand, is first and foremost an elite dribbler, to go with his creative capabilities.
City’s play last season often ended in the ball being circulated to wide areas for the final dribble and pass into the box. Given teams almost always have several men behind the ball against the Sky Blues, going through the centre of the pitch in the final third can be difficult.
With Bernardo, however, they have someone with the close control and agility needed to dribble through central areas. If he’s used centrally next season, it could add another dimension to City’s attack, and allow them to attack teams through the middle more often.
Mendy at left back
While, as discussed, the return of Benjamin Mendy opens up the increased possibility of Guardiola using a back three formation, it could also change the way his back four operates. Last season Fabian Delph operated primarily as an inverted fullback, who looked to sit inside and support the midfield rather than overlap down the flank.
This made sense because Delph is a midfielder and doesn’t have the athleticism of an elite fullback. City also weren’t desperate for width on that flank, since in Sane, they had probably the best touchline winger in the league.
Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
Mendy, on the other hand, is an elite athlete who is capable of providing width and outlet runs on the wing, and is accomplished technically going forward. It would be somewhat wasteful and a misuse of his skills to have him play the role Delph played last season, which means City may have to change aspects of their play if they’re to start him.
One player it could have a direct impact on is Sane. The German predominantly played on the left last season and, as aforementioned, with no natural left back, was tasked with providing the width and directness on that wing.
On the other hand, Sterling, who had Walker on his side of the pitch, had more freedom to move inside and make runs into the box. Although Sane enjoyed a fine season, picking up the Young Player of the Year award, he was much less of a goal threat than Sterling.
Sterling averaged 3.02 shots per 90, at a total expected goals (xG) per 90 value of 0.65, often getting on the end of moves in the middle of the box for easy tap-ins. Sane, by contrast, averaged only 2.08 shots per 90, at an xG of 0.23.
If Mendy were to start at left back it may free Sane to move further inside, or even to play as an inverted right winger.
One of the few times Sane did play with Mendy last season was when he came on as a substitute against Liverpool in September. He scored two goals, the first from a Mendy assist after he had overlapped down the left and Sane had run into the box. The second was coming in from the right, and curled into the far corner.
Neither of these were plays Sane got to do with any regularity after Mendy’s injury, but are aspects of the German’s game we may get to see more of next season.
It's difficult to forecast the ways Guardiola will setup his teams. While it's likely he'll use the 4-3-3 which was so successful, it wouldn't be a surprise were he to implement subtle changes to it, or even make a more radical change, such as to a back three.
With the players he has at his disposable there are multiple different ways he could set them up to hurt teams. We'll just have to wait and see how he does it.