When Manchester City eviscerated their neighbours Manchester United in late September, plenty of observers were ready to declare this season’s Premier League title race a procession.
The game finished 6-3 after City led 4-0 and 6-1 before winding down towards the finish line and allowing their beleaguered opponents to restore a modicum of pride.
Having guided his team to four of the past five top-flight titles on offer in England, Pep Guardiola had added Erling Haaland’s supreme goal threat to City’s awesome array of attacking options.
Haaland plundered a third hat-trick in as many home league games against United and boyhood City fan Phil Foden netted a treble of his own. Sure, Arsenal were a point ahead at the top of the Premier League, but it was only a matter of time.
Fast forward to this weekend’s return fixture at Old Trafford and Mikel Arteta’s Gunners are five points clear at the summit, their lead having briefly climbed to seven before the most recent round of fixtures.
If Erik ten Hag’s resurgent United are able to gain revenge for their humbling earlier in the season and extend their winning run across all competitions to nine matches, they will be just a point behind City.
Anyone who watched City turn in one of the most abject performances of Guardiola’s six-and-a-half-year reign in the 2-0 midweek defeat at Southampton in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals would give United every chance of doing just that.
“It was a lack of attitude, a lack of confidence, a lack of commitment,” club captain Ilkay Gundogan told BBC Radio Manchester in a damning assessment of his team’s efforts at St Mary’s. “Especially today but I feel like in the last two weeks we’ve had games where we could have done better. Something was a little bit missing, something was off.
“At the moment it feels like there is a special recipe missing in the team. The performances, the desire and the hunger is maybe not as it was in recent years. Hopefully this was the right wake-up call for us.”
What are Pep Guardiola’s tactics?
As plaudits gushed from all quarters following the previous Manchester derby, Guardiola himself was keen to state all was not rosy in the garden.
“It was really good. Words are not necessary for how good we were in many things,” he said. “The nicest thing is winning the game and the few things obviously we have to improve.
“We are still losing sloppy and easy balls from a few important players and still we have to improve on that. We conceded some actions [chances] for the opponents with the simple things we are not doing well and we have to improve.”
Guardiola’s playing model, which has yielded an avalanche of major honours over the past 15 years, is predicated on control of all aspects of a match. You might like to see games flying from end to end, with loads of risks and counter-attacks. This is not Guardiola’s bag.
The Catalan’s aim is to minimise the chaos and leave as little to chance as possible. He achieves this through midfield dominance. In his early years at Barcelona, that largely happened because Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were obscenely good.
At Bayern Munich and City, while still blessed with magnificent technicians in central areas, Guardiola found creative ways to gain numerical superiority. Philipp Lahm and David Alaba were among the Bayern players asked to tuck inside as inverted fullbacks.
At City, Joao Cancelo developed that role, while Guardiola played for most of the past two seasons with a false nine, as Sergio Aguero’s injuries and eventual departure denied him an elite goalscoring option at centre-forward.
With a rotating cast of Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish operating as mobile central attackers, midfield superiority was basically guaranteed. A sometimes maddening number of missed chances was offset by the fact City would usually create enough to win in any case.
Has Erling Haaland changed Manchester City?
Of course, last summer brought a significant change in personnel. As well as versatile attackers Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus joining Chelsea and Arsenal respectively, City completed the transfer coup of securing Erling Haaland for his scandalous Borussia Dortmund release clause of £51 million.
A source familiar with Guardiola’s coaching setup described Haaland’s scoring record as “a barbaric thing” to the Sporting News, and that fairly sums it up. Since September’s Manchester derby, Haaland has scored 10 in 12 appearances, meaning he has slowed down considerably to the levels of an impressive human.
His antics against United had him on 17 after his first 11 outings in a City shirt. Of Haaland’s 27 in all competitions, 21 have come in the Premier League. It feels likely that the all-time season records of Mohamed Salah (32 in a 38-game season) and Alan Shearer and Andy Cole (34 in a 42-game season) will be swept aside.
Perhaps the only sense in which Haaland has left City numerically diminished is in Guardiola’s key area of the field. The Norway superstar’s link-up play and all-round game are under-estimated — he claimed assists for two of Foden’s derby goals — but City can no longer count their central attacker as a bonus body in midfield.
As is often the case when he is trying to solve a tactical puzzle, Guardiola has looked for flexibility from his full-backs. However, Kyle Walker’s considerable skillset has not looked suited to the inverted role and Cancelo’s form has dwindled. The Portugal international’s display at Southampton was staggeringly poor.
This, along with Oleksandr Zinchenko’s departure to Arsenal, means Guardiola has unexpectedly lost the inverted full-back tactic as a means of reliably gaining midfield superiority, having already budgeted for doing without a false nine. The emergence of lavishly gifted academy right-back Rico Lewis has been particularly timely and Guardiola would have no qualms about throwing the 18-year-old into action at Old Trafford.
Although the likes of Nathan Ake, recent signing Manuel Akanji and, in particular, John Stones have impressed for periods at centre-back, Guardiola’s favoured back three in possession — usually behind imperious defensive midfielder Rodri and the tuck-in full-back of the day — have been chopped and changed and lacked solidity as a result.
In City’s past 10 games across all competitions, they have kept three clean sheets, weirdly all against Chelsea in three different competitions.
Can Erling Haaland defend?
City’s swaggering 4-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup last weekend, where Argentina World Cup hero Julian Alvarez led the line and Haaland rested up on the bench, caused a fair bit of idle pondering on social media and beyond.
Guardiola’s team probably looked the most Guardiola-like they have all season. Foden crowned a picture-perfect team move for the third goal and, in the words of their manager, City showed “incredible hunger” without the ball, with Alvarez a standout exponent of some rabid pressing.
Can City play like that with Haaland? The manager certainly thinks so.
“We have done it with him many times,” he said this week. “He can do it, like in Salzburg with [his former coach] Jesse Marsch. Even Bernardo [Silva] or Julian in a body like Erling has — one metre 90 — it’s more difficult. But he can do it, he has done it and we have done it with him.”
As you consider whether you’d rather be pressed by 10 Bernardo Silva-sized Erling Haalands or one Erling Haaland-sized Bernardo Silva, allow Guardiola to explain further.
“In Salzburg, for the way Red Bull have their culture, [pressing] is in their DNA. They do it,” he added. “The [demand] is not Erling pressing all the way across the back four of the opponent. He has to make one movement and be supported by the guys from behind. But, of course, he cannot do it alone. He has done it, he can do it and he will do it.”
While saying Haaland has “the margins to improve many things” outside of his natural habitat in the opposition penalty area, Guardiola seems pretty certain he is on the right track. Also, as the first hour of an abject display at St Mary’s showed, Haaland’s absence offers no guarantees that City will be hot stuff without the ball and find infinite passing options with it.
Besides, Guardiola has other ways of keeping control, even if that has increasingly left his other derby day hero on the outside looking in.
How many goals has Phil Foden scored this season?
Next after Haaland in City’s scoring charts this term, behind a considerable shaft of daylight, is England international Foden with nine.
Of course, three of those came against United. He scored the next weekend, too, in a routine 4-0 home win over Southampton and had another — controversially, in Guardiola’s view — disallowed in the 1-0 loss at Liverpool, City’s first league defeat of the season.
In City’s next six league matches, a run interrupted by the World Cup, Foden started once. He scored then too, albeit in a losing cause versus Brentford.
As a fan favourite, Foden’s frequent omissions have not gone down particularly well. But, like his England teammate Walker, he can consider himself a victim of Guardiola’s search for balance and control while assimilating Haaland into the team structure.
“You need more attributes to do more things and pay attention more because there are more and more [opponents], it is not just ‘I am going to press and run’, it is when and where,” Guardiola said this week when discussing the prospect of Foden playing more games in central midfield.
It also offered an insight into why Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez have been preferred on the wings, as players who are more adept at holding the team shape and recycling possession as required. When it’s a case of “I am going to press and run”, there are few better than Foden — as the previous derby showed — but sometimes Guardiola is looking for other things.
Grealish finds himself in a curious position. The 1-1 draw with Everton on New Year’s Eve was the first time he had been on the pitch as City dropped Premier League points this season, which adds to the argument that they are generally a better team with him in it.
However, the opener in a 3-0 win over Wolves remains his solitary club goal this season. Prior to his brace of assists for Haaland at Leeds after Christmas and another for Mahrez to down Chelsea last week, he had not set up a Premier League goal in 2022/23. It is possible to be doing a solid job for the team while simultaneously being very underwhelming as a £100m player.
“At Aston Villa they said ‘do whatever you want – move here, move there, right, left’. You have the feeling here it is completely different,” Guardiola said of his record signing. “Stay in the position and the ball comes where you want. We spoke a few times with Jack about positions, about football tactics and he understands completely. He is comfortable with that. Always there are reasons we want to play this way.”
How many goals has Riyad Mahrez scored since the World Cup?
This is a transition that Mahrez had to undergo, having been Leicester City’s freewheeling attacking inspiration before moving to Manchester in 2018. If City’s season is one that has been dogged by throwing in sub-par displays such as the one at St Mary’s every three or four games, Mahrez’s campaign is quickly coming to feel like one of two parts.
By the end of October, the Algeria winger had scored as many goals in all competitions as he had missed Champions League penalties — two apiece. His country’s failure to qualify for the World Cup allowed time to reset and since the resumption, he has scored four times in five outings, with those goals spread across matches with Liverpool and Chelsea.
After his FA Cup brace last weekend, Guardiola praised Mahrez’s big-game pedigree. Few have been more reliable on major Champions League nights over the past couple of years and Mahrez feels like a lock-in to start at Old Trafford. But his manager left little room for doubt that his attitude and application have not always been up to scratch this term.
“He never lost his love to play football. But if Riyad is sitting here, I would say to him that if the way he was training and playing was the same [earlier in the season] as right now… it absolutely was not the same. I was completely fair,” he said.
“It depends on them. When they play in this way they can complain, I can say ‘Yeah, you’re right, you deserved to play but I didn’t [pick you]’. But before, he could complain because he was not playing at the level that he is playing right now. Sometimes I have to let them see in their own mirror who they are.”
Outside of Haaland, Rodri, Stones, Ake and breakout star Lewis, there are not many in Guardiola’s squad who can be completely happy with their own reflection this season. It is also worth casting an eye back to how City fell over the line in last season’s sapping title race with Liverpool, going 2-0 down in each of their final two games and prevailing through sheer force of will.
Guardiola’s comments around Mahrez, the manager’s frequent references to the “body language” of his players informing post-World Cup selection and Gundogan’s reflections upon the Southampton debacle paint a picture of all not being entirely well. As much as adapting to Haaland stands as City and Guardiola’s defining tactical challenge in 2022/23, without the striker it is easy to imagine these other factors combining to cause a Liverpool-style collapse in results.
Elite squads are in perpetual states of evolution and City changed more than they’ve grown accustomed to over the last close season. It was attractive to label Haaland as the final piece in the puzzle, the man to complete the Champions League quest.
He might very well accomplish the latter task in quick time, but it’s more accurate to see him as the man who represents the start of new puzzle for Guardiola altogether. A midfield refit, with De Bruyne and Gundogan the wrong side of 30, the latter out of contract in the summer and Silva’s future remaining uncertain, might be the next part of this in 2023. Given how fundamental these players are to everything Guardiola does, it could make fully integrating Haaland look like child’s play
City cannot be the thrill machine of the 2017/18 season because opponents are collectively much savvier and more familiar with Guardiola’s methods. Nor can they be the fully suffocating, death-by-1000-passes outfit of the past two years with Haaland aboard.
Guardiola’s recent contract extension gives a clear indication he is relishing getting to grips with this latest puzzle, a tactical third act in Manchester. In the meantime, City are operating with few of the certainties they painstakingly constructed over the past couple of seasons. It remains to be seen whether the new guarantee of industrial qualities of Haaland goals will be enough to get them over the line at Old Trafford and beyond in the title race.