Seasoned observers of Pep Guardiola will have noted that, four days ahead of potentially the biggest and most decisive game of Manchester City’s season, he played Bernardo Silva at left-back.
Yes, that’s Bernardo Silva, the richly gifted, versatile and tenacious attacking midfielder who came to prominence as a right winger in the same Monaco team as Kylian Mbappe in 2016/17.
Despite being at fault for losing possession on Ollie Watkins’ second-half goal, Silva was largely excellent in City’s 3-1 win over Aston Villa that closed the reigning champions to within three points of Premier League leaders Arsenal ahead of a crunch clash between the sides at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.
There was an element of necessity attached to Silva’s unusual selection. It was a common observation that City lacked a natural left-back when they lifted a fourth title in five seasons at the end of last term. Since then, they have let Oleksandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo leave, while failing to sign Marc Cucurella.
But Guardiola also has previous when it comes to unexpected selection flourishes in big games. Infamously, it has sometimes ended in catastrophic results, but not all the time.
We decided to have a look behind the cliche of “overthinking” as FPL fans prepare for their latest spin on “Pep Roulette”.
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What are Pep Guardiola’s tactics?
In his era-defining first three years at Barcelona, Guardiola stuck fairly religiously to a tried and tested 4-3-3, with Lionel Messi’s spectacular talents and the peerless midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta bringing his Johan Cruyff-inspired footballing vision to a stunning realisation.
In his final year at Barca, a 3-4-3 was used more often after the arrival of Cesc Fabregas and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid finally pipped them to La Liga glory.
Guardiola’s penchant for tactical experimentation truly took flight at Bayern Munich, when controlling the opposition counter-attack — a weapon close to an art form for the best Bundesliga sides — assumed similar importance to dominating possession and territory.
At City, 4-3-3 has been the norm and most of his team sheets are listed in that way, but it only tells part of the story. In possession, which is City’s predominant state, their shape has generally been 3-2-2-3 or 2-3-2-3, with those configurations depending upon how the opposition presses them.
In his first season, despite having a squad very much in transition, Guardiola experimented with dropping in his defensive midfielder — initially Fernandinho — to split the centre-backs, with both full-backs tucking into the deep midfield positions. Alas, it soon became clear that Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy were not Philipp Lahm and David Alaba.
Early in the 2017/18 season, after a serious knee injury to Benjamin Mendy, Guardiola slotted in England midfielder Fabian Delph as his nominal left-back. In possession, Delph would tuck in alongside Fernandinho, with right-back Kyle Walker effectively forming a back three with the centre-backs behind them.
Personnel have changed, with Rodri now the imperious central midfield pivot. Zinchenko, an attacking playmaker by trade, and Cancelo, a defender of rare attacking gifts, each brought their own spin on the Delph role to influence City’s overall play. But the model has remained largely the same, proving adaptable to the versatility of the likes of Silva further up the field.
As the Portugal international flitted between central defence, left-back, and defensive and attacking midfield positions at the weekend, it brought to mind the description Sky Deutschland pundit Roland Evers applied to Lahm during Guardiola’s Bayern years: “Verteidigende Mittefeldflugelsturmer”, which roughly translates as “defender-midfielder-winger-striker”.
Players such as Lahm and Silva, with the capacity to carry out a variety of complex tactical instructions to a high level, are fundamental to Guardiola’s footballing vision. But even with such Swiss-Army-knife footballers in his teams, his tactical whims can, as the list below shows, sometimes go awry.
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Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona (May 2, 2009)
A tactical masterstroke that set the course for two of the 21st century’s defining football careers. Guardiola was pouring over videos in his office at Camp Nou on the eve of El Clasico when a flash of inspiration struck. Lionel Messi got a late-night phone call from his boss and this proved to be that very rare instance when such a thing was good news.
Messi was summoned to Camp Nou after 10 p.m. and Guardiola explained how the space between Madrid’s defence and midfield created an opportunity for him to cause havoc as a false nine. Ten minutes into the match at the Santiago Bernabeu, Samuel Eto’o trotted out to the right wing, Messi came infield and havoc ensued.
The world’s most talented player saw vast new possibilities open up in front of him, while there was no remaining doubt over Guardiola being the real deal as he closed in on a treble in his first season in charge.
Bayern Munich 0-4 Real Madrid (April 29, 2014)
Guardiola was refreshed from a year’s sabbatical following his Barcelona exit in 2012 and Bayern had the 2013/14 Bundesliga sewn up by the time their Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid rolled around. A 1-0 loss at the Santiago Bernabeu was disappointing but certainly no disaster, with the return at the Allianz Arena to come a week later.
In the interim period, Guardiola got swept up in all the bold talk of famous comebacks brought about by Bayern’s traditionally aggressive German style of play, something with which the methods he had practised all season were at odds. He sent Bayern out in an expansive 4-2-4, with Arjen Robben, Mario Mandzukic, Robert Lewandowski and Franck Ribery strung out across the forward line. They were wide open on the break all night and torn apart.
“I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f***-up. A total mess. The biggest f***-up of my life as a coach,” Guardiola said afterwards, as quoted in Marti Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. The Madrid defeat was a game that loosened Guardiola’s grip on a competition he dominated at Barcelona. He has not regained it since.
Roma 1-7 Bayern Munich (October 21, 2014)
Guardiola swore never to be swayed in that manner again and his most emphatic Champions League coaching performance at Bayern was pure unadulterated Pep. Perarnau’s follow-up book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, detailed the intricate gameplan of Medhi Benatia, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba as a back three, with Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso notionally ahead of them.
In possession at the Stadio Olimpico, Alaba would bolt into midfield, with Alonso dropping into the backline. Arjen Robben and Juan Bernat were an unusual combination of wingbacks, while Mario Gotze would be the vital link to Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller up front in a 3-2-3-2. Or a 3-4-3. Or something like that.
It’s the sort of selection that has all the ingredients of classic Guardiola “overthink”. The only catch is Bayern were 5-0 up by the 36th minute.
Liverpool 3-0 Man City (April 4, 2018)
City were on the verge of being crowned Premier League champions and would finish the 2017/18 campaign with a record-breaking 100-point haul. However, they suffered their first domestic defeat of the campaign in a rollercoaster 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in January, a game that spooked Guardiola into evasive action.
Wary of a rabid press from Jurgen Klopp’s side, Guardiola ditched the 4-3-3 that had cut a swathe through English football for the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal and selected Ilkay Gundogan on the right-hand side of a diamond midfield.
The idea was to give City’s defenders extra passing options when playing out from the back. The reality was the visitors going 3-0 down in half an hour and Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus finding themselves isolated in attack.
Real Madrid 1-2 Man City (February 26, 2020)
On the occasions Guardiola doesn’t perplex with his team sheet, he can still baffle with how the players are laid out on the field. That was definitely the case for City’s Champions League last-16 trip to the Santiago Bernabeu, where Gabriel Jesus lined up as a defensive left-winger and the Premier League side had no striker to speak of.
Once the initial head-scratching abated, it became clear that City were dominating the contest with not one but two false nines. Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne flitted in and out of the centre-forward positions, while also giving City midfield superiority.
Isco scored first against the run of play but Madrid collapsed when Raheem Sterling was brought on against a flagging defence, winning the penalty for De Bruyne to seal victory.
Man City 1-3 Lyon (August 15, 2020)
In the previous season, City took one point from their two Champions League group games against Lyon and Guardiola was concerned about their threat on the counter-attack in a one-off Champions League quarterfinal delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite Lyon finishing the aborted French season seventh in Ligue 1, Guardiola decided to rip up his usual approach and field a 5-3-2, which simultaneously robbed City of their cohesion and threat in possession and did nothing to shore them up defensively.
They reverted to a more familiar system when Riyad Mahrez came on before the hour and De Bruyne equalised. Also, at 2-1, Sterling inexplicably missed an open goal before Moussa Dembele’s second sealed the game for Lyon, but Guardiola’s initial selection felt like something close to self-sabotage.
Chelsea 1-3 Man City (January 3, 2021)
City stuttered their way through the early months of the behind-closed-doors 2020/21 season and a COVID-19 outbreak left Guardiola with a depleted squad for the new year trip to Stamford Bridge. Despite Sergio Aguero and youth team striker Liam Delap featuring among his reduced numbers, the Catalan once again opted to roll out a formation without a centre-forward.
De Bruyne was predominantly the false nine and Gundogan scored the opener in the space he vacated before the Belgium playmaker found an assist and a goal to put City 3-0 up after 34 minutes. The visitors’ positional rotation was dazzling and Joao Cancelo romped gleefully into attacking midfield positions from fullback. Having previously been an alternative tactic to be wheeled out now and then, Guardiola’s strikerless approach became the blueprint for a dominant 18-month period.
#OTD in 2️⃣0️⃣2️⃣1️⃣
Which goal was your favourite from this victory at Stamford Bridge? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/3zVrAwZzQX
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 3, 2023
Man City 0-1 Chelsea (May 29, 2021)
Playing without the reference point of a central striker means there is a need for a defined structure elsewhere. Playing without either a No.9 or a specialist defensive midfielder in a Champions League final is a particularly wild move. This is exactly what Guardiola did in arguably his most infamous big-game tinker to date.
There was some mitigation. Rodri had lost form and the veteran Fernandinho was overrun as Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea beat a much-changed City in that season’s FA Cup semifinals. Guardiola also identified the need for lots of quick, sharp passes to move a robust five-man defence around.
However, this meant selecting Gundogan — City’s unlikely top scorer in 2020/21 — at the base of the midfield and going without either Rodri or Fernandinho for just the second time in a 61-game season. City caused some sporadic problems for Chelsea early on but they were disorganised in attack and repeatedly open in transition, most notably when Kai Havertz netted the winning goal before the break.
Man City 2-2 Liverpool (April 10, 2022)
A useful demonstration of how Guardiola can invert normal perceptions. Gabriel Jesus had not started a Premier League game since New Year’s Day before being thrown in for the crunch title showdown with Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium. After a season of false-nine delight, was Guardiola being weird because he was picking a striker?
In the event, Jesus was superb and scored his team’s second goal as a City front three also featuring Sterling and Phil Foden repeatedly ran in behind Jurgen Klopp’s high line as Guardiola mapped out a far more direct approach than expected. City played and should have beaten Liverpool at their own game, as they lead twice and Riyad Mahrez missed a glorious chance at the last.
Liverpool 1-0 Man City (October 16, 2022)
You’ll have noticed a theme here of the same opponents prompting big brain moments from Guardiola and this is never truer than in the case of Klopp’s Liverpool. A couple of weeks before this season’s trip to Anfield, City ransacked neighbours United 6-3 in the Manchester derby, with Erling Haaland and Foden scoring hat-tricks.
Liverpool were affiliated by dire form, so same again, right? Instead, Guardiola opted to peg Foden to the left wing and unleash Cancelo as a right wing-back. As has previously been the case when he opted for the unexpected, City paid a price as they lacked fluency and cohesion. Foden belatedly got involved to have a second-half goal disallowed before a wretched Cancelo error allowed Mohamed Salah’s winner.
Man City lineup against Arsenal: What will Pep Guardiola’s tactics be?
As the list above demonstrates, guessing Guardiola’s lineup can be a nigh-on impossible task, for better or worse. Again, it feels like Bernardo Silva will be key, but surely not as a hybrid left-back with Bukayo Saka manning that flank for Arsenal.
Nathan Ake has been City’s most dependable defender this season and shackled Saka effectively when the sides met in the FA Cup last month, scoring the winner to boot. Expect him to line up on the left-hand side of the defence, with Kyle Walker — whom Guardiola praised as being “back, with the way he is behaving” after the win over Aston Villa — at right-back.
If Walker and Ake start as the fullbacks ahead of teenager Rico Lewis, Guardiola would not have a natural “inverter” and would forego his 3-2 build-up shape. This might be what he does, given Arsenal troubled City with a man-for-man press in the FA Cup game. In previous matches against Liverpool, Guardiola has looked to get around their press with a 4-2 set-up in the defensive phase.
This would mean Silva joining Rodri in the build-up, with his ball-carrying ability crucial to linking defence and attack, where the presence of one less offensive player could be offset by Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish being given space to enjoy themselves as Arsenal look to take the game to City.
But, as we’ve laid out, when it comes to Guardiola in these situations, no one ultimately knows anything.
Man City projected XI vs Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Ederson (GK) — Walker, Dias, Laporte, Ake — Rodri, Silva — Mahrez, De Bruyne, Grealish — Haaland