Since returning from the season’s first international break, Manchester City have been the class of the Premier League; routinely dominating opponents and playing perhaps their finest football of the Guardiola era. Over their last five league matches, City are undefeated and boast a goal difference of +22 on a run to the top of the table. The Sky Blues found themselves in a similar position atop the standings after eight matches last campaign, before a drop off in form that saw the club fail to regain pole position. This season, however, increased tactical versatility—bolstered by off-season acquisitions—have allowed the team’s already formidable attack to reach heights unseen last season.
In the last five matches (wins over Liverpool, Watford, Crystal Palace, Chelsea, and Stoke City) Pep Guardiola’s team formation has been fairly consistent. The City manager seems to prefer a 4-3-3, using it in four out of the five. However, the Liverpool match, where he deployed a 3-5-2, was an outlier. But—as with all of the Catalan’s teams—these formations are anything but static. With the ball, his teams have the ability to morph into a variety of formations, from a 2-3-2-3 to a 3-1-4-2, demonstrating the relative meaninglessness of their pre-match formation.
The dynamic interplay of City’s forwards—some combination of Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, and Leroy Sane, coupled with the movement and vision of midfield maestros Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva—causes nightmares for their opposition. As if that weren’t enough to contend with, the addition of three attacking fullbacks has provided a new dimension to City’s play.
Season of the fullback
City raised eyebrows over the summer when they splashed out £130m on Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Danilo. But fullbacks have always played an important part in Guardiola teams; from Dani Alves’ rampaging runs at Barcelona, to Philipp Lahm’s play at the heart of the Bayern Munich midfield. The wisdom of Guardiola’s transfers is plain to see. Regardless of what formation he employs—or seemingly which players, as Fabian Delph has filled in well for the injured Benjamin Mendy—Guardiola’s fullbacks are indispensable to his game plan. Over the past five weeks, he has deployed them in a variety of roles but always with the same result.
Against Liverpool, Mendy and Walker played as wingbacks, providing an outlet for City’s midfielders and forwards as they exchanged passes and positions in an attempt to draw The Reds’ defenders out of position. City’s dynamism bedeviled the reasonably well organized defensive units of Watford, Palace, and Stoke. The fullbacks played high up the field to provide width and pin back the opposition’s wide players, allowing the forwards to move inside and opening up channels for the midfielders to run into. In the Chelsea match the fullbacks took up positions alongside Fernandinho, in the center of midfield, allowing Silva and De Bruyne to push forward into unoccupied space and exploit gaps in the opposition defense.
Interpreters of space
It’s not just the positional versatility but also this ability to free up space for City’s creators that justifies the lavish spending. Though Thomas Müller coined the term Raumdeuter for himself, it is easily applicable to Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. The addition of the fullbacks affords City’s creative pair license to drift around the field in search of an open pocket of space. Whether providing an outlet for a quick exchange of passes, an overlapping run to draw defenders or cover in the midfield, the presence of the fullbacks offers time and space for the team’s creators to pick passes at will. This comes with devastating results. The duo have contributed directly in 11 of the teams 24 goals, over the last five matches, with a combined nine assists and two goals.
Perhaps few foresaw how the club’s off-season moves would benefit De Bruyne and Silva. But, City did more than merely replace veteran players with youth. They’ve added pieces now integral to the team’s style of play. As City continue in this rich vein of form, the fees seem more and more like a bargain.