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Peak Pep Guardiola: Why Manchester City play better without a striker

Manchester City
(Image credit: PA Images)

Perhaps peak Pep came in 2010/11. Barcelona went 31 games undefeated in La Liga. They beat Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid 5-0 at the Nou Camp, then eliminated them from the Champions League and then produced one of the great European Cup final performances. Manchester United were thrashed 3-1 in a game that was far more emphatic than the scoreline. Lionel Messi’s goal was his 53rd of the season. He was one of seven players under 5ft 10in to start for Guardiola for Wembley. The undersized had reshaped football.

But maybe peak Pep is happening now. Pep Guardiola could win Manchester City’s first Champions League. Their fifth Premier League, and his third, could be sealed this weekend. They are not better than the Barcelona team of a decade ago – perhaps no side ever has been – and they do not have a Messi, but City’s domestic, and potential European, triumph has come from going fuller Pep than ever before.

Messi may have been the modern-day Nandor Hidegkuti, the withdrawn striker Guardiola used to make the tactic of the false nine fashionable again, but at least the Argentinian was a forward; a player who felt a natural No. 10, even if much of his early football came on the right of the front three. Likewise, the most influential false nine in England in recent years, Roberto Firmino, is at least an attacker, even if he scarcely fits stereotypical descriptions of a centre-forward and many a manager other than Jurgen Klopp would have struggled to find a role for him.

But City will win the Premier League with not one false nine but several and with the defining theme that they are largely midfielders: Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez. Guardiola even mooted the possibility of using Ilkay Gundogan as a false nine; if it bemused then, he instead converted the German into a prolific scorer by unlocking his inner Frank Lampard. De Bruyne is the player who seemed a No. 10, but called himself a ‘free eight’ in Guardiola’s 4-3-3; now he is a false nine.

City’s most influential and impressive performances have been the false-nine games; at times, the false nine has been the star man, whether De Bruyne at Stamford Bridge or Foden at Anfield. Then came De Bruyne’s starring role in Paris, alongside Silva; indeed, the Portuguese seems earmarked for false-nine duties in continental competitions. Sometimes, when De Bruyne and Silva play, they alternate as the false nine and third midfielder. Sometimes they are paired.

Guardiola has a variant of the archetypal English formation: not 4-4-2, but 4-4-2-0 (or even 4-2-4-0). Magazines may have to be renamed. At times, as they create a box of four midfielders to outnumber opponents’ two or three, there can be a void in the penalty box, with no one in scoring positions. It prompts calls for Sergio Aguero that ignore all the evidence from the last year that, sadly, City’s greatest goalscorer is a passenger now. Guardiola and Aguero felt a productive but sometimes uneasy alliance; now the Catalan has been freed from the predator and has pursued his ideological path. 

Now City are undeniably better with the extra midfielder, a greater rotation of positions and more of a shared responsibility for scoring. They are undefeated this season when they went striker-less (the September loss to Leicester came with Raheem Sterling playing as a semi-conventional front man). That Sterling has since lost his place on the flanks has removed the winger who most resembled a striker in the City ranks, the closest thing to a poacher, has taken City closer to a world where everyone is a midfielder. That Guardiola has even mooted Ederson as a possible penalty taker shows how far he has taken his total football ethos.

Guardiola has taken to saying that what City are doing is special, and he is right. The context of Covid and a crowded fixture list, the worst start to a season of his career giving way to a run of 21 straight wins, the way he and they have turned ignominy into glory feels remarkable. It is in part a triumph of adaptability, a system forged by circumstances, particularly Aguero’s absences. But the chances are that it has given Guardiola particular satisfaction. The man who sold Samuel Eto’o and dropped Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been the scourge of the striker before, but this time he has prospered without a cheat code called Messi and with false nines who look less like forwards.   

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