Pep Guardiola faces his toughest challenge to date as Manchester City manager when he and his side make the short trip to Old Trafford for the biggest game of the Premier League season so far. Saturday’s Manchester derby not only pits two of the country’s biggest rivals against one another, but throws Guardiola up against old adversary Jose Mourinho once more. The Spaniard has the better record, triumphing in eight of their 16 meetings with his Portuguese counterpart, yet admits Mourinho is the superior manager when dealing with the media.
“Off the pitch he’s won,” Guardiola admitted of Mourinho prior to one of the 11 Clasico meetings between the pair during their respective times at Barcelona and Real Madrid. Guardiola rarely ventured in the mind games that Mourinho is famed for, instead focusing his efforts on the pitch.
City blew away all before them in the opening weeks of Manuel Pellegrini’s final campaign at the Etihad Stadium. It wasn’t until Victor Moses’ sixth-minute strike in a 2-1 home defeat to West Ham in the sixth week of the season that City conceded their first league goal, with many tipping the club to secure domestic glory at a canter before the wheels came off their title charge. Guardiola’s City side, though, have been more dominant than Pellegrini’s in the early weeks of the new season.
Guardiola, as is well documented, favours a possession-based approach. Indeed, City this season have had more possession (62.2%, the most in the Premier League) than they did after three matches last term (57.5%). Much of that has been due to the Spaniard’s demands placed on the full-backs, which sees them push up into midfield to form a three in the middle of the park. In a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Fernandinho anchoring the midfield, Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov on the left and Pablo Zabaleta or Bacary Sagna on the right move up and infield to help gain superiority in midfield.
Not only does this allow City to enjoy more of the ball, but lessens the chance of the team being caught on the counter-attack. This means that Guardiola’s side are regularly in possession and it’s little shock that they are averaging more passes per game (587.3) than any other team in the Premier League this season, a vast increase on the 558 they were attempting after three games last term, while their pass success rate (84.6%) is the third highest in the league.
For all of City’s attacking investment, though, the biggest change comes at the back. The arrival of John Stones means Guardiola has the ideal centre-back to play the ball out from defence. While the England youngster’s defensive deficiencies have been previously highlighted, Stones’ ability to pick out a teammate from the back, coupled with Guardiola’s demand for control, means the 22-year-old has the makings of fulfilling his potential at the Etihad Stadium, with his pass success rate (91.6%) the sixth best of players to start at least one Premier League game this term.
Pellegrini didn’t have a centre-back of Stones’ calibre at his disposal last season, which is perhaps why City are averaging both more possession and passes per game after three matches compared to at the same stage last term. Furthermore, with the centre-backs deployed in a more advanced role, a goalkeeper capable of stepping forward and being comfortable in a side that dominates possession is crucial. Guardiola held no sentiment towards Joe Hart, with he loaned to Torino before the close of the transfer window, with City’s capture of Claudio Bravo bringing the team one piece closer to completing the jigsaw.
The Chilean’s spell with Barcelona means he is accustomed to the demands that come with playing between the sticks for a side that holds onto the ball for lengthy periods of time. His pass success rate last season (84.3%) was better than any other goalkeeper in Europe’s big five leagues with Bravo’s distribution qualities allowing for him to instigate attacks from defence, with this asset to his game far stronger than Hart’s. 38 clean sheets is also more than any other goalkeeper in the last three La Liga seasons, with his shot-stopping ability matching his capability with the ball at his feet.
City’s dominance means they are conceding fewer shots per game after three matches this season (8) than at the same stage last season (9.7), but with Bravo as the last line of defence, they have an effective goalkeeper to help keep opponents at bay. Guardiola’s side may be averaging fewer shots on goal compared to Pellegrini’s (16.7 to 18), but there is a sense that City are evolving for the better, with a measure of control now in place compared to the carefree abandon in the latter manager’s final campaign.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics, live player and team ratings with the new free-to-download WhoScored iOS app.