Throughout his managerial career, Pep Guardiola has been a proactive problem solver. He’s not one to sit on an issue, carry on as he has been doing and hope for the best.
There are numerous examples of this mindset in action in Martí Perarnau’s books on Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich, and there have been other instances of it in the Premier League with Manchester City. The most recent was on display during their game against Sheffield United and the subsequent meeting with Everton.
By Guardiola’s high standards, his team have struggled so far this season. They find themselves 14 points behind Liverpool with only the slimmest chance of defending their title for the second year in a row.
Now the pressure is off in the Premier League, Guardiola might be more free to experiment with his side in league games and it’s when trying things out that he’s often at his best, as was the case at Bayern.
In Germany, it was more him being so comfortable and dominant in the league that different approaches could be tested and players could be tried in different roles. This season in England, it is a different scenario. City are so far behind leaders Liverpool, and so far ahead of fifth-place Manchester United, that they really have nothing to lose, and these experiments could come in handy in the Champions League, which Guardiola will be desperate to win.
Guardiola was already trying something a little different during the first half against Sheffield United. It looked, on paper, like City would emerge in their usual 4-3-3 with Rodri as the holding midfielder behind free-eights Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. But the one slight alteration Guardiola made to this was to have Oleksandr Zinchenko tucking into midfield from left-back and right-back Kyle Walker dropping into a back three when City had the ball (below).
This led to something which looked more like a 3-2-2-3 in possession, with inside-forwards Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez occasionally dropping into the wing-back slots before making runs at the Sheffield United back line, on and off the ball.
Both Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have shown Sheffield United the greatest respect in the way they have planned for their respective side’s recent meetings with the South Yorkshire outfit, which is testament to how good Chris Wilder’s team has been in the Premier League so far this season.
City weren’t able to break the Blades down after one half, so Guardiola made changes in the second half which look like they could be used more regularly throughout the rest of the season. These changes had more to do with altering the roles of a number of players, rather than necessarily a change from a back four to a back three, as he was already using a back three in possession.
Rodri dropped from holding midfield into the centre of defence and Fernandinho shifted to the right centre-back slot previously occupied by Walker. Eric Garcia remained as the left-sided centre-back, while De Bruyne and Bernardo became less free, more eight.
This allowed Walker and Zinchenko to play as the wide attackers down their flanks, with Sterling moving forward in support of Sergio Aguero and Mahrez dropping into the hole behind the strikers.
It was a move, in possession, from a 3-2-2-3 to a 3-4-3, but the full-backs on either side of that four would often move so high up the pitch they would become wingers.
“We put more players close to Sergio, and the guys who passed the ball outside from inside, Kevin and Bernardo, and later, Gundogan, were players with better quality than we had in the first half,” explained Guardiola.
“We attacked in the first half with wingers and in the second half with full-backs.”
City scored twice in that second half, and continued with this system into their next home game against Everton, after which Guardiola added:
“In the first half against Sheffield United we played with three at the back, too. Not just in the second half. We changed positions but the structure was that.
“We can do it in the future. We played it really well. The five guys are so good with the ball. Riyad receives the ball in better positions and that helps.”
The only change in that game was a slight rearrangement of the front three, which was more 2-1 than a 1-2, with Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus coming in for Sterling and Aguero.
One aspect of the use of attacking full-backs was an apparent refusal to bring them into the game at every opportunity. There were plenty of chances during the build-up play for a midfielder or centre-back to find them with an easy pass, but they were sometimes seemingly ignored.
Instead, Guardiola uses those inside players, his five guys — three centre-backs and the two midfielders shown below — to work the ball forward before finding the wide players in space further up the pitch where they can threaten the opposition.
A team which appeared to be struggling in the centre-back position following a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte has moved to solve the problem by adding a third centre-back to their line-up. It might seem like a strange way to approach this issue, but it looks to be working.
The addition of Garcia has worked well, and the insurance the 18-year-old gets from playing alongside two other defenders has allowed him to integrate into the team with minimal risk. That said, the Spaniard has been very impressive and looks more assured in the position than John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have at times.
The use of Fernandinho and Rodri at centre-back also seems unorthodox, but when presented with a problem the solution Guardiola comes up with isn’t always conventional, yet makes sense when a player’s attributes are lined up with the ones required to do the job asked of them.
These games have allowed the players to become familiar with the system in competitive matches, and though Guardiola may not stick with this formation for the rest of the season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it again further down the line, possibly in a key moment.
James Nalton is on Twitter