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Man City should be just fine, but you know that.
But hopefully you don't yet know all about why.
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If there’s one thing I’ve figured out in my time writing about football professionally these last few years, it’s this:
Never bet against Pep Guardiola.
I made this mistake a year ago. The side had moved away from its width and speed in attack combined with physical presence in midfield towards more of a pure Guardiola template. I felt as though he’d stumbled on a really exciting blend of his own principles with what he inherited in his early years at City, and he was in the process of destroying that balance in favour of leaning too hard on his principles.
That was very dumb of me.
It turned out Guardiola had a system that would be perfectly suited to pandemic-era football. Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan were pivotal to this, using their short passing ability to compress the spaces between players and keep City compact. Suddenly sides were unable to launch fast transitions against Guardiola’s team because they were so good at controlling games with stale possession. He flipped the script and out-thought everyone.
Guardiola never stands still, so of course, he’s going to change the template again this season. Jack Grealish has arrived, and might still be joined by... well, you know who, and we’ll come to him later. But let’s stick to Grealish for now, because I think this is a much more significant signing than many realise. The first and most obvious reason City signed Grealish is because he’s really good. Really good. I think his injuries made a lot of people miss just how out-of-his-mind Grealish was for Villa last season. Tom Worville at The Athletic found using his Expected Threat model that Grealish was ranked best in the league when it came to passing and carrying the ball into dangerous areas.
(For the confused: expected threat is just about how much a player is causing problems by moving the ball into dangerous areas. We’ve all seen players cause teams all sorts of problems on the ball without necessarily scoring or assisting, right? Expected threat puts a number on that.)
StatsBomb, with their “on-ball value” metric (look, it’s slightly different to expected threat, but for our purposes you can think of it as the same thing), also found Grealish to be the best in the Premier League. No one in England’s top flight was doing more to get the ball into dangerous areas than Mrs Grealish 69’s beloved.
But it also seems as though Grealish isn’t at the Etihad to do that. According to Sam Lee (who tends to be reliable when it comes to Man City), “sources close to Guardiola say that Grealish will be deployed regularly as a No 8, rotating with Ilkay Gundogan”. Grealish, we’re told, “is seen as more of a midfield option than a forward, at least initially”. This is very different to his last season at Aston Villa. In the claret and blue under Dean Smith, Grealish turned himself into an Eden Hazard-esque figure, drifting in from that left-sided role and sucking defenders in before he just decimated teams. He’d played in midfield before, but he was definitely a creative winger coming inside here. But Guardiola doesn’t want him to be Hazard. Guardiola wants him to be Andres Iniesta.
“When I saw [Grealish] on TV”, Guardiola said of his love-at-first-sight experience, “I said this guy controls the tempo. I love [that] when he has the ball. he stops before the dribble and the opponent stops as well. He controls the tempo when he accelerates and decelerates”. Guardiola’s vision of football is all about using pausa – a fancy Spanish-language term that means putting your foot on the ball, pausing for a second, and waiting for the opponents to make a move – to dictate games. It’s a quality Xavi and Iniesta both had in slightly different ways. Iniesta was the one who would “stop before the dribble”, and so it seems clear Guardiola intends to mould the Englishman in this image.
It’s also a quality City have been trying to find. David Silva was once the pausa king of this team, slowing it down while Kevin De Bruyne would speed it up. With his departure, Guardiola had to improvise to find these solutions again. For all their great technical abilities, he doesn’t seem to feel that any of De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez or Bernardo Silva quite offer that pausa quality. Ilkay Gundogan does, and that’s the reason Guardiola has come to rely on him so much post-David Silva. But he’s 30 years old, doesn’t have a great injury record and, most crucially, lacks the kind of close control and final third decisiveness David Silva and Grealish possess. This signing is the move that can again give City the ability to blow teams away while controlling the tempo through pausa.
What we saw from Grealish against Tottenham is still pretty rough around the edges. His instinct is still to drift wide into those left areas then carry the ball into the box. He’s brilliant at that, but it’s not what he’s in this team for. We know Guardiola is obsessive about insisting players stay in their position. “The first thing [Guardiola’s players] will have to know is this: keep your position”, says Philipp Lahm. “That is what he places greatest value on”. Thierry Henry still remembers the time he was substituted by Guardiola, despite scoring a goal, because he wouldn’t stay in his zone. Grealish will take time to learn this. He has to become someone who trusts his left winger to do that bit for him, so he can stay in that midfield role and dictate the tempo. It’ll take time, but he absolutely has the tools to thrive at it.
So he’s got his midfield options sorted. He can switch things up pretty easily, for example choosing Fernandinho over Rodri in certain situations, or Gundogan for Grealish. He’s got some wonderful wide players to choose from. That just really leaves the centre forward spot and the elephant in the room.
It doesn’t feel like it, but Guardiola has long wanted to play with a physical centre forward. Right after winning the treble in 2009, he made Zlatan Ibrahimovic his number one priority to give Barcelona something extra. The idea was that Ibrahimovic would be an “inverted pivot”, providing a focal point from which everyone else could do that pretty passing around. It didn’t work because Lionel Messi was far too good to come in from the right and needed the team reformatted around him. But it’s an idea he liked: having a physical striker who can score goals, but also offer enough with his link-up play that you’re not losing anything in possession. He came closer to the template with Robert Lewandowski, but Bayern’s greater emphasis on width and transitions meant they set up slightly differently to the Guardiola ideal.
Harry Kane might be the perfect man for the job. The Tottenham striker is the perfect classic number nine who also happens to be a great link player and assister. He kept Jose Mourinho’s Spurs afloat last season by doing it all himself, becoming the team’s best nine and best ten. He’s exactly the player Guardiola thought he was getting with Ibrahimovic, and the final piece in this jigsaw to send City over the top.
I genuinely have no idea if the deal will get done. But Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool better hope it doesn’t. Yes, they lost at the weekend. But if all these pieces fit together, we could be looking at Guardiola’s most complete team since he left the Camp Nou.