Post-striker Manchester City may be Guardiola's latest masterpiece

Figcaption Post Striker Manchester City May Be Guardiolas Latest Masterpiece
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

A couple of weeks ago Pep Guardiola was asked about Manchester City’s shortage of options up front. “If we dream that the striker is going to solve our problems,” Guardiola replied, “we are not going to win the games. What will help us to still be there is the way we play.”

One of the hallmarks of this strange season, with its relentless churn of games and ceaselessly shifting narratives, is that what might once have been considered anomalous or remarkable now passes with barely a murmur. Sunday 7.15pm kick-offs. Champions League games getting moved to Hungary. And, perhaps most strangely of all: Manchester City are on course to win the Premier League while playing large chunks of the season without a recognised striker.

Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend Read more

In part, the history of Premier League champions is the history of its most prolific goalscorers. From Alan Shearer at Blackburn to Thierry Henry at Arsenal to Jamie Vardy at Leicester, no team in the history of the competition have won without a reliable goalscoring centre-forward. Or, more often, several. Alex Ferguson always reckoned on being able to call on four strikers to allow for fluctuations in form or fitness. The same was true of City’s first two title wins under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.

This season, by contrast, City began with just two recognised strikers in Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus. Both have missed large parts of the season through injury or Covid-19. And though Jesus has contributed four league goals, and Agüero should feature in the second half of the season, City have largely learned to function without them. Ilkay Gündogan is their top league scorer (nine), followed by Raheem Sterling (eight), Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez (five each). Altogether, strikers have taken 3% of City’s touches this season. Quietly, imperceptibly, Guardiola has moulded City into the Premier League’s first elite post-striker team.

This, perhaps, is the main point of contrast between City and their opponents on Saturday evening. It is now more than three years since Guardiola slyly referred to Tottenham as the “Harry Kane team”, a tag that felt unjust at the time but feels wholly appropriate now. Under José Mourinho, Tottenham have devolved into a team largely in thrall to Kane’s brilliance, whether as goalscorer, creator or out-ball, and who look bereft in his absence.

Pep Guardiola has not been able to call upon Sergio Agüero much because of injury and Covid. Photograph: Alex Livesey/PA

And so in many ways Saturday’s game brings together two contrasting visions of attacking play: one built around the talismanic qualities of one or two brilliant individuals, and one built around an organic, mutating collective. In part, City’s post-striker era is merely a continuation of a longer-term move away from the traditional reliance on a goalscoring centre-forward, who against massed defences can often be marked or crowded out of the game. Liverpool’s use of Roberto Firmino, whose primary function is to create space and chances for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, falls into the same category.

Of course, playing without a traditional No 9 is hardly a novelty: indeed, it has often been a hallmark of Guardiola sides in the past. What does feel new here is the almost total absence of a defined focal point. Lionel Messi was still the main goalscorer at Barcelona: you just didn’t know where he was going to pop up next. By contrast, Guardiola has deployed a revolving cast of players in the nominal No 9 role this season: Jesus, Mahrez, Foden, Gündogan, Ferran Torres and Kevin De Bruyne. Foden’s multifaceted role in the 4-1 demolition of Liverpool last weekend – part forward, part winger, part ball-winning midfielder – felt like the ultimate expression of this principle. “When we don’t play with a typical centre-forward, the people have to move a little bit more,” Guardiola has said. “But we have to arrive in the box.”

Phil Foden was part forward, part winger, part ball-winning midfielder against Liverpool. Photograph: Matt McNulty/Manchester City FC/Getty Images

To some extent, Guardiola’s hand has been forced by circumstances. Until the pandemic, only once had he named a Premier League starting XI without either Agüero or Jesus in it. Asked earlier in the season why City didn’t simply sign another striker, Guardiola shrugged that they couldn’t afford it. Yet over the last four seasons City have spent more than £300m on defenders without signing a first-team striker. Nathan Aké cost £40m and has started five league games. It’s hard not to glimpse at least a hint of dogma there.

So, why? Partly it is the physical demands of this season, which have forced everyone to slacken their press a little. Whereas previous City sides would hunt ferociously high up the pitch, with the aim of winning the ball quickly and immediately feeding it to Jesus or Agüero, now the press is geared more towards cutting off passing options and forcing mistakes.

Partly, too, Jesus’s indifferent form in front of goal has persuaded Guardiola to explore other options. The striker himself has admitted that he needs to improve his finishing, and often passes when he could shoot. But his contribution without the ball remains peerless, and it is telling that last Sunday Guardiola responded to Liverpool’s withdrawal of Thiago Alcântara and Curtis Jones by introducing Jesus just four minutes later, sensing that Liverpool were now more vulnerable to losing the ball in dangerous areas.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Time will tell whether this is simply a phase. Agüero is scheduled to return within the next couple of weeks, and with his contract up this summer City are being linked with some of the continent’s most prolific strikers: Erling Braut Haaland, Romelu Lukaku, Messi, even Kane.

Yet in City’s post-striker formation can perhaps be glimpsed a broader truth: that at the top end of football, goals are scored not so much by players as by systems, and titles are won largely the same way. One of the defining characteristics of this City squad is how many of its players – Foden, Gündogan, João Cancelo – are comfortable in multiple positions.

Perhaps this is the trend that will distinguish the title-winners of the near future: teams with multiple threats, multiple focal points, midfielders upon midfielders upon midfielders, attacks replicating and mutating at mesmerising speed. Or perhaps this is a trend that will define City alone, and a coach who in his relentless thirst for evolution may just have struck upon his latest masterpiece.

Ultimele News