Pep Guardiola’s brain is whirring again! Why the experiments never stop for Man City’s tinkerman as he springs more surprises in 2-0 win over Everton
Pep Guardiola has been here so long that his seasons now follow patterns. Manchester City are in doubt before Christmas, they roar back around New Year and in February the manager starts trying new things.
This time last year came the ingenious switch of John Stones to midfield, which became the cornerstone of their run to the Treble. However, Stones has had a difficult season with injuries this time around and City have largely let up in his absence.
But Guardiola is always looking for new ways to stay ahead. At times, Kyle Walker has been told to stay high and wide, more than ever before, and the past seven days have brought a few more tweaks that could suggest Guardiola is feeling his way towards a new innovation.
At Brentford last Monday, City effectively went without a left winger. Phil Foden was singled out there but spent most of his night in the middle and finished with a second career hat trick. Josko Gvardiol roamed back and forth almost alone.
And on Saturday, in the opening exchange of what was a tough assignment against a dogged Everton, something different came. Manuel Akanji was named at left-back for his return from injury and Stones stationed himself at right-back. City are adept at one defender springing up next to Rodri in possession, but here Guardiola asked both full-backs at the same time. It is rare.
Pep Guardiola is widely regarded as one of the greatest tacticians in football history
He has already tried to change his side by using Manuel Akanji in a different role, to not much success
John Stones has struggled with injury this season and has therefore been less effective when stepping into midfield
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The experiment was short-lived, in the first 15 minutes or so, before Akanji and centre-back Nathan Ake switched places, but shows Guardiola’s willingness to try fresh ideas. Beyond the element of surprise at this stage of a season, it also serves to keep his players engaged and with something to think about.
“We tried but it didn’t work for the way Everton defended,” Guardiola said. “Manu didn’t feel comfortable, so we changed our structure.”
City expected a five-man defense rather than the four Sean Dyche chose. There was some uncertainty, especially with Akanji, about when and where to force the issue in possession. “The system has changed on the ball,” Ake said. “Everyone is capable of playing any position.”
And there, in that second sentence, Ake nailed why City will feel confident of adding more silverware this season. Guardiola’s brain is buzzing and he benefits from a pool of players who seem instantly able to adapt to different tactical instructions.
To fully go for a system that has two absolute defenders and then three up front on the ball, City must be safe with their defensive record, which has not been at its usual level.
It was only a second Premier League clean sheet in 13 games, but there was still a suggestion that a new system, with its slight subtleties, could be something to watch.
“Manu suffered the lack of rhythm and John a little too,” said Guardiola. “When they moved in last season they were incredible, now it’s not as fluid.
‘Why? It’s because you’re injured and don’t have the rhythm they need. But still they compete.
“We have won all the games and now we are there. As much as we want it, it will be a problem for opponents.’ Everton looked comfortable managing City for large parts, with James Garner and Idrissa Gueye almost perfect at picking when to mix it up in the areas Guardiola wanted his full-backs to exploit. Then Kevin De Bruyne came on and Erling Haaland did his thing.
James Tarkowski complained that Erling Haaland’s opener came from a ‘dubious angle’.
“We were punished from a questionable angle,” said Everton defender James Tarkowski. ‘Again, another decision goes against us, but there’s nothing we can do about it.
‘You go talk to the ref and it’s like, “We’ll look at it.” Well, it’s not good to look at it now, is it? We need you to look at it on the field and get it right. They say we apologize for this, we apologize for that, but it’s not good enough.
‘I didn’t think they (City) created much. I didn’t feel like we were in much danger.
“Don’t worry about us, we’re ready to go no matter what. It was a good season. I am not disappointed. We are fine.’
Despite Tarkowski’s optimism, Everton are seven without a win.