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Why Guardiola's Managerial Disciples May Struggle to Overhaul Him

Guardiola, his disciples and the quest for the EPL title

By Lewis HumphriesPublished 11 months ago 5 min read
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Guardiola was closely challenged by two of his disciples last season

The bare statistics of Manchester City’s recent domestic dominance make for stark reading, with five titles in just six seasons and two ‘trebles’ (one domestic and one continental) hinting at a huge chasm between Pep Guardiola’s team and their rivals.

However, Jurgen Klopp’s relentless Liverpool side pushed City incredibly close in the four campaigns between the summers of 2018 and 2022, with just a single point separating these teams during this period. So, although City won three titles to the Reds’ one within this timeframe, they earned a total of 358 points while Liverpool secured a similarly impressive 357.

The rivalry between City and Liverpool was made even more enthralling by the hugely contrasting playing styles of the two teams, especially with Klopp’s side regularly able to disrupt the Citizens rhythm through their intense pressing and swift counterattacking when they met one another.

Interestingly, last season saw Guardiola most keenly opposed by two former colleagues and disciples as Liverpool faltered, in the form of Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag. This makes for an interesting dynamic, and begs the question whether these coaches are better equipped to challenge and ultimately topple the Spaniard?

How Arteta and Ten Hag Learned from Guardiola

Interestingly, the paths of ten Hag and Guardiola first crossed in 2013, when the Dutchman decided to leave Go Ahead Eagles and become the head coach of Bayern Munich’s B side.

This came as a surprise to many at the time, with ten Hag having just steered the Dutch side into the Eredivisie. However, he couldn’t resist the temptation to work at close quarters with Guardiola, who had just taken charge of the Bavarian giants after a year’s hiatus from the game.

Ten Hag spent two years in this post working alongside the Spaniard, prevailing in 48 of his 72 matches and delivering an impressive win percentage of 66.7%. He subsequently returned to the Eredivisie and took charge of Utrecht and then Ajax, where he enjoyed considerable success and imparted an organised and possession-based style of play.

As for Mikel Arteta, he turned down the chance to head up the Arsenal Academy after completing his coaching badges, before becoming Guardiola’s assistant coach at Manchester City on July 3rd, 2016.

The two worked closely together until Arteta accepted the job as Arsenal head coach on December 22nd, 2019, having previously turned down this opportunity after Arsene Wenger was dismissed 18 months before.

Appraising Arteta and Ten Hag’s Tactical Set Ups

City were clinical in their 3-1 win over Arsenal at the Emirates

Of course, it was Arteta’s Arsenal side that challenged most keenly last season, leading the Premier League by eight points at the beginning of April being overhauled by Pep’s reliably relentless team.

From a tactical perspective, watching Arsenal was also akin to viewing a mesh of Guardiola’s most recent City teams last season. The back four would become a compact three-man defence in possession, for example, with the talented Oleksandr Zinchenko stepping into central midfield to support Thomas Partey.

In front, Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard operated in the left and right half spaces, in the same way as İlkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne do for City. Then, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka provided the attacking width while making constant runs inside their opposing full backs, while Gabriel Jesus plied his trade as the sole striker and often dropped deep to link play and create space for runners.

This created the same 3-2-4-1 (or 3-2-2-3) shape that City also favour when in possession of the ball, while Arsenal would also file back into a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 during defensive transitions.

In what proved to be a transitional (albeit relatively successful) season for United and ten Hag, the Reds played with a little more tactical variation throughout the season.

While they also started with two attacking midfielders operating in the half spaces in front of the excellent Casemiro (namely Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes) and usually deployed inverted wingers on each flank, they used the inverted full back role more sparingly and only during specific phases in individual matches.

This was largely down to the personnel at ten Hag’s disposal, with Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka occasionally occupying this role from the right and Tyrell Malacia doing so from the left.

Ten Hag also sought to deploy a direct counterattacking style when United came up against teams with superior individual quality, at which point he pivoted away from Guardiola’s trademark high press and possession-based game, while retaining the focus on positional play and vertical passing.

Can Either Arteta and Ten Hag Outgun Guardiola?

Ten Hag showed the way by masterminding a 2-1 win over City in January

In total, both Arsenal and United contested three games against Manchester City in 2022/23, with Guardiola prevailing in five of these six matches while achieving an aggregate score of 17-8. City’s sole defeat was inflicted by ten Hag on January 14th at Old Trafford, when United beat their city rivals 2-1 in a thrilling EPL clash.

But how was this win achieved? Unsurprisingly, the astute ten Hag came up with a bespoke tactical plan for the game, deploying Fred as an additional central midfielder (primarily to man mark Kevin De Bruyne) and moving playmaker Bruno Fernandes onto the right flank.

Out of possession, the Reds deployed a 4-5-1 shape and allowed City to retain possession deep in their own half. Once the ball was shifted vertically into midfield, however, United would press aggressively while Fernandes and Eriksen drifted in the half spaces, so that they could be quickly found when the ball was turned over.

From here, they would look to launch quick and accurate balls into the right back space vacated by inverted full back Kyle Walker. This would free Marcus Rashford and then Alejandro Garnacho into space, with the winning goal coming as a result of this tactic.

Conversely, Arsenal lost all three of their games with City, while scoring only two goals in total. This can be in part attributed to the Gunners’ tactical approach, as Arteta refused to compromise on his principles and attempted to outplay City and Guardiola at their own game.

Not only did City possess the superior individual quality, however, but Guardiola was also intuitive enough to adjust his own tactics and try to exploit Arsenal’s high defensive line with direct counters and the powerful running of forward Erling Haaland (especially in the league game at the Emirates).

There are a couple of key takeaways here. Firstly, tactical flexibility and variation is key when tackling City head on, as the Guardiola’s innate tactical understanding and the individual quality at his disposal makes it incredibly difficult to beat him at his own game.

Because of this, countering City’s lack of defensive width in transition and deploying intuitive pressing triggers can be far more effective tactics, even if it means ceding possession in some cases and different areas of the pitch.

Even when you look to mirror City’s tactics and playing style over the course of the season, the challenge is to invest in suitable players who are the best in class and don’t already play at the Etihad. Once again, even this means little without tactical flexibility, as Arteta’s inability to adjust his gameplan was one of the contributing factors in Arsenal’s collapse last season.

With these points in mind, ten Hag would seem to be the best placed of Pep’s disciples to topple his mentor next season, particularly if he’s backed by United’s owners and able to invest in one or two world class players (especially a striker).

This won’t be an easy challenge, however, as Guardiola remains the master of his domain and a manager whose tactical knowledge and intuition is still second to none.

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