Guardiola's Midfield Masterplan Adds Arsenal To The List Of Man City's Conquests

City have now won 18 games in succession
18:40, 21 Feb 2021

It was 1974 and Holland hunted in packs. Like watching an under-10s game on a Sunday morning, every player was attracted to the ball like a moth to the flame. However, the men in orange were playing this way by design. This was Total Football. 

A style centred around Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman would then take this style, this way of dominating the play, to Ajax and later Barcelona, and it was at the Camp Nou that Pep Guardiola became inspired. 

Fast forward to today and the Manchester City boss put out a team lacking a striker at Arsenal and packed the middle of the park to clinch a 1-0 win. On paper, the Spaniard was playing a 4-6-0, but still City purred. At times it looked like City were playing with 11 midfielders such was the versatility of the team and fluidity of their movement, both with the ball and without it.

The visitors struck after only two minutes. Raheem Sterling, a 5ft 7in winger, climbed high like a towering centre forward to direct Riyad Mahrez’s cross into the back of the net. For the rest of the 90 minutes, the goal-getting pair, along with Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva moved freely across the frontline with no fixed positions. Yes, they’re midfielders by definition, but this City side can switch to attack in the blink of an eye.

PepGuardiolaKevinDeBruyneArsenalManchesterCity2021jpg

Later, right-back Joao Cancelo would drift into the centre of the park just to double up and be a presence in midfield. Rarely would he get the ball in an advanced, central position but just being there was enough to bamboozle and give the Gunners another quandary. Then there is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who arrived at the Etihad as a number 10 but has primarily played at left-back. John Stones is a centre-back who is so at ease on the ball he can play further forward, while goalkeeper Ederson can ping passes like Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard. On Sunday at the Emirates, centre-half Ruben Dias had the most touches - 92 and the most passes - 84.

When City have the ball, they are so dominant and attack in numbers. They don’t look just like they have an extra man, it looks like they have 22 versus 11. Their players morph from one position to the next. They double up, triple-team sides and attack in swathes. For any defender unfortunate to come up against them, it must feel like you are seeing double.

Mahrez and Sterling drifted in from the wing constantly, the former running and running, waiting and waiting before cutting in and out. In the time it takes to spin on an axis and look up, the Alamo had arrived and City attacked with force.

"We moved the ball well, Riyad was really direct early on. They’re a good team but we kept our composure and ground our result out," the matchwinner told the Manchester City website following the game. "The two centre-halves their partnership has been great this season, they have a great understanding - even with Aymeric Laporte there there’s a really good unity and bond there. They’re trying to keep clean sheets and it’s a credit to them."

The fact Arsenal set up in a rigid 4-5-1 formation which could switch to a 4-3-3 yet still looked unlikely to score just adds to the list of achievements for this Guardiola set-up. With Lionel Messi and Co at Barcelona, he began to build a team of 11 central players all brilliant on the ball, swarming the opposition and passing them into submission. Now at City, it seems like Pep’s extraordinary vision is being realised in its fullest form. This is Total Football, this was total domination and this is City’s Premier League title with something to spare.

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