Before we get too carried away with Manchester City’s stunning start to the new Premier League campaign, it’s worth remembering that City enjoyed a similarly impressive opening to 2015-16.
In fact, that start was even better in terms of pure statistics: like this season, it began with five consecutive league victories, but it was achieved with five consecutive clean sheets, too. In both seasons, solid structure and good use of width have been extremely important.
While Manchester City won two Premier League titles with the system created by Roberto Mancini and (initially) maintained by Manuel Pellegrini, it never seemed entirely cohesive. It was a 4-2-3-1 based around wide midfielders coming inside: David Silva from one flank, and often Samir Nasri from the opposite side. James Milner provided more of a natural wide option, and his forward running provided balance, but even he preferred to come inside, considering himself a central midfielder. City sometimes produced good passing football, but they were too predictable, and failed to stretch the play properly down the flanks.
Last season, Pellegrini started the season with a new-look system: still a 4-2-3-1, but now City used two outright wingers down the flanks, with Raheem Sterling playing on the opposite flank to Jesus Navas. Silva found pockets of space from a No. 10 role, while Sergio Aguero enjoyed sprinting into the channels even more. Sterling and Navas were both inconsistent with their end product, but their movement and positioning stretched opponents and allowed others to penetrate. It felt like a revelation.
Things went downhill when City’s structure became less obvious. Kevin De Bruyne was unquestionably a fantastic signing, but his full debut coincided with City’s winning run ending with a surprise 2-1 home defeat to West Ham United. Later, Pellegrini would struggle to accommodate both Silva and De Bruyne in the same team without City losing that width, and for some matches — the 2-1 defeat to Arsenal shortly before Christmas, for example — he fielded no natural wingers, with De Bruyne right and Fabian Delph on the left. City’s play was often congested, and opponents were comfortable defending narrow. In the second half of the season, their organisation was often alarmingly bad, with players almost running into one another.
Pep Guardiola’s introduction has revolutionised City’s performances, although in some respects it’s similar to this stage last season. Once again, City are stretching the play on both sides, with Sterling and newcomer Nolito always on the outside of the opposition full-backs, rather than drifting inside. Again, the effect is to make the opposition considerably more open, and once again, those players haven’t necessarily provided the main moments themselves — although Sterling’s form has improved dramatically — but their effect on City’s overall shape has been enormous.
The genius move from Guardiola, though, has been his use of De Bruyne and Silva. It wouldn’t be possible to accommodate both in a 4-2-3-1 with two outright wingers, and therefore his switch to 4-3-3 means Silva and De Bruyne have been forced to adapt to slightly deeper midfield roles. De Bruyne occasionally played there in his formative years, but Silva is very much an advanced midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system. Guardiola was, however, happy to take a risk, knowing he was dealing with highly intelligent players.
It has worked excellently. De Bruyne’s form has been sensational, and while he could reasonably argue that he has simply picked up from where he left off last season. This time around, he feels a crucial part of the side’s structure, rather than an outsider, an individual flitting around at the expense of the side’s structure.
Alongside him, Silva has been similarly impressive in a more reserved manner, adjusting his game to play something approaching the Andres Iniesta role. He was out injured for the 4-0 weekend thrashing of Bournemouth, and was replaced effectively by Ilkay Gundogan, who impressed and scored on his full league debut.
Arguably City’s most important individual so far, however, has been Fernandinho. Playing the holding role behind attacking midfielders like De Bruyne and Silva isn’t a simple task, especially for a player who arrived at City as more of a box-to-box player than a proper defensive midfielder. But Fernandinho’s contribution so far has been sensational, breaking up play reliably and playing positive, intelligent passes into attack. He has proved his versatility by shifting forward into De Bruyne’s role in the second half of the 2-1 victory over Manchester United, before dropping back to become a bonus centre-back when United used four up front for the final few minutes.
“I think Fernandinho can play in 10 positions,” Guardiola said before the start of the campaign. “He has the quality to play wherever. He’s a quick, fast player, so intelligent, aggressive and strong in the air, he could play at centre-back, as he has the quality to create good build-up play.”
It might be Fernandinho’s future role, if Guardiola becomes brave enough to use Gundogan in the deep midfield position. But for now, he has simply been too important as a holding midfielder to consider changing things.
City’s excellent structure has also been helped by the absence of Yaya Toure, a fantastic player individually, but one who sprinted forward without recovering his defensive position quickly enough, and whose runs rarely helped maintain balance. He caused City an increasing number of tactical problems in the past couple of seasons, and they are better off without him.
Tactics and positional organisation are generally considered to be defensive concepts in football. But at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City, Guardiola’s teams have played such exciting, free-flowing passing football because of intelligent spatial distribution and cohesive movement; opening up the opposition, dragging them out of position and then playing through them.
This time around, City are unlikely to follow a promising start with a sudden collapse, and while this was billed as the most open Premier League title race for years, City might shut it down very quickly.