When Pep Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, there was one huge question about him. He’d grown up at Barcelona. He’d been a ball-boy there. He’d come through the youth system. He’d played for and captained the team. He knew Barcelona and its culture better than almost anybody else. It was a club that had formed him, and he was then able to reform it. He’d wound down his playing career elsewhere but could he really thrive elsewhere?
Four years on, as he prepares to return to the Camp Nou, the question is still being asked.
Whether his time at Bayern Munich can be considered a success remains open to debate. Three successive league titles certainly can’t be deemed a failure, but given how Bayern financially dwarves its rivals (the latest figures from Deloitte show Bayern’s annual income is 68% greater than that of Borussia Dortmund) it’s not necessarily a stunning achievement either. And, by the very highest standards, the inability to progress beyond the semifinal in the Champions League was a disappointment. Most damaging, perhaps, was the 3-0 defeat away at Camp Nou in the Champions League semifinal in 2015 when the attempt to press Barcelona came to seem reckless in the extreme.
However much frustration there was at the European progress, though, the style of football Guardiola had implemented meant that, within the club at least, there was a sense that his time was regarded as a positive, despite all the various fallings-out with officials and medical staff.
That style was not simply a case of transplanting the Barça model to Bayern. Guardiola adapted. Perhaps most obvious was when he fielded Javi Martinez as a center forward against Borussia Dortmund to bypass the press with a series of long balls, but there were other modifications, some seemingly designed to counter the German game and its recently discovered love of pressing and some simply to do with his own convictions.
But in truth, Guardiola had been evolving even at Barcelona. The idea that he just set that team running and let it go, as his detractors claim, is absurd. It was he, for instance, who switched Samuel Eto’o to the right and played Lionel Messi as a false nine. The greatest coaches have always been masters of evolution. That process has continued at Manchester City.
There is a theory that Guardiola works in the cycles between international (and winter) breaks. He takes advantage of the gap between fixtures to come up with an amended way of playing. It takes a little time for the side to get used to the new system and so there can be a slight dip in the first game back. His sides then hit a peak before opponents begin to work out how to combat the new system, so there is a slight tailing off before the next break, at which the cycle begins a new. It’s only a theory and is almost impossible to quantify given the necessary variations in the fixture list, but it does fit with what Marti Perarnau reveals about Guardiola’s method in his book "Pep Confidential."
City had begun this season using a 4-1-4-1 out of possession that became a 3-2-2-3 with the ball as Fernandinho dropped between the central defenders and the two fullbacks tucked in to defensive midfield roles, providing a platform to liberate Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva as what the Belgian has referred to as “false eights”; they both have a creative function but both have defensive responsibilities. They are like the eights in a classic 4-3-3, which is to say the shuttling midfielder between the holder and the creator, but with a less restricted role.
But, fitting the theory that Guardiola makes changes during international breaks, against Everton on Saturday, he started with a back three for the first time as City manager. In a sense the impact on shape was minimal: with Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan sitting just in front of Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Gael Clichy, that platform of three and two that had been formed by Fernandinho dropping between the central defenders and the fullbacks tucking in, was retained, although with better passers in the deep-lying midfield roles.
Silva and De Bruyne continued as free eights, with Raheem Sterling wide on one flank and Leroy Sane on the other, both more winger than wingback. A third straight game without a victory–following the 3-3 Champions League draw against Celtic and the 2-0 loss at Tottenham–suggests a nascent crisis, that City has been worked out, but the reality of Saturday’s 1-1 draw was far from that.
Ronald Koeman described City as the best team he had come up against in his managerial career and acknowledged that Everton perhaps hadn’t deserved the point it won. City missed two penalties and Maarten Stekelenburg made two other outstanding saves. Everton had started with three forwards to try put pressure on a three-man back line (something Koeman, a friend and former roommate of Guardiola, had anticipated) but had found it simply never had the ball and so dropped back into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, looking to do more than absorb pressure and hold on. Romelu Lukaku scored from just about Everton’s only attack.
That vulnerability–City has kept only one clean sheet in eight league goes this season–is a concern, something that goes beyond the risk inherent in playing with such a high line and, as Koeman pointed out, it will be severely tested by Barcelona and its vaunted front three. In the longer term what is significant was that change in City’s shape.
“We improved a lot from what happened in Glasgow and against Tottenham,” Guardiola said, “But you need that, to improve.”
The constant process of evolution goes on. It goes on from Barça to Bayern to City. It goes on from that semifinal in 2015 to Wednesday, and it goes on at City week to week.