Pep Guardiola is rightly regarded as one of the greatest tactical minds ever. He played a huge part in Lionel Messi becoming Lionel Messi, he helped piece together two of the greatest club sides in history and did so while having his teams play football the right way.
He transformed Phillip Lahm into a midfielder, converted Javier Mascherano into a centre-back, morphed Kevin De Bruyne into an all-action central midfielder and decided to use namesakes David and Bernardo Silva in the centre of the pitch as opposed to out wide.
Guardiola is a creative genius and because of this, his risks are generally rewarded.
However, there is a chink in his armour and it’s the use of full-backs. Since his arrival at the Etihad, Manchester City have spent more than £150million on players to occupy these positions. But they’re still struggling for long-term solutions.
Though Benjamin Mendy initially appeared to be the real deal, injuries have prevented him from kicking on. Guardiola wasn’t convinced by Kyle Walker at right-back so brought in João Cancelo in a cash-plus-player deal which saw Danilo head to Juventus last summer.
Angeliño made a fleeting return, re-signing after a year away at PSV, but is now on loan with RB Leipzig with a view to a permanent switch. All that leaves Oleksandr Zinchenko to occupy the left-back role despite primarily being a midfielder. In the meantime, the Citizens are persistently linked with Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell.
Why is it City appear to struggle to find full-backs who fit their system? Cancelo, for example, was one of Juventus’ best players last season, even upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo for a period of time. Angeliño has been a revelation in Germany for Julian Nagelsmann’s side and destroyed Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League on Tuesday.
It’s clear they are good full-backs, but why aren’t they good for the reigning Premier League champions?
City do plenty of due diligence on potential signings so they must feel these players can do a job for Guardiola in his strict system. But, to a point, everything is just a theory until it is actually put into practice.
If we use Angeliño as an example, you can kind of understand why it didn’t work out for him at the Etihad despite excelling during his single season in the Eredivisie with PSV.
These five stats may seem like odd ones to concentrate on when looking at a left-back but there’s nothing traditional about the way Guardiola uses his. They aren’t in the team to make tackles or interceptions, they’re there to have an impact on proceedings in the final third.
The passes attempted stat highlights the fact Angeliño had a lot of the ball with City. He was playing, on average, 32 more passes (per 90) than he is for RB Leipzig. Some full-backs in the Premier League don’t even attempt that many over the course of 90 minutes. He was taking more than 100 touches for Guardiola’s side but that average has dropped to 60. Even that is a substantial number for a full-back.
There’s possession football and then there’s Manchester City football. Players who excel with the former aren’t necessarily cut out for the latter and Guardiola doesn’t make subtle changes to combat that. Instead, he just signs somebody else.
The graphic above shows Angeliño is much freer at the Red Bull Arena. He’s able to attempt and complete more dribbles, as well as playing more forward passes. The Spaniard has been able to take risks and, because of this, he has impressed.
Some players aren’t cut out for being so involved in the play. Not if it prevents them doing what they’re good at. It’s a similar story with Cancelo, too.
In Turin, the Portugal international was able to take on more responsibility. He was attempting more dribbles and playing a higher percentage of his passes forward. His role wasn’t about ball retention, it was about ball progression. He was a marauding right-back who, unlike many of his peers, looked composed in possession. The 25-year-old appeared readymade for Guardiola’s system.
He still might be, further down the line. Right now he’s come in for criticism. Reports even linked him with a move away from the Eithad during the January transfer window.
Cancelo appears to be much more robotic since the move to Manchester. It’s exactly what Guardiola wants but it’s to his detriment as a player. He’s playing more passes, seeing more of the ball and attempting fewer risks. Because of this, he doesn’t look like a £60million-rated player.
Cancelo and Angeliño are both really good conventional full-backs. But there’s nothing conventional about the way Guardiola uses his full-backs. Whereas most teams use them as default wingers, City use theirs as central midfielders and this explains why they see so much of the ball.
Unless they tweak their system and utilise these wide players differently, traditional left and right-backs aren’t ever going to excel there.