Manchester City have done it. Footballing immortality is achieved after they became the second English team to win a treble after beating Inter Milan in a closely fought UEFA Champions League final. As the season went on, Pep Guardiola’s side looked irrepressible. Convincing wins followed strong performances as there wasn’t a game in which Cityzens weren’t the favourites to win.
However, it was not all rosy at the start of the season. In fact, the 2022/23 season started with arguably the most questions ever asked of a Man City side. Is Erling Haaland the right fit for a Pep Guardiola side? Is Bernardo Silva’s mind elsewhere? Why buy Manuel Akanji?
Many more such questions were asked which look dumb in hindsight. However, they made sense then. After all, this was the season where Arsenal led the Premier League for 248 days.
Manchester City’s juggernaut picked up pace only as the season progressed and Pep Guardiola ironed out some chinks in the armour. Once those tactical tweaks were implemented successfully, a well-oiled machine was created that achieved football nirvana. Here are the three tactical tweaks that defined Manchester City’s historic season.
John Stones, the metronomic midfielder
When John Stones broke through at Everton, he was hailed as the perfect modern central defender. His ball-playing skills were so elite that he could easily be mistaken for someone who trained in La Masia, Barcelona’s academy. Therefore, it was no surprise that he was Pep Guardiola’s preferred signing.
Starting off as a CB, Stones’ occasional errors were a cause of concern for Manchester City. Until last season, he had even lost his spot to the likes of Aymeric Laporte and Kyle Walker.
Manchester City played with a conventional back four most of the time with Rodri starting as the lone holding midfielder. However, this gave Guardiola trouble as City would get caught on the counter-attack repeatedly. Good teams cut through their counter-press and ran one-on-one many times. The answer to this was in his team.
Manuel Akanji’s signing, who was a more traditional CB than Stones, left the English defender free to take up a role further ahead. As a defensive midfielder alongside Rodri, he could use his passing skills to perfection. Furthermore, with more protection alongside him, as well as behind him, Stones’ weaknesses were covered expertly.
Stones was converted into a metronome in midfield, regularly breaking up opposition moves due to his smartness and having a lifetime of defensive coaching. From there, he kept the ball ticking with short and simple passes to help City retain possession.
It even allowed Rodri to become more adventurous, as evidenced by his winning goal in the UCL final. Stones became the base on which City’s defence and attack was built- the connector between the defence and midfield. Such was the influence of this tweak that it directly lead to another tweak which transformed City’s season.
Ilkay Gundogan, the sharpshooter
The soon-to-be out-of-contract Manchester City star found a new lease of life at the club with a simple shift in position and role. There was always an inkling in Ilkay Gundogan’s game that he has that “smell” for the goal. His late runs into the box during the attacking phase had always been a threat. However, starting as a deep midfielder alongside Rodri meant he had to often curb that instinct in the name of more solidarity and ball retention.
John Stones’ reinvention as the defensive midfielder freed up Gundogan to take up a more advanced role alongside Kevin de Bruyne as one of the four advanced midfielders behind Haaland.
And so the sharpshooter version of Gundogan was unleashed. No longer needing to curb his attacking game, Gundogan became a menace in the opposition box. If the ball fell anywhere near the box, Gundogan would be the first to react and finish the move. He could have almost had a hattrick in the FA Cup final against Manchester United if not for an offside goal.
He became almost a “shadow striker” who started deep but comes alive at just the right time to finish off attacking moves. Such is his transformation that a few months ago he looked bound to leave Manchester City. Now, enjoying his game again in a new role which utilises his best abilities, he looks likely to stay at City. The nightmare will continue for PL defences. Where’s Gundogan? You won’t know until the ball drops anywhere near the box and he’s off celebrating 5 seconds later.
Erling Haaland, the “Complete forward”
“My dream is to touch the ball five times and score five goals”, said Erling Haaland once. Of course, that won’t work in a Pep Guardiola team. After all, this is a manager who asked Sergio Aguero, with his highest goals/minute ratio in PL history, to alter his game if he wanted to play in his team.
Erling Haaland’s early games for Manchester City bought goals as everyone expected they would. However, questions remained about his overall impact on the team. Pep Guardiola swung between two extremes. Sometimes, he would say the team is not doing enough to get Haaland involved. Other times, it felt like Haaland needed to do more and expand his game instead of just taking off from the last defender’s shoulder every time City had the ball.
Sure enough, with more time spent in Pep Guardiola’s “lab of strikers”, Erling Haaland started showing different facets of his game. He started coming in deep to link-up play. Whether it be one-touch layoffs, one-two passes to free a man in the middle, or holding up the ball to bring others into play, Haaland improved rapidly.
It had a direct effect on the whole team. No longer did they need to abandon their possession principles to play ill-advised, high-risk passes to Erling Haaland. Now, the Norwegian was facilitating the same positional play people thought he would hinder. Defenders were bamboozled as they regularly got dragged out of position by Haaland coming deep. It gave space for City’s midfielders to break past the last man and finish chances.
Haaland had transformed into a “Complete Forward”, as intelligent in his positional play as clinical as he is when presented with chances. Guardiola needed time to work with him, but a new and improved “Erling Haaland Mk II” has arrived. Treble might just be the start of this dynasty.