From Barcelona to Bayern Munich to Manchester City, Pep Guardiola’s tactic have evolved football over the past decade. His key principles are rooted in ‘The Barcelona Way” possession, fluidity, and numerical advantages. His teams let the ball do the hard work and this has provided much success over the years, winning numerous Champions Leagues, League Titles and Domestic Cups. Today we will make an attempt at recreating Guardiola’s tactics in FM21.
There is a common thread throughout his teams. We will try to explore those ideas in this article and how we can apply these philosophies to our own teams in Football Manager.
It should be noted, there would probably not be the manager Pep Guardiola today without Johan Cruyff. Pep was a key component in Cruyff’s Barcelona. He acted as a libero, often playing as a defensive midfielder in a 3-4-3 formation, or as a central defender in a 4-3-3. Pep was vital in Barcelona’s build up though, bringing the ball out of defense to start Barcelona’s build up play. We can see this type of player in Pep’s teams as well, with Yaya Toure, Sergio Busquets, Fernandinho and Rodri being the prime examples.
I loved this breakdown of Cruyff’s tactics by his son Jordi on Youtube. He was also part of those Barcelona teams.
At Pep’s Barcelona, they had great wing backs in Dani Alves and Eric Abidal. The idea of a wing back was relatively new at the time (possibly starting back in the mid-nineties with Roberto Carlos at Inter) and possession was key in this team. Their numerical advantage in the midfield was almost unbeatable at the time with Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Yaya Toure and Sergio Busquets controlling possession in the center of the park.
Their best players were down the middle and the focal point was Lionel Messi as a False Nine. Messi also was often a Deep Lying Centre Forward who could roam out wide and pull defenders out to unlock his attacking teammates to tear apart the opposition. The attacking players, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Pedro, and Alexis Sanchez, often dragged the opposing full backs wide and made high quality cut backs to Messi and Iniesta arriving in the box on the attack.
Messi also pushed wide to join the wingers, and Adibal would stay narrow to cover Messi’s vacant space in the center. When David Villa arrived at Barcelona we would sometimes see he and Messi swapping positions creating even more havoc for the opposition.
Possession was king for Barcelona, and Barcelona became the definition of Tiki-Taka in the early 2010s. This resulted in 2 Champions League titles in 2009 and 2011. 3 back-to-back La Liga Titles in 2009, 2010, and 2011. 2 Copa Del Reys in 2009 and 2012, and UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup victories in 2009 and 2011.
Moving to Bayern Munich in 2013, Pep brought his philosophies with him of course. This time using inverted Wing Backs in David Alaba and Philipp Lahm. The fluidity was evident again with players often swapping positions and keeping their opponents guessing. He continued isolating the wingers with the opposing full backs but also would press with his own Wing Backs and the opposing full backs.
The Wing Backs tucked inside with more skill in possession, and this allowed the midfielders to push further forward. Thiago would drop deep from an advanced central position when needed also to create a numerical advantage in the midfield with the inverted wing backs. Often you would see the Wing Backs high up the pitch making runs as well, looking for cut backs and crosses in to the lethal Robert Lewandowski, Franck Ribery, Thomas Mueller and Arjen Robben.
At Bayern, Pep took 3 Bundesliga titles in 2014, 2015, and 2016. 2 DfB Pokals in 2014 and 2016, a UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup in 2013.
In 2016 Pep moved to Manchester City. He realized quickly that teams often deployed two forwards in England against his normal back four which at times could expose his center halves. With that in mind, Pep would sometimes switch to a back three. With John Stones, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi. The wing backs transitioning from wide positions to central positions depending on the opposition.
Not always deploying his inverted wing backs, he would adjust game by game. The wing backs would provide support to the wingers in attack rather than isolating against them 1 v 1, often operating in the half spaces.
The central midfielders operated wide more often and one would drop back. Often Fernandinho or Rodri, countering the long ball tactics in England with an additional defender in the back three. Joao Cancelo would often be operating in the midfield also and Kyle Walker getting even further forward supporting the Right Winger just like Lahm did at Bayern.
City this Season
Another fascinating characteristic of City we’ve seen in the 20/21 season is their amazing fluidity. They can line up against teams with seemingly a strikerless formation, in the absence of Sergio Aguero due to injury. Kevin De Bruyne has lined up as the False Nine. However, throughout the games he has swapped positions with Bernardo Silva back and forth. He would be operating as the centre forward, central midfielder, while supporting the play on the right and left hand side all in the same game. He is literally everywhere on the pitch, and everyone in the team is tactically aware enough to fill any vacant space he leaves.
At Man City so far, Pep has won 2 Premier League titles in 2018 and 2019 (possibly another one in 2021). An FA Cup in 2019. 3 EFL Cups in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and 2 Community Shields in 2018 and 2019. He likes winning doesn’t he? Man City are also currently challenging for the 2021 Champions League, and have a very good chance to walk away with their first European Title.
Let’s try recreating Guardiola’s tactics in FM21. You can do this with any teams as long as you have the right types of players, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s try this with Manchester City.
Recreating Guardiola’s Tactics in FM21
Recreating Guardiola’s tactics in FM21 isn’t easy. In Defense we have some options, Pep normally goes with 4 or 3 at the back depending on the opposition. It’s all about the numerical advantages. Using Manchester City as an example with the clever use of roles we can bring the fluidity and build up play to our defense. Intelligence, positioning and skill on the ball is key for the players in these scenarios.
Let’s start with the 4-3-3.
Starting with the Goalkeeper we need someone confident on the ball and passing ability. Obviously Ederson has that in spades for City. With his role set to Sweeper Keeper on Attack duty, he will looks to intercept passes, dribble a little and look to set his teammates free with counter attack direct passing.
With the centre backs we have a few options. Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and Eric Garcia. When using 4 at the back, we ideally want a Ball Playing Defender or Libero and a more traditional Central defender role. I tend to lean towards the partnership of John Stones and Ruben Dias, but Aymeric Laporte is another excellent option. Looking at their attributes, these players are so good, and they are nearly interchangeable.
Another thing to note, with the rule change about goal kicks now being allowed to be passed inside the box, has changed how teams can start their build up play. They can now distribute to a central defender inside the box so this could cause the pressing opposition to commit another man forward. This creating a numerical advantage in the midfield in transition for City.
With the full backs lately, we’ve seen Pep use inverted wing backs at Bayern and City rather than the flying wing backs of his time at Barcelona. The idea with the inversion being to create numerical advantages in the midfield and attacking areas. Providing support as well as attacking options.
So to replicate this I’ve got two inverted wing backs, one on attack and one on support duty. The supporting wing back should slot into midfield and provide support alongside the defensive midfielder to cover the area. Also to provide an additional passing option to draw out the opposition with short passes. The attacking inverted wing back can dribble and make runs forward through the channels between the opposition full back and central defender. So you want speed and skill in this position to be an attacking threat and often a decoy to drag opposition defenders out of position to free up your other attacking teammates.
Inverted Wing Backs
Joao Cancelo is my main man on the left hand side, he’s currently set to the support role, but could easily play the attacking role. I think flexibility is key in how this squad is composed. Multiple players can play in multiple positions.
Kyle Walker on the opposite side can do either job as well. In this formation though, I have him making runs forward between the channels as an Inverted Wing Back on Attack.
We’ve got a couple capable back ups as well in Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Zinchenko is a very versatile player who can play nearly anywhere, Mendy is more of a pure full back or wing back who can slot in at any moment.
Depending on the opposition having one or two attackers pressing the centre backs, the Defensive midfielder or full back drops in to form a back 3. This opens up the possibility of the 3-4-3 tactic, but for this breakdown I will focus on the 4-3-3.
In transition from defense to attack, the defensive midfielders drop between the centre backs to receive the ball in the build up. This is difficult to replicate exactly with a back 4 formation. The ideal role to me for the defensive midfielder in the 4-3-3 is a Deep Lying Playmaker on Support. They often sit ahead of the centre halves in the build up. So potentially you may want to have the more defensive Wing Back on a defend duty if you start to notice the opposition exploiting the space in behind. Rodri and Fernandinho are both ideal players for this position.
The engine of the team is the midfield. Ahead of the defensive midfielder I have Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden or Ilkay Gundogan. One role for me must be a Box to Box Midfielder on Support. A player to support the attack and defense in the midfielder and create another link between them. This one is currently assigned to Gundogan, but pretty much any of the central midfielders can fill this role. The other position is a little more tricky, I tried a few different roles for De Bruyne on the right side. I think I’ve landed on a Mezzala on Attack. With De Bruyne though, he has so much creative quality, that you want him to be as free as possible, so a specific instruction is to Roam from Position.
Silva staying high up the pitch and De Bruyne dropping deep into a midfield three often creates a numerical advantage for City in transition. De Bruyne in this scenario can act like a Mezzala on attack or support depending on the opposition. He can still join the attack in the final third creating another numerical advantage high up the pitch. The midfielders can also drift out wide to support the wingers in attack, create another numerical advantage against the opposing full backs.
In Attack we have a few options, notably when starting as City, Sergio Aguero is injured long term. In his absence I’ve drafted in Gabriel Jesus.
Ideally what we want from the Centre Forward role is a Deep Lying Forward or False Nine. We want them to draw out the opposition defense, to allow space for his wider teammates to run into. Also to be available for cutback passes that he can score himself. Jesus is well suited to both roles.
On either side of the forward, we have Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva, with Riyad Mahrez and Ferran Torres on the bench. Four exceptionally talented players. Raheem operates on the left as an Inside Forward on Attack. Basically he is all out attack, doing very little defensively. He’s looking to dribble at defenders cut inside take shots and provide cutbacks to his teammates in the middle. Silva is a more complex winger.
As we explored earlier, he is working in synergy with Kevin De Bruyne. Swapping positions in the middle occasionally. He has the same Roam from Position player instruction, but I want to see him also running into the channels when the opportunity arises and getting forward more than Kevin. Also we want him doing similar cutback passes to Sterling only from the right side.
I think that might be enough for one article. I hope you’ve enjoy our journey into Recreating Guardiola’s Tactics in FM21, so tune into Part Two soon where I explore the 3-4-3 tactic.
The toughest part of recreating this in my opinion is recreating the fluidity in the team, the swapping of positions, and maintaining the balance. However, I hope this helps some of you understand how you can create this kind of possession-based, fluid type of tactic into your team. Remember to look for the right type of players you need to make this work. Because you can’t force a tactic on the wrong set of players. Set your players up to succeed and you will most likely be successful. Until next time!
Further information on recreating Guardiola’s tactics in FM21.
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