Football Features

Will Pep Guardiola’s “Wenger gambit” help Man City see off Gladbach en route to European glory?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 10:00, 24 February 2021 | Updated: 12:37, 4 November 2022

Manchester City head into their round-of-16 clash with Borussia Monchengladbach full of hope that this might finally be the year that they claim Champions League glory.

City have been questing for Europe’s top prize for the last decade but have never really come close, which has been especially surprising given the sustained brilliance they have shown under Pep Guardiola’s management.

However, the Sky Blues have always found a way to shoot themselves in the foot, like against Liverpool, or Spurs, or even Lyon last year. It’s been baffling to watch such a brilliant side behave so badly. But there is every chance that 2020/21 could actually be their year. Why? because now they’ve started doing something differently: defending.

And their defending is the main reason behind City being favourites to win the Champions League this season, with Sky Bet offering 11/4 for them to go all the way, ahead of Bayern Munich (10/3) and Paris Saint-Germain (5/1). For this particular tie, Man City are 1/20 with get past Gladbach and reach the quarter-finals.

Pep’s “Wenger Gambit”

In 2005/06, Arsene Wenger wanted to win the Champions League. However, his Arsenal side were far from their Invincible peak two years prior and his young generation built around Cesc Fabregas weren’t quite ready to emerge. He also had injuries running through his side.

So, Wenger compromised on his usual attacking approach to play a solid, defensive game built around counter-attacking. As a result, Arsenal made it all the way to the final, keeping 10 consecutive clean sheets, only to be undone in the last 15 minutes of the Parisian showpiece by Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona. Losing that final sent Wenger into a fit of idealism that would define his final decade in charge of Arsenal.

Pep Guardiola appears to have struck a similar gambit to Wenger in order to claim Europe’s top prize. It’s not that City aren’t still an attacking side, they are, but they are also much more preoccupied with defending.

Man City’s defensive actions this season per member of their back-line

Gone are the “free 8’s” in midfield, where Guardiola would play two attacking midfielders next to one holder. Now he plays a more orthodox combination of a 6, 8 and 10 (usually Rodri, Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne) which provides a much greater defensive balance as well as control over the match’s tempo.

Ruben Dias has come into defence like the prime Vincent Kompany that Guardiola has longed to have. Dias is athletic, technical, tactically aware and a solid communicator. The impact he’s had on the back-line has been so profound he’s got John Stones playing at his pre-2018 World Cup levels once again.

Compare City 2020/21 to previous three seasons and even though they’ve only played 31 matches across the Premier League and Champions League (compared to 48 in 2017/18 and 2018/19 plus 47 in 2019/20) they’re close to their clean sheet totals from those seasons already.

Pep’s men have shut out the opponents 20 times already, just three off their best (in 2018/19). They’ve also conceded just 16 goals when their previous best defensive record was 39 conceded. In fact when you look at their stats on a per-match basis, City are crushing it.

0.65 clean sheets per-match and just 0.52 goals conceded per-match demolishes anything they had achieved previously and even their Expected Goals on Target Conceded at 0.64 is better than anything they’d done before. They’ve made just one error leading to a goal.

Conversely, their attacking numbers have never been lower, but they’re still good enough for what City need. With the exception of Bayern Munich last year (who benefited from single-legged ties taking place over a couple weeks where their momentum carried them through), no team has won the Champions League without having a solid defence.

No one has accidentally scored their way to success this century; Monaco tried in 2017 and got deaded in the semi-finals by Juventus. Even the biggest flukes in the competition’s recent history: Chelsea 2012 and Liverpool 2005 were built on strong defensive showings. And then, of course, Arsenal came so close to glory despite playing Mathieu Flamini at left-back.

To win the Champions League, you need to be able to defend. That is something Manchester City finally seem to have learned, but will Pep Guardiola’s “Wenger gambit” result in European Glory come May? Only time will tell.


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