Football Features

Pep Guardiola’s striker paradox, and the perfect man to solve it

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:45, 31 May 2021

Pep Guardiola lost the 2021 Champions League final, in part, because of an error in his team-selection.

The oft-parroted line is that a lack of a defensive midfielder cost him. Were Fernandinho or Rodri in the starting XI, then surely City would have triumphed? Now, perhaps this is true, but it wasn’t the selection error that cost Guardiola the game.

Sure, the goal they conceded looked bad. John Stones was out of position and not pressing at all, Oleksandr Zinchenko let Kai Havertz get goal side, and then Ederson mistimed his rush to comfort the German. And maybe if Fernandinho or Rodri were playing that goal doesn’t happen. But here’s the thing: letting in one goal shouldn’t be a death sentence for a club like Manchester City.

For the fourth season in a row, Manchester City were Premier League top scorers. Even though their tally of 83 was lower than previous years (they’ve topped 100 goals twice and bagged 95 the other time) they were still capable of scoring. So what changed?

Well for one, credit the opposition. Chelsea were a brilliant defensive force, so rigid in their positioning and disciplined in their pressing that City only managed to carve them open twice, and both occasions the Blues recovered to make last-second blocks and clearances (shoutout Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta). Chelsea made it hard for City.

But it shouldn’t have been that hard. City managed just seven shots in the game. Seven! They only hit the target once, and that was in the first-half. They never stretched Chelsea’s defence, nor posed any sort of interesting challenge to them. Not consistently. The Blues were able to hold them at arm’s length for the entire game, with no one even really posting any gaudy defensive numbers like Raul Albiol’s 10 clearances as Villarreal won the Europa League final against Manchester United.

And that brings us to Guardiola’s selection error: not playing a striker. Specifically, playing the woefully out-of-form Raheem Sterling over a striker, and then pushing Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne into a crowded central zone expecting them to work wonders.

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Now sure, Guardiola has gone strikerless most of the season in Europe; Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have just 415 minutes played between them in the Champions League, and for the most part, that approach has worked. But they also never faced a defence the calibre of Chelsea’s. Well except for Porto in the penultimate group game once they had hit their stride. A match that Aguero missed and Jesus only played 19 minutes in. A match that ended 0-0.

See, the whole point of playing a false nine is to pull defenders out of position, opening up space for runs beyond the striker. It also gives you an extra body in midfield to help dominate the ball there. It’s a great system and Pep has used it to great effect many times this season, not least in their Champions League wins over Borussia Dortmund and PSG in the quarter and semi-finals respectively.

The issue is, when you’re playing a team that has no interest in engaging you, the false nine ceases to be an effective weapon. Chelsea’s three centre-backs had no interest in leaving their positions to chase City’s false nines, nor did they even have to. The Chelsea midfield was so deep, their midfielders could pick up the false nines as City played a weird 4-2-4-0 formation, where Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva held the fort behind a band of four, consisting of Foden, Sterling, De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, but none of them were strikers.

Chelsea compressed space so well that the tactical gambit of the false nine fell at the first hurdle. These kind of opponents will always confound the false nine, which is why Barcelona (where Pep had established the false nine as a dominant tactic in the modern game) abandoned it and signed Luis Suarez in 2014. And why that same summer Guardiola’s Bayern Munich signed Robert Lewandowski as a genuine nine to replace Mario Gotze as a false nine.

Guardiola embraced the false nine this season as a way to give City added security in possession, but in the final, given the approach Chelsea were going to use (an approach that has already bested him twice this season, mind you) it was ridiculous of Guardiola to not start Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero to battle with the Blues back-line and be a constant presence in their box. That would draw the focus off Chelsea’s defence and create more space for his midfield runners. Moreover De Bruyne and Foden would do better playing from a deeper position with (some) space ahead of them to move into.

One could argue he didn’t think Aguero, plagued by injury all season and in his final game for the club, would be ready. And Jesus started just two Champions League games this season, so perhaps wouldn’t be sharp enough. But he had to take the risk, tactically it made no sense for him to play a false nine. That was the major error that cost him the Champions League.

Going forward, how can City avoid a repeat of this problem? Given that Aguero has left the club to join Barcelona on a free, he now only has Jesus and Liam Delap as strikers, and neither are proven goalscorers, the likes of which Aguero was at the club. You do wonder.

“We are not going to sign any striker, it’s impossible – we cannot afford it. It’s impossible. That’s not going to happen, no,” said Guardiola in April when quizzed on a new striker. “We have Gabriel and Ferran (Torres), who played incredible in this position this season. We have young players in the academy and we have played many times with a false nine.”

You can even understand Guardiola’s hesitance to sign a striker, to a degree. The Catalan adores the ability to control matches through possession, and having a striker does hamper that. Moreover the number of teams who can resist City as Chelsea did is quite small. Is it really worth a massive outlay for just a handful of games in a season?

The answer is yes. The answer is also: if you know where to look, you can get both. Back in 2014 Pep’s Bayern picked up Lewandowski, a striker who is both lethal in front of goal but also skilled enough on the ball that he can drop deep, link play and help his team dominate possession just the way Guardiola likes.

Now you can’t sign Lewandowski. He’s 32 ,and besides that, Bayern wouldn’t sell.

You can sign Harry Kane, though.

The Spurs star has spoken about his desire to leave Spurs and compete for trophies, and where better to do that than Manchester City? Sure, he won’t be cheap, but when you’re signing strikers why would you go for anything besides the very best you can find for what you need? Sure, Erling Haaland or Romelu Lukaku could bag goals in City’s side for days, but they’re very much strikers and would impact City’s ability to control games through possession, not by much, but by enough that a perfectionist like Guardiola would be bothered.

Kane meanwhile? Well this season he was both Premier League top scorer and top assister. And while most of his assists were a result of some superlative finishes from Son Heung-min, Kane’s ease at dropping into deeper positions to turn and play balls in behind to runners like the South Korean is exactly why he fits what City want perfectly.

Here’s someone who could basically play a false nine for most of the season, should Guardiola desire. He has the skill-set to do that, drop deep, creating overloads in midfield and then turning to play passes to runners in-behind.

But then in the big games against the brutal defences like Chelsea, he can push up and play as a regular nine, an orthodox centre-forward, and punish those teams that way. To be the presence in the box that will allow Manchester City to win games like the 2021 Champions League final and elevate themselves, as a club, to the pinnacle of the sport.