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As Catalonia was being swept up in the Johan Cruyff revolution in the early 1990s, an important distinction began appearing between Barcelona’s style of play and those being showcased elsewhere in Europe. While Italy enjoyed its dynamic catenaccio system, England continued to promote the “hard knocks” and aggressive style of Premiership play. But now Catalonia, too, could enter the fray with an innovative style of its own, and leading Johan Cruyff’s brigade on the pitch were Ronald Koeman, a versatile defender-midfielder, and Pep Guardiola, a holding midfielder who became the most important piece in Cruyff’s vision.
As Guardiola began to stake his place in Cruyff’s 1990s Barcelona squads, he couldn’t help but turn to the experienced Ronald Koeman, who was eight years his senior, for the tips and insights needed to flourish in Cruyff’s system. As Miguel Delaney wrote for EuroSport this past weekend, Guardiola’s probing queries were “very pointed and sophisticated questions” that scrutinized, dissected, and confirmed the very fundamental aspects of Cruyff’s system.
“He wanted to know everything,” Koeman has said. “More than any other player, he wanted to know about one-touch football, about positional play, one touch in small spaces. He loved the way Cruyff wanted to play with Barcelona.”
– Miguel Delaney, EuroSport, Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola: Two disciples of Johan Cruyff
Guardiola’s flurry of questions were natural, though, as that became most players’ first method of dissecting Cruyff’s genius. For instance, the Barcelona midfielder Eusebio was floored when Cruyff walked into the Barcelona dressing room in 1988 and drew out his system on the blackboard:
“He got a blackboard and drew three defenders, four midfielders, two out-and-out wingers and a centre-forward,” recalls Eusebio. “We looked at each other and said: ‘What the hell is this?!’ This was the era of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. We couldn’t believe how many attackers were in the team, and how few defenders. He single-handedly introduced a new way of playing football in Spain. It was a revolution.” The 3-4-3 – adapted from the 4-3-3 Cruyff played under Rinus Michels for Ajax and Holland in the 1970s – was born.
– Andrew Murray, FourFourTwo, How Johan Cruyff reinvented modern football at Barcelona
Once the victories began appearing, the players began believing in Cruyff’s system; however, critics in the media failed to understand the Dutchman when he boastfully proclaimed, “I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0,” whenever his 3-4-3 formation was criticized for its lack of reinforcements defensively. Many years later, Guardiola would turn heads when he implemented the same formation at the German juggernaut Bayern Munich, after his initial 4-1-4-1 formation sputtered in the wake of Toni Kroos’ departure to Real Madrid.
Koeman, in his two seasons at Southampton, strayed heavily from Cruyff’s 3-4-3 as he implemented a solid 4-2-3-1 in the south of England. Koeman’s formation was agreeable to change, however. When preserving a lead late into a match, Koeman was known for transitioning to a 4-4-2 or an ultra-defensive 4-5-1. If Saints were clambering for the victory, then Koeman would direct his players to a 4-3-3, which allows at least seven players to appear in the attack.
Guardiola used the 4-3-3 to great effect at Barcelona as his side collected virtually every trophy club football had to offer, and his move to Bayern saw him deploy varying formations. It could be said that at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola fully mastered Cruyff’s vision and actualized it and, at Bayern, he became an artist that could innovate on his own. Now at Manchester City, his main focus is to promulgate the revolution in a land that has rarely seen it before.
In a success story, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal side has deployed the 4-3-3 and short passing to great effect, and it has resulted in 19 consecutive seasons inside the top four of the Premier League table. On the flip side, in the 2011-2012 season, though Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea gained notoriety for playing like a mini-Barcelona, the Swans fell off rapidly, Rodgers moved on to Liverpool, and the magic hasn’t returned.
Therefore, the onus is now on Pep Guardiola to bring beautiful football and Juego de Posición to Manchester, and though the experiment started off brightly, City have failed to take off in recent weeks. Preceding the recent international break, City traveled to White Hart Lane and were handed a 2-0 beatdown by Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. Coming out of the international break, City were charged with taking on Koeman’s Everton side, which has been performing splendidly under Koeman.
City began in a 3-2-4-1 formation with Claudio Bravo in goal. Everton started the match in the famed 4-3-3, with wingers Yannick Bolasie and Gerard Deulofeu supporting striker Romelu Lukaku.
When City were on the attack, Everton employed tight pressing on the ball handler (Leroy Sané, in this case) while the defensive back four congregated in the box to keep penetrating crosses neutralized.
When City were in the transitional phase, Everton remained compact and reduced City’s ability to launch passes to the wings. Eight Everton men were seen at all times, and Koeman’s coaching meant they communicated well as a unit. What Everton lacked in creative playmaking, City possessed in swathes. Take David Silva’s navigation into the penalty box, for example:
Phil Jagielka, who had, up to that point in the match, posted a flawless defensive performance alongside Ashley Williams in the Everton defense, found himself being twisted 90,000 different ways as Silva twinkle-toed his way around tight spaces. Unfortunately for City fans, Kevin De Bruyne failed to capitalize on Silva’s hard-earned penalty, and the match remained in a 0-0 deadlock when it should’ve been City running away with the early lead and momentum.
When Everton was on the (counter)attack, City’s defending didn’t warrant the commitment of many players. For instance, notice how City only has five men defending as Gerard Deulofeu prepares to launch a cross towards Lukaku. Had this been Everton defending in their 4-3-3, around 35 yellow shirts would’ve appeared to defend.
In this situation, City is defending in a diagonal matter. If Deulofeu chooses not to cross the ball into the box, and decides to take on Otamendi one-on-one, then if Otamendi gets beaten, Fernandinho would step in and İlkay Gündoğan would rush to take over his vacated position. For safety reasons, Clichy would still remain latched onto Lukaku, and Stones would shepherd the back line.
Deulofeu’s dribbling did, in fact, leave Otamendi behind, and since Fernandinho did not close in aggressively enough, Deulofeu was able to fire in a valiant shot that tested Bravo for the first time in the match.
Everton’s defending kept them in the match, and their defensive efforts turned into an impressive counterattack as on-form Lukaku found the back of the net in the 64th minute.
City clearly failed to track back, and Guardiola’s high defensive line during City’s attacking stage meant they were incredibly vulnerable to a fast-paced counterattack. In the end, only Clichy was left to ward off Lukaku’s goalward intention, and that created a recipe for a moment of brilliance from the Belgian striker.
Sergio Agüero came on for Kelechi Iheanacho and immediately had an impact as he won yet another penalty for City after Jagielka’s second blunder in the penalty area.
Agüero would go on to miss the penalty kick, and critics began to question whether the Argentine should be awarded penalty opportunities in the wake of his recent struggles from the spot. Additionally, City, as a whole, has won eight penalties already this season, yet they’ve only converted on four of them. City’s staff writer, David Clayton, reported that Guardiola is “happy for the Argentine” to keep taking penalties, and Clayton backed up Guardiola’s reasoning as well:
The fact is, you only have to look at Lionel Messi who has missed 17 for Barcelona and has a success rate of 76% – yet do the Catalans take the penalty-taking duties away from him? Of course not. He scores at a rate of three in every four he takes and Sergio will score more than he misses – therefore, the risk is worthwhile.
– David Clayton, Manchester City, Talking Points: Silva Shining Brightly
Fortunately, David Silva, who put in an impressive shift on Saturday for City, came through in the 72nd minute as he crossed a beautiful ball onto Nolito’s head to foil the brilliant Maarten Stekelenburg for the first time on the day.
City and Guardiola ended the match by giving credit to Everton’s steely resolve and fantastic defensive display, yet it was apparent that Pep and the boys felt they should’ve came away with all three points. The Citizens played some remarkable football and their best chances were jettisoned away thanks to a Man of the Match performance from Stekelenburg. With City traveling to Guardiola’s former stomping grounds midweek for a Champion’s League tie against Barcelona, a win against Everton was supposed to be inevitable; a much-needed confidence booster, if you will. Now a draw, let alone a win, at the Nou Camp seems like a Herculean task for a team equipped to make the Herculean seem the norm.