Many questioned Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City in 2016, fearing that the methods that had made him so successful in Spain and Germany would not work in England.
A fourth Premier League title in five seasons, confirmed by an incredible victory over Aston Villa on Sunday, puts that initial skepticism to rest. There is now widespread agreement that his approach has significantly altered football in the country.
A trip to a non-league game, a youth match, or even a five-a-side pitch in England used to guarantee to see a brand of football-focused solely on winning, with style being secondary.
However, this has changed, and Guardiola is arguably the primary reason for this. We live in different tactical times as a result of him.
Building from the back, being encouraged to be brave when going forward, and the ongoing ‘possession obsession’ are all visible traits. Not just among the elite, but all the way down the footballing pyramid to the youngest players.
Guardiola has, without a doubt, transformed football. What is less discussed is how English football has influenced him.
The methods developed at Barcelona and Bayern Munich have evolved and will continue to do so now that Erling Haaland has joined the club. That deal speaks volumes about how Manchester City’s manager has evolved his footballing vision over the last six years.
The arrival of the Norwegian is a sign that Guardiola is ready for the next chapter in what is quickly becoming a dynasty. The manager’s long-term future is uncertain, but he has enjoyed life in Manchester.
Despite arriving as arguably the pre-eminent coach of his generation, he has had to adapt to his new surroundings, and English football has forced him to reconsider some of his own beliefs.
He arrived certain that a central midfielder who was neither particularly strong nor overly physical could control a game and set the rhythm for his team. This is what he did with Xavi at Barcelona and Joshua Kimmich at Bayern.
However, he quickly discovered that approach did not work in the Premier League. In England, you need a central midfielder who can win aerial battles and 50-50 balls. Rodri is a good example of what he believes he requires.
Also, he expects his central midfielders to act as defenders when a center-back moves forward, so they must be physically fit to do so.
His perspective on refereeing is also well known; he believes English referees are far more lenient than their continental counterparts. This has also influenced his decision-making, as he believes it requires players who are physically larger and stronger to deal with it.
If you’re knocked down, you’d better get back up and ready to go because clashes aren’t as frequently rewarded with fouls as they are elsewhere.
Full-backs have been added to assist the central midfield, which he began using in Germany. English football has taught him that sometimes an extra midfielder is required, and that full-backs can help you take control of the central area of the pitch with the ball, as well as assist with second balls in central areas when you need to recover possession.
And then there’s something Guardiola was worried about, but is gradually realizing he must accept: that English football, full of high-octane emotion from the stands, is often played with a general lack of control, similar to two heavyweight boxers hitting each other in the knowledge that someone will go down, and that the one with the most quality will usually win.
Guardiola decided to let Joao Cancelo attack and stay high in the recent game against Newcastle, forcing his opponent Allan Saint-Maximin to drop deeper. This gave the Magpies winger the chance to attack the space left behind by Cancelo.
Punch after punch, hoping for City’s man to win the fight. He did it. Cancelo had an assist as the champions won 5-0. It is a strategy derived from years of Premier League experience.