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How to counter Pep Guardiola's tiki-taka football

Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola
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Modified 24 Apr 2020, 23:59 IST
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Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola needs no introduction; he is the man who won it all with Barcelona. Guardiola was probably destined to manage one of the greatest club sides of all time at Camp Nou, having been a part of Johann Cruyff’s dream team.

After winning 14 trophies in four successful seasons at the Catalan club, Guardiola arrived in Germany to join Bayern Munich. Success followed him at the Allianz Arena too, where he won seven trophies in three seasons at the club. Guardiola's Midas touch continued at Manchester City as well, where his team became the first to garner 100 points in a Premier League season, but is still chasing its maiden European title.

However, while he continues to run his team’s juggernaut, occasionally his teams have had to face opponents that have disrupted his side's winning streak. In this piece, we look at the common thread that binds the teams that have overcome Guardiola’s system more than once.

Many Opponents, One Strategy

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Real Madrid v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Semi Final
Real Madrid v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Semi Final

Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers– this is an exclusive list of teams that have tormented Guardiola’s sides time and again. While the Spanish and German teams were at their full might, the names of Crystal Palace, Wolves, and even Manchester United may look surprising in the list. However, one common factor binds all these teams together, and that is their width.

Whichever teams Guardiola managed, tiki-taka remained an integral part of his playing style. A style synonymous to the Spaniard’s name, tiki-taka looks almost unbeatable. Well, only till it faces opponents that possess speedy wingers and can trigger quick counter-attacks.

Look at this one particular encounter between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League season. In the first leg of the semi-final, Guardiola fielded 4-1-4-1 setup against Real Madrid’s 4-3-3. The idea was to outnumber Madrid’s three-person midfield. The plan didn’t work, and Real Madrid edged 1-0.

In the second leg, Guardiola set up his team 4-2-3-1, with an attacking intent, operating the double pivot of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, and the trio of Arjen Robben-Thomas Muller-Franck Ribery in front of the duo. Ancelotti’s Real Madrid continued with their 4-3-3 formation.

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Xabi Alonso played as the regista, with Luka Modric and Angel di Maria in front of him. Knowing the Bayern threat, Madrid defended horizontally, with Alonso adding up as an extra man in defence. During attacks, Modric forged a partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo, and Di Maria formed one with Gareth Bale. To support the quartet in the attack, Fabio Coentrao and Dani Carvajal rushed forward occasionally. The result was a devastating one for Guardiola's men – Ronaldo and Ramos demolished Bayern 4-0 in their backyard.

Different League, Same Story

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Liverpool vs Manchester City 2017/18
Liverpool vs Manchester City 2017/18

After seeing out his contract at Bayern Munich, Guardiola arrived on the blue side of Manchester in a bid to win the club’s first European trophy. The Sheikhs' cheque book was at the Spaniard’s mercy. Guardiola pointed at the player of his choice, and the Sheikhs bought him at mind-boggling price tags. While the first Premier League season was a learning curve for the Spaniard, he marauded all his opponents in the league, except Guardiola’s arch-rival from the Bundesliga, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Liverpool were eager to avenge their 5-0 loss to City earlier in the season, while for the Cityzens, 'The Invincibles' tag was at stake. Liverpool started with their 4-3-3 template that defensively organised into a 4-5-1. Georginio Wijnaldum’s interception and closing the gaps was at its peak. At the same time, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, who was playing as the midfield battery, showed great lungs to supply the ball to the front trio.

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Manchester City vs Liverpool 2017/18
Manchester City vs Liverpool 2017/18

On the other hand, Guardiola's City had a flexible formation. They started with a 4-3-3, with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in advanced positions. While defending, this formation turned into a 4-1-4-1, with Fernandinho covering the defence, and the Sane-Sterling duo getting onto their back foot. However, the game was defined by the midfield. Roberto Firmino kept marking Fernandinho while the latter was defending. The pairings of Wijnaldum-Mane and Salah-Ox hunted the City defenders in pair every time Ederson resumed the game with short passes.

Manchester City’s style of play demands more possession, and this is where Klopp’s Liverpool hurt them the most. The game was clearly defined in the middle third of the pitch. By closing gaps in the middle, Emre Can being instrumental here, Liverpool regained their lost possession, and capitalised to win the tie 4-3.

Hot Spur, Cold City

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Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg
Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg

One of the epic quarter-final clashes in Champions League history happened in the 2018/19 season when Tottenham Hotspur took on quadruple-chasing Manchester City.

By now, Guardiola had settled on to 4-3-3 as his preferred formation, where Bernardo Silva took City to a different level in terms of attack, pressing tiki-taka, and exploiting Guardiola’s 6-second rule while recovering the ball.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino decided to catch City on the break by fielding a 4-2-3-1. Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko covered the back four. Son Heung-Min led the Spurs attack in Harry Kane’s absence. Dele Alli was deployed on the right, Lucas Moura on the left, with Eriksen taking over the no.10 role. The Spurs formation was an open challenge to Guardiola’s full-backs. One mistake and the pace merchants, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-Min, were ready to hurt the City defence.

Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg
Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg

After bringing in Fernando Llorente in place of Sissoko, Pochettino tweaked the formation to 4-1-4-1. Lucas Moura and Son Min exhibited tremendous work rate to trouble the City backline. In the end, despite the goal-line technology drama, even though City won the battle 4-3, Spurs won the war, advancing on away goals, thanks to Llorente's deciding goal.

Lesser Opponent, Bigger Blow

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Manchester City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League
Manchester City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League

While Real Madrid, Liverpool and Spurs were indeed tougher opponents for Guardiola’s Bayern and Manchester City, one wouldn’t expect Crystal Palace or Wolverhampton Wanderers to pose the same threat to the Spaniard's team. However, the story remained the same.

At Palace, Wilfred Zaha, Andros Townsend and Jason Puncheon played similar tricks with the City defence. This season, in the Wolves vs Manchester City clash, Adama Traore proved to be more than enough for the City defence. However, midfield masters like Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves played their part too. Raul Jimenez, playing as the lone striker also made sure the City centre backs wandered out of position while chasing them, paving a clear way for Adama Traore.

Even Chelsea under Antonio Conte did the same to Manchester City in the 2016/17 season. Pedro and Eden Hazard played fabulous overlapping football with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses to demolish Manchester City under Guardiola.

The chink in the armour?

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Crystal Palace v Manchester City - Premier League
Crystal Palace v Manchester City - Premier League
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Pep Guardiola mastered the total football under Johann Cruyff during his playing days. Over time, he evolved the style into his unique tiki-taka that took the football world by storm. The technique looked indomitable at Camp Nou, solid at Bayern Munich, but as they say in football, no formation, no strategy is ever full-proof.

Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing at Borussia Dortmund showed the world that Pep Guardiola's tiki-taka could be contained. However, Ancelotti’s Real Madrid and Klopp’s Liverpool proved that expanding the field while attacking, and shrinking it while defending, can get the better of Guardiola’s team.

Although this in no way undermines the tactical genius that Pep Guardiola is, the Spaniard needs to come up quickly with a remedy to treat the problem. Or else modern football fans have seen how rivals dismantled Jose Mourinho’s Park the Bus tactics to render them outdated. 

Published 23 Apr 2020, 03:49 IST
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