The Inquest: How do you solve a problem like Guardiola?

In the midst of just how shite our season’s been, it has been difficult to remember that we have actually made it to a cup final, which is pretty good, considering we had to beat Chelsea in the semis. Yes, it is the League Cup (ok the Carabao Cup, but who can be bothered with keeping up with the sponsors?), but it’s still a proper trophy. It would have been nice to be in a position to land the FA Cup, which has a bit more respectability, but since we bollixed that one already, this is all we’ve got a chance to win domestically, so we really should make it count.
For City as well, this is a chance for Guardiola to get himself a first bit of silverware in England, and given they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Wigan last weekend, they’ll also be looking to this final to get a domestic cup under their belt. The league title may be all but wrapped up this season for them, but that’s unlikely to satisfy the Catalan, who will be looking to make up for his failure to win anything in his first season with the Abu Dhabi-backed club.
So, who’s the favourite to win this game? Just kidding, that’s not really a question. City are 16 points clear at the top of the league, have lost a grand total of 2 games this season, and score goals for fun. All the while playing some beautiful football, keeping possession but also using it well, Kevin De Bruyne-powered engine purring smoothly like a top of the line Rolls Royce. Arsenal, on the other hand have resembled a poorly built bullock cart, with only one sickly donkey instead of a bullock pulling it, a rotten board to sit on that keeps crumbling and dumping the driver on his arse, axles made of a couple of strands of greasy hair, and square wheels that keep falling off. 27 points off City, 7 points off fifth place, 8 points off the top 4, recently thrashed by Spurs (even though the scoreline was only 1-0) and having just lost to Oestersunds FK, a team that’s been around for less time than Wenger has been in charge, at the Emirates in the Europa League (though somehow through to the next round).

1. Squeeze Aguero and De Bruyne

Still, all isn’t lost. Yes, we lost 3-1 to them earlier in the season and were easily outplayed by them, but they’re not infallible. Interestingly, both that game and their loss to Wigan highlighted one of their faults – apart from Sergio Aguero, they can be a bit profligate. That’s a difficult thing to say with a straight face given they’ve scored more goals than Pele this season, but it’s true – they can sometimes fail to take advantage of the chances they create. Against us, they wasted several gilt-edged chances to score and ended up scoring their 2nd and 3rd only because of terrible mistakes. Against Wigan they had nearly 27 shots but scored none. Against Liverpool, the only team to beat them in the league this season, they wasted several chances to score before Klopp’s side blitzed them, pulled two back and then missed a glorious late chance to equalise.
This profligacy unfortunately doesn’t mean that they don’t score goals, it means that we need to consider how we can utilise this against them. The key is the fact their other players apart from Aguero aren’t the most efficient finishers. So if we can find a way to stop the ball from getting to Aguero in good positions, we can stem the tide. Doing that is of course not as simple as just man-marking him – the Argentinean is an expert at finding space, so he has to be tracked with great efficiency and diligence. We also need to cut off the supply line to him, which means stopping Kevin De Bruyne. To try and achieve both these things, we need to look to use the same tactics we used to stifle Eden Hazard in the semi-final. To do this, we will need to play Mohamed Elneny in the same DM/centre-back/sweeper hybrid role that worked so well for us then. He will need to man-mark Aguero, while positioning himself as part of a back 3, then stepping into midfield when we have the ball to assist the central midfielders. This should hopefully compress the space for the Belgian, who’s been amazing this season, and allow our more defensively minded midfielders deal with his threat.

2. Use Aubameyang’s pace to defend our left wing

The combination play of centre-forward with a creative midfielder positioned deeper has been one of Guardiola’s go-to strategies throughout his managerial career (Messi-Iniesta at Barcelona, Lewandowski-Thiago at Bayern, now Aguero-KDB) but it’s not the only one. Another key feature for him has always been width, using quality wingers who hug the touchline to create space for the midfield, and who then come into the inside wing channels with full-backs bombing forward. At City, he has one of the best offensive full-backs in the business at right-back in Kyle Walker, who supports Sane or Sterling playing further ahead of him.
If we want to keep danger from that wing to a minimum, we have to stop Walker from getting up in support of the wide forward, and that’s where I think we can find a way to do so without having to over-commit to defence. Instead of getting our left winger to keep dropping deep to help stop Walker, I suggest we play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang there, and instruct him to position himself wide on the left making runs in behind as often as possible. This will force Walker to sit a bit deeper, which means we can stifle their wide forward on that flank more easily, and if he does push up, we can look to win the ball and play a quick ball into that area to set him going.

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3. Welbeck in the middle to press Fernandinho/Gundogan

If we put Auba wide, the obvious question becomes: who plays in the middle? I am after all suggesting we go with a 4-3-3/3-4-2-1 hybrid, in case that’s not been clear so far. The solution is Danny Welbeck, which I know will seem daft to many, but which is based on clear logic. You see, Welbeck is pretty terrible at finishing. But he is brilliant at running and pressing. While this may have seemed the obvious thing to use on our left wing to help defend against the overlaps there, the danger is that this would leave us with less bodies in attack, which we know we’ll get less opportunities to utilise. It also leaves the other key piece of a Guardiola side to operate without worries: the defensive midfielder.
It’s easy to overlook this position in a Guardiola side, but it is fact essential: the man who brings the ball out from the centre-backs, rotates it among the more creative central midfielders, cycles it to the full-backs and positions himself in the right place to cut out attacks. Busquets was the master of this at Barcelona, and Xabi Alonso took up the role at Bayern. At City, it’s Fernandinho who generally does the job, though Gundogan sometimes takes it on as well. Both have the attributes to play this position brilliantly, and doing so will allow City to tick. This is what we must stop from happening. And that’s where Welbeck’s hard running comes in. Instead of playing up among the centre-backs, the English no. 23 needs to press and harry Fernandinho, and stop him from setting the rhythm for City. This won’t stop them entirely – either of KDB or Silva will drop in to help address this, but that then frees up our midfield and allows them to use the ball better, and have more breathing room to defend Sky Blue attacks.

4. Ozil and Bellerin must combine to exploit City’s 3rd-choice left back

The one weakness of this City team that has to be exploited ruthlessly is their problems at left-back. First-choice Benjamin Mendy is injured and won’t be available, and Fabian Delph, who has been an able replacement, is suspended for this game because of his red card against Wigan. This means that either Danilo will fill in there, or maybe someone from the youth team. One other possibility is for Fernandinho to play on the right, and Walker on the left, but I’d be surprised to see this happen.
Which means that we will be up against someone who isn’t best suited to that role on the left side of the defence. Which means we have to use that space, with Ozil to provide trickery and vision, and Bellerin to make his trademark runs down the right hand channel to offer pace and width. the resulting space on the right will need to be filled by one our midfielders, which is tricky. I’d have suggested Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but the yougnster had a pretty terrible game against Oestersunds in the first half. Of course, Granit Xhaka was no better when he came on in the second – after snapping into a few challenges early on and a couple of dinked forward passes, he became his usual useless self – so this will be risky. One other option will be to try out playing either of Monreal or Kolasinac alongside Wilshere, but I’d be quite surprised if this happens.
Whoever does play there, they’re going to need to be switched on. And Ozil will need to do better than he did against Spurs, dropping deep into midfield to help get the ball around City’s wizards, and spraying the right passes to Bellerin on the overlap, or Aubameyang down the left wing.
Some of these suggestions are risky, but we know City are going to do well against us anyway. If we play our cards right this way, on the other hand, we may be able to tackle their strengths in ways they don’t expect, while also not sacrificing our ability to get forward, which could jsut get us the win we so desperately need.

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