Pick up any modern football book that’s in a bookstore or one that pops up when you google best books on football — it could be an autobiography, something on data analytics or tactics — and you’re likely to find the author eulogizing about Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side at some point. There’s the odd one that detests the reverence but for the most part, people seemed to like that team. If they didn’t like them, they at least admired them.
There’s still a lot to admire about Guardiola’s sides but the romantic adjectives are confined to those affiliated with sky blue. If you had to highlight the most recognizable tactical features of that Barcelona side, it’d be:
a) The six-second rule, where players were expected to recover the ball six seconds after losing possession of the ball.
b) Outnumbering the opponent in every zone.
Here’s a little passing network from the famous game at Wembley:
This isn’t the sort of passing network you’d see from Guardiola’s more recent sides. It’s not just how congested the midfield is but the number of players he throws forward. He’s essentially expecting the three forwards, that great midfield duo and Dani Alves to all contribute in the attacking third.
With most top teams in the Premier League, including Manchester City, using some variation of the W-M or pyramid formation in possession these days, you’ve got players occupying the five vertical zones and occasionally throwing the extra body when required.
Teams like Bayern Munich and Ajax are, perhaps, the only two sides in Europe in recent years who have thrown over five attacking players regularly because there’s a great difference in quality between the players they have and the rest of the teams in the domestic league.
The features mentioned earlier are still present in Guardiola’s sides but if you had to pick out the most identifiable tactical facets of his recent sides, it’d be his focus on preventing counterattacks.
Again, this was present in that Barcelona side but it’s more overt now and has sullied his reputation as this orchestrator of state-of-the-art football. His teams still score a lot of goals and get a lot of points but there’s a difference. It’s like when film directors that once brought something new to the table are compelled into making bland biopics. They still secure the big awards and are technically maybe even better at their craft, but some of that imagination and artistry that drew the masses to their films is lacking.
This brings us to the subject of this piece, 23-year-old Marc Cucurella, who joined Barcelona’s legendary academy, La Masia, as a 14-year-old after that great era. He’s been linked with a move to Guardiola’s Manchester City side.
Three things could happen here:
a) He ends up like Nolito, Claudio Bravo and Nathan Ake. Just making up the numbers and triggering existential questions about the Premier League’s competitive balance.
b) He becomes emblematic of Guardiola’s fixation with derailing counterattacks. This, on the face of it, looks quite likely.
c) He allows Guardiola to throw an extra body forward with regularity. This is what I hope to explain.
We’re going to look at how he could help Guardiola achieve Plan B before making a case for Plan C.
Two nights in London
Cucurella’s development from a disruptive winger at Getafe under José Bordalás to a marauding wing-back under Graham Potter has been expertly covered by Sam Gustafson (@GoalAnalysis) in this piece.
Guardiola’s never really asked his full backs to bomb up and down the touchline since the days of Dani Alves. The only time he’s considered it since his Barcelona days was when he purchased Benjamin Mendy from Monaco in 2017.
Now, Kyle Walker in his final season at Spurs did play as a wing-back on many occasions.
His heat map looked a bit like this in 2016/17:
In fact, when that Spurs side met City later that year, Walker was doing something like this:
But that’s not the role that was demanded of him by Guardiola and no one other than Guardiola could’ve possibly envisioned Walker in the role that he was set to play for the coming years.
Walker’s explained the changes quite well in this video for Sky Sports; how tucking in as an inverted full-back is different to playing wing-back and as a right-sided centre-back in a three.
In the former, you get a clearer picture of what’s in front of you and in the latter, you get a lot of space. As an inverted full-back, you’re expected to be a short passing option for players around you and provide protection to your forward players when they lose the ball. You’ll still be expected to perform regular full-back functions but this is the bulk of it.
Today, Walker’s heat map looks a bit like this:
It’s quite hot in the middle. If we look at Cucurella’s heat map from last season, it doesn’t look that different to Walker’s last season for Spurs.
Here it is:
But unlike Walker at Spurs, we’ve already got a little teaser of how Cucurella might be capable of this when Brighton faced Antonio Conte’s Spurs last season in a FA Cup tie in February and a league game in April.
The Spaniard was nominally playing as the left centre-back in a back 3, shifting from his usual left wing-back spot. On the outset, it seemed like he was going to be tasked with the sort of sweeping job Kyle Walker or Virgil van Dijk have been tasked with at their clubs but on a closer watch, he was actually tasked with this aggressive man-marking job on Lucas Moura.
Here’s an example of that:
By aggressive, I mean really aggressive.
Liverpool don’t use a man-marking pressing system but this is maybe the difference between what Liverpool’s assistant coach, Pep Ljinders, refers to as chasing and pressing.
Switch the perm for a man-bun, the blue kit for white one and he’d be chasing his way to what was once Marcelo Bielsa’s office at Elland Road.
In the build-up phase, he was often asked to stick to a wider position:
That’s not really where we want the left-sided Kyle Walker equivalent to be.
However, in the progressive phase of Brighton’s attacks, he was taking up the positions a Walker clone would and playing cute little passes like this:
The seagulls were a bit unfortunate to go two goals down in the first half and Graham Potter moved Cucurrella back to a wider role in the second half but it didn’t stop him from continuing the experiment with the Spaniard in their next meeting at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium.
Two months later, Cucurella was doing more of the left centre-back things that we’ve come to expect from left centre-backs.
He wasn’t as wide in build-up anymore.
He was also receiving passes in the area Kyle Walker talks about in the Sky Sports video:
And then progressing play from that half-back area:
[Note: If you’re reading this on an email, the letter’s probably come to an end. Click on the substack link to read the rest.]
Defensively, we also witnessed some of the quotidian tasks that the likes of Walker take part in.
Here’s a little bit of recovering:
Just making sure Kulusevski gets no time to set himself up:
Kulusevki’s clearly a bit peeved and fortunate to still be on after 27 minutes:
For a guy who enjoys suffering, Kulusevski seemed really agitated all half. He was eventually taken off the firing line and onto the bench, where he could suffer in silence.
Even when Kulusevski got a yard, Cucurella was able to clean up:
He could still work on a few things:
Gets beaten for pace here:
But on the whole, he looks the real deal.
We’ve now got an idea of Cucurella as a player. He’s capable of various defensive tasks and capable of doing them at a high level. But we don’t want him to be Kyle Walker. We want him to be more.
Open the floodgates
It’s not like Guardiola hasn’t tried to throw more attacking players into the mix. It’s just that players who might’ve seemed capable of taking on attacking and defensively responsibilities to different degrees in all three-thirds of the pitch — the way Xavi, Iniesta and Alves did for him at Barcelona — haven’t really been capable of it.
In Pep Confidential, it is revealed that Guardiola tried to turn Thomas Muller into a slightly deeper midfielder and despite multiple attempts, it just didn’t click. At Manchester City, he often tried to get Leroy Sane to work as a wing-back to no avail. It’s clear that Guardiola’s first instinct is to try and get as many bodies forward before quitting on the idea.
Cucurella has played as a regular winger before. As Sam highlights in his piece, a José Bordalás winger isn’t the same as a regular winger but he knows what it’s like to have a starting position that’s a lot higher up the pitch.
This is a heat map from his final season at Getafe:
Now, he’s never had incredible raw goal and assists numbers. Last season, he only registered 1 goal and 1 assist as a wing-back but in 2019/20, he managed to get 5 assists in the league. In 2020/21, he managed to hit 3 goals. He’ll need to up that a little if he’s going to be this two-way player but he’s capable. There’s definitely something to work with.
Even if he isn’t, maybe Guardiola wants someone who can perform that inverted role, defend in deeper areas and go on the overlap in the same game. This is something Cucurella was comfortable doing in that game against Spurs because he’s a phenomenal athlete.
You could quite easily picture Jack Grealish in there instead of Leandro Trossard. Matt Targett didn’t have great numbers but he made great runs for Jack Grealish at Villa.
The data also suggests that Cucurella is capable of multiple tasks. Of course, playing at wing-back means he’s definitely going to be more active defensively and have a lot more space but he does seem to be very comfortable in most of the on-ball aspects that Guardiola might need.
All those crosses with an onrushing Erling Haaland, scoring goals will be like shooting fish in a barrel.
We’re probably not going to need him to get into a lot of good goalscoring positions. What we wanted to confirm is that he’s no slouch with the ball at his feet. I think we’ve got the evidence we came for.
That should clear up how Cucurella could be this all-action player that allows Guardiola to form a more fun team. Let’s wrap this piece up now.
The Power of the Dawg
Six years into the job, Guardiola’s standing at the Etihad stadium is secure. Sir Alex would often try things even if he knew a heavy loss was on the cards during his later years at Manchester United. Moving away from a 4-4-2, switching to a less powerful and more possession-friendly midfield, playing without a recognizable centre-forward, going a bit defensive in the noughties and more. Guardiola has that power at City.
Even though the suggestion here is that by adding the likes of Cucurella, Guardiola might throw more numbers forward, it’s not going to be like beautiful Barcelona, is it?
Guardiola’s got his three Ps: Play, Possession and Position. But when you look at the names that are going to enter the Etihad this season, they remind you a little of Sir Alex’s three Ps: Pace, Power and Penetration.
You could quite easily see Guardiola throw up a line-up like this next season with his own spin on it.
Erling Haaland, Kalvin Phillips and Marc Cucurella seem like a real shift for Guardiola but that line-up looks quite simple and easily digestible if you’re a Premier League fan from yesteryear. In Merseyside, their greatest rivals for the last few seasons have finally moved for an archetypal centre-forward as well.
After a few years of tactical upheaval from these two ideologues, we might get something more familiar. It could be a reversion to the norm. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
If you liked the visualizations in this piece, check this link out: https://abhiamishra.github.io/ggshakeR/ and follow @MishraabhiaA, @R_by_Ryo and @veryharshtakes. They’re very cool.