Realistically, it was nothing new. Pep Guardiola has been using a flexible defensive approach for years, and his use of half-backs — those who push inside from a full-back position to a central midfield role — has become a standard part of his approach with Bayern Munich and Manchester City. .
Still, there are times when you have to stand back and appreciate Guardiola’s boldness. In the 3-1 victory over Leeds last night, he used a three-man defense stretched across the width of the pitch, a central midfielder in Rodri who often dropped in to centre-back but also burst forward to score the opener, and a full league debutant in Rico Lewis as a holding-midfielder-cum-right-back. The key thing, of course, is that it all worked perfectly.
On paper, Guardiola was using a back four, comprising the 18-year-old Lewis on the right, John Stones and Manuel Akanji in the middle, and Nathan Ake at left-back. But that was City’s shape without the ball, which isn’t particularly relevant when they had 69 percent of possession.
On the pitch, of course, it was something different. Leeds played an extremely narrow 4-3-3, trying to dominate the center of the pitch and prevent City from passing through the middle. Stones pushed out to the right-back and Lewis drifted inside – you can see him near the center spot in the screengrab below. City played, as they often do, with a 3-2 defensive base…
… and then, further forward, something approaching a front five. Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne could be considered part of a midfield box, but they were roughly on the same line as City’s front three.
And some of the shapes City took up in possession were extraordinary. Here’s an example of Stones and Ake, the two wider defenders in possession, pushing forward in advance of Rodri and taking it in turns to carry the ball forward, exploiting Leeds’ narrowness.
Here’s Rodri dropping into defense, to the right of Akanji…
… and then again to the left, making a back four to help City play around Leeds’ front three and allowing Stones and Ake to move wider. The particularly bold thing here, of course, is leaving Lewis entirely on his own in the midfield.
The following move, when City played their way out of Leeds’ press after 15 minutes, was particularly impressive – not just because of the slick passing, but because of the positioning of the respective players.
Akanji, in theory the most ‘fixed’ defender as the central of the three, is on the ball at left-back. Stones, who spent most of the game near the right touchline, is over towards the left corner flag. Rodri, the holding midfielder, is briefly the most obvious defender, while left-back Ake is tucked in alongside the central midfielder, Gundogan.
The most interesting individual performance came from Lewis, who really feels like something new.
Whereas Guardiola has previously converted full-backs who are accustomed to playing as ‘natural’ full-backs, advancing down the flanks, Lewis has seemingly been molded in City’s academy specifically to play this role.
He spent more of his time in midfield than at full-back and feels more comfortable than Kyle Walker or Joao Cancelo in terms of receiving forward passes in tight spaces, on the turn, and playing another forward pass.
He’s excellent at scanning the pitch as the passer plays the ball to him, and pops the ball past opponents quickly and unfussily, in the mold of a Spanish midfielder more than an English full-back.
His distribution was generally tidy rather than expressive, but on a couple of occasions, he received the ball centrally and then spread it out to the flank, forcing Leeds inside and then outside.
And he’s also capable of overlapping when required — here, as City built a move in the left channel, he sprinted forward to give Riyad Mahrez an option on the outside, before passing infield for Kevin De Bruyne to have a shot from range.
The tricky thing about Lewis’ role can be the defensive transitions when City loses possession. Lewis isn’t in a natural position to cope with an opposition left-winger, but because Leeds were playing so narrow, Lewis’ job was fairly simple — just tracking Wilfried Gnonto’s run.
The trickier task was for Stones, whose positioning was so advanced and wide that tucking inside into a center-back role could have been difficult – he needs to go from outside Lewis to inside him. Leeds were sloppy at turnovers and didn’t exploit any space between City’s defenders.
It’s also worth considering the importance of recovery pace when playing Stones’ role and Walker is probably now more suited to that position than Lewis’ role.
Ultimately, City won this game through a quick break and then a high press, rather than from moves stemming from build-up play in deep positions. But they controlled possession well, dragged Leeds around, exploited space out wide and guarded against counter-attacks.
The biggest positive was Lewis, who was at the heart of everything and deserves to keep his place for the visit of Everton on New Year’s Eve.
It remains to be seen whether he is used in upcoming clashes with Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham. But on this evidence, he symbolizes Guardiola’s novel approach we’ve come to take for granted, and might soon be considered a new breed of player entirely.