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Pep Guardiola and the Flaw of the Three Man Defence

Trong Nhan Doan has a look at Pep Guardiola’s 3 man defensive system and its flaws.

Pep Guardiola is a person who desires total control in everything. For the record, the Manchester City commander-in-chief has shown his obsession for authority everywhere he stepped his foot in, ordering his demands both on and off the pitch.

Pep Training 2016

Since his debut at Barcelona, the manager has tweaked his philosophy, his players’ roles and positions in order to make the most of controlling the ball. We didn’t see much of his variation during his stint at Camp Nou because of the pressure of those dropped points against his rival Real Madrid, but Munich was the stage for Guardiola’s experiments and improvement on his philosophy. His five-month reign at Etihad so far has been the result of such variation and experiment at Allianz Arena.

Playing against the more respected opponents this season, the manager deploys a 3-4-2-1 shape, with a trademark high defensive line and constant interchanging of positions in order to create a numerical advantage to overload the opponent’s pressing sequences and counter pressing. The three players upfront execute the ball-orientated pressing like what we have seen in the two Barcelona matches in the Champions League, while having three central defenders at the back eliminates the need of a withdrawn central midfielder during the building from the back phase, supplying more men in midfield.


However, the three defenders experiment hasn’t brought Guardiola much success in Premier League so far. Except the tie against the reigning La Liga Champions where his team has the upper hand tactically, those dropped points against Everton, Chelsea and Leicester are caused by his side’s inability to defend from being sucker-punched. Probably Guardiola is right when showing his desire for a hundred-percent ball possession game, because Ronald Koeman, Antonio Conte and Claudio Ranieri have made the most when having the ball by finding the flaw of the three center backs system.

Between Guardiola’s three central defenders, one of the wider center backs will charge forward, playing as an extra central midfielder. Their presence will create more passing options for teammates, giving a numerical superiority to overload the pressing match-up and counter-pressing play. By doing this, Guardiola is content to leave only two defenders staying on the half-way line to defend any potential counter attacking play from the opponent.


Kolarov (playing at LCB) makes the run out wide. We can see from the picture that there are 8 Manchester City players in Leicester’s half, leaving two defenders (Stones and Sagna) and Bravo to defend the counter-attacking play.


Otamendi (playing at RCB) joining the midfield


City defensive shape against Everton, 10 seconds before conceding

This is where the problems come into play. The Premier League is a much more physical, direct and pacy league compared to Bundesliga where Guardiola can use his game as an experiment. Middle-table teams or counter-attacking minded teams will employ a traditional target man and a pacey out-and-out winger to bring the ball forward. Diego Costa- Eden Hazard, Yannick Bolasie- Romelu Lukaku, Jamie Vardy- Islam Slimani/ Riyad Mahrez were the three lethal poisons that exposed the flaw of Guardiola’s defensive shape.

John Stones becomes the undisputed starter thanks to his confidence when the ball is at his feet, yet he is a traditional English center defender who has played in the four-defender formation for his entire life. More importantly, during his stint at Everton, he was given more of a cover role, therefore not being aggressive enough when being forced into a one-on-one situation when he needs to act first. Lack of pace also doesn’t help Stones so much when playing in a high defensive line.

Meanwhile, the decision to revive Alesandar Kolarov (the best left-footed passer) and Pablo Zabaleta’s faded stint at Etihad by moving them to the center might serve Guardiola’s building from the back philosophy, but the fundamental defense is totally ignored. A make-shift center back definitely doesn’t process the physical ability to match-up with the target man and have positioning sensibility and tactical awareness of a regular center-half.


Stones should have been more aggressive, while Vardy easily won the footrace with Kolarov


Meanwhile, Sagna and Stones were caught ball-watching

The formula of the sucker punch is quite simple, direct but lethal: both target men will position themselves to separate the two defending center backs and create a one-on-one situation, ideally one in the center and one on the wing. One of them receives the ball, and then flicks to his partner who has made the run in behind and beaten his match up in a foot race, and then the rest is history.

Wolfsburg 4-1’s victory against Bayern-Pep-Munich also worked in the same script, when Dieter Hecking’s side execute the counter-attacking move to a perfection.


2 on 2 situations for the third goal, De Bruyne then made the run from behind



Pep Guardiola seems to underestimate the Premier League, where his belief of a total anti-football direct style (based on his philosophy) has caused havoc for his run in England so far. This is not the league for the unorthodox and experimental, and Guardiola is slowly learning the lesson.

On paper, his three-man defense might probably suit best for his philosophy, but he doesn’t have a quality squad to play such an adventurous style. His job is to make the best of his available resources, and forcing them to adapt to a role that they seem to struggle with is not a good way forward. The Premier League is not probably the best league in terms of quality, but for the competitiveness, it might be the best.

Trong Nhan Doan

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