Pep Guardiola used Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish’s tactical flexibility in a masterful display against Leicester City

The American Cityzen
5 min readSep 13, 2021

There are many matches in which the score line does not reflect how the actual game was played. Leicester City is a team that is intent on defending and hitting opponents on the counter attack with pace and precision, especially against Manchester City. It is no secret that Leicester City has caused numerous problems for Pep Guardiola’s side over the last couple of years, including the 5–2 defeat roughly a year ago. Although it is nearly impossible to shut down every counter-attack that Leicester mounts in an entire match, Manchester City did about as well as a team could do to shut down their counter-attacks, limit their chances, and create more chances for themselves. It may seem counterintuitive, but part of Pep Guardiola’s answer to Leicester City’s counter attacks was not to keep more players back in defense. Rather, Pep opted to push his players up even higher, and to move around Leicester City’s defense to make it more difficult for them to be in position to counter-attack when they do gain possession.

In Manchester City’s midfield trio, Bernardo Silva almost always plays on the right-hand side and Ilkay Gundogan almost always plays on the left-hand side. However, for this game, Pep Guardiola swapped them. He had done this in spells during previous matches this season, but this is the first time where they swapped sides for the entire match. In Pep’s post-match press conference, he addressed this change. He said that he wanted Bernardo on the left so that he could have one person on the left side on their stronger foot, given that Joao Cancelo and Jack Grealish are both right footed. Knowing a little bit about how extensively Pep Guardiola thinks and prepares, his reasoning will surely go much deeper than that. One other reason that Pep may have seen to bring about this change was Bernardo Silva’s comfort in playing in a wide position. Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish are both flexible players that can play multiple positions in the midfield and on the wing, and Manchester City looked to exploit the fact that they are comfortable in multiple positions by moving them constantly into different areas to try to pull Leicester City’s defense out of position.

Many times throughout the match, Jack Grealish came a little short in order to pull out Leicester City’s right back, Timothy Castagne. When he often received the ball in that area from either Laporte or Cancelo, it was noticeable that Bernardo played higher than him inside, and would make diagonal runs wide in between a widened Castagne and Çağlar Söyüncü, Leicester City’s right-sided center back, this run often forced Söyüncü to pick up Bernardo in a wide area and pull himself far out of position.

This graphic shows the average positioning of City’s starting XI. It is noticeable how wide Bernardo plays as a nominal central midfielder. His positioning is almost as wide as Grealish, whereas Gundogan is playing far more centrally.

It is also noticeable how Castagne and Söyüncü are noticeably wider than their counterparts on the left side, and this was due to a concerted effort by Manchester City to create space in those areas. 38% of Manchester City’s attack came down the left side, whereas only 31% came through the middle and 31% on the right.

Bernardo’s diagonal wide runs gave City multiple potential options of attack. 1)Grealish can make the pass down to Bernardo where he is one-on-one with Söyüncü and can either beat him off the dribble, or find a City player in the space created by Söyüncü vacating his area. In this run of play, Bernardo is able to dribble past Söyüncü, and set up a big chance for Gabriel Jesus to head the ball in the net.

2)Grealish can cut inside to exploit the space vacated by Bernardo’s marker. In this case, Leicester adjusted and had Tielmans follow Bernardo from midfield outside to mark him. However, this adjustment allowed Grealish to play some short passes with Cancelo while cutting inside to the space in midfield vacated by Tielemans, and ultimately created another shot inside the box for City.

3) Grealish can pass to Ferran Torres who has much more space in the middle when Söyüncü is pulled out wide. Below, Söyüncü isn’t pulled too far wide, but does go far enough to give some space to Torres inside and get another shot on target inside the box.

Pep Guardiola’s deployment of Bernardo and Grealish was something that had not been seen before, as it blurred the lines between a left winger and left-sided central midfielder. Although Grealish started wider, he tended to cut inside and Bernardo tended to start inside and venture wide. Bernardo also played higher than Grealish many times, as is seen from the GIFs above. Bernardo was actually called offsides three times on Saturday, which matches his highest offsides tally for an entire season, and is very rare for a central midfielder. This is another example of how City made a concerted effort to have Bernardo play very high in the spaces between Leicester’s right back and center back.

Upon the return of Phil Foden, do not be surprised to see him take up the same type of role that Bernardo played. Foden is more comfortable than Bernardo when playing wide on the left side, and can be more direct going forward. Pep Guardiola is continuing to evolve this City side to attack in different ways and prevent counter attacks. It looks as if he has now found another new way with the addition of Jack Grealish to create nightmare scenarios for opposing teams.

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The American Cityzen

I’m a City supporter providing analysis and thoughts on all things City