Few teams have dominated the Premier League like Pep Guardiola’s has. The Citizens have already won the league five times despite having strong challengers like Klopp’s Liverpool and last season Arteta’s Arsenal. 

For many months, Arsenal held the top spot in the league. However, in an almost inevitable turn of events, Guardiola’s Manchester City managed to clinch yet another title, overtaking Arsenal’s long-standing lead.

Is there anything Liverpool and Arsenal could do this season to keep the Premier League out of City’s trophy cabinet?

Guardiola’s Dynamic Squad Management

It is not rare to see rival fans complain about Manchester City’s roster. With five Premier League titles to his name, Pep Guardiola has led each of his winning teams with distinct styles and compositions. 

The Catalan maestro has proactively reshaped his squad, transferring out players who were either discontent, like Ferrán Torres or those he felt didn’t align with his tactical vision, such as João Cancelo. 

This approach explains why brilliant players like Leroy Sané, who moved to Bayern, Raheem Sterling, now at Chelsea, or Ilkay Gündogan, who joined Barcelona, were allowed to leave without much ado. Pep Guardiola does not want unhappy players, and that should be a lesson for many clubs that try to hold onto their stars. 

However, this policy of prioritizing player contentment necessitates frequent significant changes in the squad. This approach to squad planning by Guardiola is something other teams should take note of, as it represents a dynamic and adaptable management style.

Identifying and Exploiting Weaknesses

A prime example of this adaptable strategy is the role of Joško Gvardiol. Though naturally a center-back, Pep Guardiola has recently opted to utilize him as a left-back in past games, showcasing his flexibility in player deployment.

In the match against Aston Villa, which unexpectedly became a display of dominance by Unai Emery’s side, Gvardiol’s discomfort with defending from wider angles was evident.

This contrasted sharply with his more assured central defensive performances for Croatia in the 2022 Qatar World Cup and with Leipzig in the Bundesliga, highlighting a specific area of weakness in his adaptation to the left-back role. 

Pep often attempts to expand the skillset of his players, which often comes with temporary sacrifices, a process Gvardiol is going through. This approach, despite requiring time to bear fruit, often leads to positive outcomes. 

Some great examples include John Stones’ shift to right-back and later the more recent pivot role in possession, which became a critical factor in Manchester City’s Champions League triumph in the 2022/23 season. 

Many teams were caught off guard by a defender adeptly distributing the ball from a position traditionally reserved for defensive midfielders. This innovative strategy, employed by Pep Guardiola over an extended period, disrupted conventional expectations and tactics in the game.

Similarly, Pep has experimented with Akanji in a comparable role. Guardiola’s vision is inherently long-term, which is precisely why rivals need to notice these moments to strike Pep’s Achilles Heel: The transitions.

Arsenal and Liverpool’s Strategies Against City

Arsenal is the best-positioned team to take advantage of such vulnerabilities, largely due to Arteta’s brilliance, who notably honed his skills as an assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. 

Kai Havertz has become a cheat code, and as of late, it’s become clear how great the German forward is when he’s used in the box. His imposing physical presence, augmented by his height and his active involvement in various phases of play – especially in seizing second balls and during transitions – makes him an extraordinary threat.

Defences often find themselves quickly overpowered or disoriented by his intelligent off-the-ball movements. When paired with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, Havertz’s role is even more significant. The two dribblers attract multiple defenders, creating free space for Havertz, leading to a significant tactical advantage.

Liverpool faces limitations due to a lack of quality in this year’s squad. While they previously boasted a robust midfield, this year’s midfield is in transition, with only Dominik Szoboszlai up to the task. Liverpool’s current setup lacks a dedicated defensive midfielder, with the only option being Endo, a recent arrival from Stuttgart. 

While he has shown himself to be a crucial player, he hasn’t yet become a regular in the starting XI. This absence of a strong defensive midfield presence is particularly challenging against a team like Manchester City, which excels at exploiting any vulnerability in its opponents to gain an advantage.

These solutions might sound ideal, but they are somewhat utopian. The main problem of both Arsenal and Liverpool is consistency. While Liverpool is far more volatile (as shown in the 4-3 last-minute victory against Fulham), Arsenal has yet to reach the confidence, dominance and consistency of Guardiola’s Manchester City. 

Domestic leagues pose a tough challenge for managers, involving matches against roughly eighteen different teams, each faced twice in a season, demanding versatile strategies. It amounts to ~38 matches/season for the domestic league alone, with the addition of other competitions, such as the Champions League, the EFL Cup and the League Cup.

For about seven months, sometimes more, players must maintain constant focus, as every slip-up presents an opportunity for the opposition. Big teams infrequently clash, and the addition of injuries can rapidly make the situation challenging. 

Arsenal’s main problem is that it does not yet have a fully mature squad and, as such, is more prone to slip-ups, especially given City’s confidence following all these years of dominance. Challenging City requires unwavering focus and minimizing injuries, a task becoming increasingly difficult as FIFA/UEFA schedules more games each year, to the detriment of players and coaches. 

Arsenal has the capability to triumph over Manchester City, as evidenced by their earlier season draw (1-1). Currently, Arsenal’s situation regarding injuries is relatively favourable, aided by their diverse player profiles. In contrast, City’s primary off-the-ball runners are limited to Alvarez and Haaland, with players like Doku and Grealish often viewed as more possession-focused.

credits: @markrstats Twitter.

The problem, however, is managing all these factors throughout the season, including effective player rotation to prevent injuries and maintain squad morale. Arteta’s handling of injuries, such as Partey’s, will be crucial in determining whether Arsenal can clinch the Premier League title or that it will remain in Manchester. 

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