Pep Guardiola playing 4-4-2?! Julian Alvarez-Erling Haaland partnership is proving to be another Man City masterstroke

Man City Alvarez Haaland composite
The Catalan coach opted to play without a striker just two seasons ago, but is now embracing a more old-fashioned system at the Etihad Stadium

Last year, a panel of top former players on BT Sport paid tribute to Pep Guardiola for transforming English football. Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole and Glen Hoddle all praised the Manchester City manager for getting the nation to embrace European ideas, claiming that since the serial-winning Catalan had arrived in England in 2016, he had helped change the culture for the better.

"We have now embraced that European way of playing and our ideas about football,” Ferdinand said. "Being in and around the academies, the coaching is so different compared to when we grew up when it was all shouting and dragging people left and right. Whereas now, it’s very much that culture of Guardiola, who has had a huge influence on that style of football." Hoddle added: “We were stuck in our ways of playing 4-4-2 back in the 1970s and 80s."

Guardiola has always played down this idea whenever it has been brought up, claiming he has not changed English football and never wanted to. "Absolutely I didn't change it. Every manager has his own ideas, I didn't change anything honestly," he said last May.

But he has admitted that English football has changed him and that he has taken "many things" from his adopted home. "Here changed me, of course. I got to know new players, new styles, new managers, new ways to relate with the media, with my players. Every manager is a better manager than you were in the beginning."

Last season, Guardiola adopted an old idea of Tony Pulis, who would normally be seen as his philosophical opposite, by playing four centre-backs in some games and turning Nathan Ake and Manuel Akanji into full-backs. And this season, he has embraced another old idea: playing the 4-4-2 formation Hoddle talked about as a sign of how dated the English game had become.

A lot of thought and planning goes into every Guardiola innovation, however, and the thinking behind his latest tactical scheme is very simple: it is a way to accommodate his two world-class strikers, Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez.

  1. Two transfer coups
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    Two transfer coups

    In 2022, City pulled off two transfer coups, one in each window. In January, they signed Alvarez, who was practically unknown outside of South America, from River Plate. They paid around £15 million ($18m) for a player who at the time was 21 years old and allowed him to remain with his club until the summer. Alvarez had been the top scorer in the Argentine top-flight and in May, just before he moved over to England, he scored six goals in one match against against Allianza Lima.

    Later that year, City announced they had agreed to sign Haaland, who had averaged a goal per game with Borussia Dortmund and had lit up the Champions League. It was a sensational move for City, especially at only £51m ($63m), but spelt bad news for Alvarez, who was now competing for a place in the team with the most feared striker in the world.

    The one game Alvarez did start alongside Haaland early on, however, could hardly have gone better as the Argentine scored twice and the Norwegian grabbed a hat-trick in the 6-0 mauling of Nottingham Forest.

    However, Alvarez started only three Premier League games before the World Cup and had to make the most of substitute appearances while the Norwegian made a blistering start to life in English football, crushing almost every goalscoring record imaginable.

  2. 'Need other types of players to create chances'
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    'Need other types of players to create chances'

    Alvarez's lack of minutes with City did not affect his standing with Argentina and he played every game at the World Cup, scoring four goals, including a stunning individual strike in the semi-final against Croatia. Now that he had conquered the world as Lionel Messi's strike partner, Guardiola was under more pressure to find a way to fit him in.

    However, he still resisted starting he and Haaland together in most games, believing that playing two strikers would impact his side's chances to create scoring opportunities overall. The coach explained in January: "It can happen [Haaland and Alvarez playing together]. The ball arrives there [in the box] and you have two strikers there so you can score a goal. But to create these chances we have to make the process and sometimes for that you need other types of players to create these chances.

    "If I had the feeling we were creating these chances, and you have two or three in the box, that is top. But maybe you are there with Haaland and all the processes aren’t correct and we have a lot of people up front, we have more transitions and after we have a problem. But of course they can play together – especially against five at the back."

  3. 'Incredible weapon'
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    'Incredible weapon'

    Alvarez did get his chance towards the end of the league season, starting with Haaland against Fulham, West Ham, Leeds and Everton, although he played more as a wide forward than a central striker. His best performance was at Craven Cottage, where he fired in a sensational long-range goal which proved to be the winner, while also earning a penalty which Haaland converted.

    This time, Guardiola waxed lyrical about the benefits of playing both his forwards, remarking: "To have two strikers is an incredible weapon that we have." However, Guardiola still used this "incredible weapon" sparingly. Alvarez ended the campaign playing 31 Premier League games but with just 13 starts. Only eight of those were alongside Haaland.

    He made no starts in any of City's Champions League knockout matches and played no part in the final against Inter, or the FA Cup final against Manchester United. Despite his sparse playing time, he ended up scoring 17 goals in all competitions and added three more trophies to his World Cup winners' medal. Not a bad first season, was it?

  4. Ideal strike partnership

    Ideal strike partnership

    This season, however, Alvarez has started - and finished - every match so far, leading the line alongside Haaland. In the 5-1 thrashing of Fulham before the international break, Haaland scored three goals and provided one assist, while Alvarez got one of each.

    Of City's 11 goals so far, the Argentine has scored two and set up two, both for Haaland. The Norwegian has scored six and set up one, for Alvarez. It is still early days and never underestimate Guardiola's capacity to revolutionise his favoured line-up mid-season, but for now it looks like the ideal partnership, at least in terms of statistics.

    However, it should not be forgotten that the win over Fulham was far from a complete performance from City. Juanma Lillo, deputising in the dugout while Guardiola was recovering from back surgery, explained that the performance "lacked fluidity" and that City were not "fresh with the ball".

    And he had to encourage Haaland to stay positive at half-time. “A game like this isn’t easy for anybody, but for a No.9 with these characteristics, it is even harder because it’s hard to find the right moment to link up with the others," he said. “In fact, at half-time, I told him that this type of game is not easy for a striker with your characteristics, but you can have a bad game and still help us with goals."

    Of the partnership between Alvarez and Haaland, he added: "Their characteristics mean they push more towards the opposition goal than contribute to the game itself, so if the team is not giving the number of passes that we need to get closer to them then it makes it even more difficult for them.

    "Julian is not shy to keep attacking, he is always ready, and so is Erling. So I think that overall the characteristics of this performance itself affect this type of player a lot."

  5. From no strikers to a front two
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    From no strikers to a front two

    A constant innovator and perfectionist, Guardiola had in previous seasons practically done away with the idea of a central striker. In the 2021 Champions League final, he started with Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine, only calling upon Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus very late in the game.

    At Barcelona, he got rid of Samuel Eto'o after one season and then did the same with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, despite paying a huge amount of money to land the Swede the year before.

    Indeed, signing Haaland for City was seen as a big departure for the coach, a sign of him being influenced by English football and craving an out-and-out goalscorer. With his background, the thought of playing two strikers, neither of whom have done much work outside of the area this season, almost beggars belief.

    Instead, it seems like a throwback to the early days of the Premier League, when Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer fired Blackburn to the title in 1994-95, or Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole spearheaded Manchester United's run to the treble.

  6. Prioritising quality over control
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    Prioritising quality over control

    Journalist Guillem Balague, who wrote 'Another Way of Winning', a book about Guardiola's time in Barcelona, has explained how the Catalan had to re-think his approach after a trophyless first season with City.

    "He has had to adapt to his new surroundings and English football has made him change some of his own views. He arrived confident in his conviction that you could control a game and set the rhythm for your team with a central midfielder who was neither particularly strong nor overly physical. But he quickly found out that approach did not work in the Premier League," Balague wrote in a BBC column.

    "In England, you need a central midfielder who is powerful in aerial battles and wins 50-50s. Rodri is a good example of what he thinks he needs. Also, he expects his central midfielders to act as a defender when a centre-back moves forward, so they must have the physicality to cope with being in that position.

    "And then there is something Guardiola was concerned about, but is gradually realising he has to accept - that English football, full of the-high octane emotion that comes from the stands, is often played amid a general lack of control, not unlike two heavyweight boxers hitting each other in the knowledge that someone is going to go down, and that more often than not the one with the most quality will prevail."

  7. From Johan Cruyff to Mike Bassett

    From Johan Cruyff to Mike Bassett

    In terms of quality, it is hard to think of a better partnership in the modern game than Alvarez and Haaland. But the fact that Guardiola appears set on playing his two strikers together after resisting the temptation for much of last season is fascinating. It underlines his constant quest for innovation in a bid to stay ahead of his rivals, even if it means deploying a formation that many thought belonged in the past.

    As Hoddle alluded to, 4-4-2 has long been associated with agricultural football and England's reluctance to get with the times. The formation was even used as satire material in the 2001 film 'Mike Bassett: England Manager'. In the most memorable scene, the old-fashioned Bassett, having been chastised by the press for his out-of-date methods, decides to double down on his ideas, telling a stunned press conference: "England will be playing four-four-f*cking-two!" Could it be that Guardiola, whose footballing mentor was Johan Cruyff, is now taking lessons from a comical caricature of English football?

    Guardiola's 4-4-2 formation is far more advanced than previous editions deployed throughout English football history and his style of play can never be pigeonholed, as he is constantly mixing things up over a season and during matches. But his new found penchant for having two masters of the penalty area in the same team is the next stage in his evolution. It will be intriguing to see how long he persists with it.