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The Question: Can De Bruyne and Silva Prosper in their ‘Free No8’ Roles? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are occupying similar if unfamiliar positions for Manchester City under Pep Guardiola. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

These are, it must be stressed, very early days. Things will change, things will develop and besides, one of Pep Guardiola’s greatest skills is his protean nature, his capacity and willingness to change approach game by game – something that will be tested by the flood of matches an English season brings. But two games in to his competitive tenure as manager of Manchester City, certain patterns have already begun to emerge.

The most obvious, perhaps, is the dropping of Joe Hart for Willy Caballero with a deal for Claudio Bravo seemingly imminent. Perhaps Hart’s two weak-wristed errors at Euro 2016 played a part in his thinking but the bigger issue appears to be his footwork.

Although Hart’s pass-completion rate last season was just 52.6% – the seventh best figure in the Premier League for a goalkeeper but way short of the 80.8% achieved by Manuel Neuer at Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, the suggestion is that Guardiola and his coaching staff lost faith in Hart after a drill in which he was asked to switch the ball from one foot to the other and then hit a long pass. His passing was reasonable, but he struggled with the technique of moving the ball on to his stronger foot.

Whether Caballero is the solution is another issue. He did manage an 80% pass completion rate against Sunderland on Saturday, although he presented possession to Duncan Watmore with his first clearance and he looked shaky again in his distribution in the 5-0 win away to Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League play-off on Tuesday. Bravo, meanwhile, had the best pass completion of any goalkeeper in Europe last season at 84.3%.

Even after his gaffes at the Euros, many would still argue Hart is a better shot-stopper than Caballero, but for Guardiola that perhaps is only partly the point. He will accept his goalkeeper saving fewer shots if he is able to keep the ball moving, facilitating both the maintenance of possession and the initiation of rapid counterattacks.

It’s a similar logic, presumably, that had Aleksandar Kolarov rather than Eliaquim Mangala preferred as the left-sided centre-back against Sunderland: the overall benefit of his passing ability outweighing the fact that Mangala is stronger in the air.

When City had the ball – which was a lot, in both games – it was clear that Fernandinho had been instructed to drop back almost to a position between the two central defenders, with the two full-backs, Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy, tucking into deep-lying midfield positions – something Guardiola first did at Bayern against Manchester United in April 2014. With that base, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are then given licence in what De Bruyne calls a “free eight” role.

That perhaps requires a slight gloss: in the 4-3-3 popular in the Netherlands and Argentina in the 1970s, there would be a holding player and two other midfielders. One of those others would be the 10, the playmaker, operating high up the pitch; the other, the No8, would work from back to front, filling holes but still looking to offer some attacking threat: Ossie Ardiles occupied the role at the 1978 World Cup (while wearing No2, but that’s another story).

Rather than De Bruyne being the No10 and Silva the No8, or the other way round, both occupy a halfway position (which annoyingly we can’t call a No9 because that’s a Nat Lofthouse-style striker).

“It’s a different role,” De Bruyne told the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. “It’s all right. It’s a little change but it’s all right. The coach has his own tactics. I play not as a No10 but as a free eight with a lot of movement everywhere.”


The shape in possession becomes almost like an old-fashioned W-M, the rationale presumably being that the triangles it naturally involves creates simple but unpredictable lines of attack. Against Sunderland, who sat deep and largely allowed City possession, it all seemed a little laboured, a little mannered, as De Bruyne acknowledged. “You could see everybody sometimes had to think where to walk,” he said. “But for a first match it was better than expected.”

The benefits were evident against Steaua as City played with great verve and style, but they won’t come up against many sides as ill-equipped to deal with them as the Romanians. Their high line might have been an inspired gamble in as much as City evidently didn’t expect it and looked a little uncomfortable a couple of times in the first half, but it was chaotically executed and City cut through it again and again.

Longer term, there must be doubts about how well the system suits Sagna and Clichy. When Guardiola did something similar at Bayern, the players he was asking to push into midfield were David Alaba and Philipp Lahm, both of whom are better on the ball and more natural in the positions than their City counterparts. Opponents, in time, may look to threaten City on the break down one flank or other, bypassing that central block.

There’s also an intriguing issue of whether Fernandinho and Ilkay Gündogan can both play in the same side when the latter returns to fitness next month. If they can’t, and Gündogan would seem naturally to occupy the same role as the Brazilian, and if this 4-1-4-1-cum-W-M is the basic template, might that mean Fernandinho dropping into the back line?

But the real intrigue will come against better sides than Sunderland and Steaua. Guardiola’s specialness lies not only in his basic setup but in his imagination in countering others. Sunderland and Steaua offered a gentle enough start; the first real test will come with the Manchester derby on 10 September.

The Guardian