It would be something of an understatement to say Pep Guardiola’s 2021/22 Manchester City side is quite impressive.
Their intense and devastating pressing, the fact that City scored 99 league goals without a striker, the technical brilliance of the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, the fact they outplayed both Liverpool and Chelsea in all four league encounters and the resilience and character shown to bounce back from a painful Champions League exit – their list of qualities is near-endless.
However, one thing that not even the most optimistic of City fans would have predicted before the start of the season was how good City would be at set-pieces – at both ends of the pitch.
READMORE: Tangling with Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and the Raging Bull – the inside story of 24 years on the MEN sports desk
After his side had clinched the title on the final day of the 2018/19 season with a 4-1 win away at Brighton, Guardiola was asked if his side had any weaknesses at all. Having seen City fall behind to a header from a corner, Pep said: “I’m the tallest guy [at City]so in the set-pieces let’s go to the church to pray,” explaining that the defending corners and free-kicks with diminutive players like David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo left his side vulnerable.
On the evidence of their latest title-winning campaign, City no longer needed divine intervention; on their way to winning a fourth Premier League title in five years, Guardiola’s side became the set-piece kings.
This season the Blues scored 22 goals (excluding penalties) from set-pieces, more than any other side in the league. At the other end they conceded just once from a set-piece, away at Aston Villa in December. Chelsea conceded four, the next-lowest tally after City.
Those figures represent a marked improvement from last season when City scored 13 goals from set-pieces (fourth-best in the division) and conceded six. In 2019/20 those figures were 17 and seven respectively, and in 2018/19 they were 11 and nine.
So how did City address arguably their biggest weaknesses to become the best team in the league at both attacking and defending set-pieces? A lot of it has to do with Carlos Vicens, one of Guardiola’s assistant managers this season. The Spaniard was promoted to the role after four years coaching various age groups in the City Football Academy, with one of his new tasks from him being to take charge of City’s set-pieces.
Unlike Liverpool and Arsenal – teams who were also very good at attacking set-pieces this season – City did not have a set-piece specialist coach this season. They did in the form of Nicolas Jover, but when he left for Arsenal last summer it was Vicens who was given the responsibility.
While not a specialist, Vicens’ success seemed to stem from his excellent communication skills and knack for simplifying complicated instructions. Much like Mikel Arteta helped City’s players understand Guardiola’s principles in practice, Vicens made it clear to the players how they would benefit through minor tweaks and changes.
The 39-year-old took City’s striker-less principle for open play – getting more bodies in the box to compensate for the absence of a number nine – and applied it to set plays. He got City’s defenders to appreciate the value of scoring goals, rather than just leaving things to their attacking colleagues as they might once have done. It’s no coincidence that City’s centre-backs scored nine league goals between them this season, compared to 13 across the previous three seasons combined.
The simple fact that City have taller, more physical players now than they did three years ago has helped them to defend set-pieces better. Ruben Dias and Rodri have added considerable height and aerial presence, taking some of the responsibility off shorter attackers.
Guardiola has appeared to pay more attention to set pieces in his team selections too. In a few games against teams known for their set pieces – for example, Brentford – Guardiola opted to start either Nathan Ake at left-back or John Stones at right-back ahead of natural full-backs, realizing his side needed extra security at corners and free-kicks.
City’s league triumph will be remembered for slick attacking football, but arguably their work on set-pieces proved just as important.
Sign up to our City newsletter so you never miss an update from the Etihad Stadium this season.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.