Perhaps football as imagined by Pep Guardiola didn’t peak with his 2011 Barcelona team after all.
The mesmerising team that outgunned Jose Mourinho‘s Real Madrid in LaLiga before leaving Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United feeling like they’d been through a spin cycle in the Champions League final was truly special.
And at least they lined up with forwards who could actually be recognised as forwards – Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro – in a front three that looked like a front three and worked together like one.
Pep Guardiola’s false nine innovation has lifted Manchester City to a new level this season
Kevin De Bruyne (left) is one of City’s midfielders pushed forward into a false nine role
Now Guardiola is back in the Champions League final with a Manchester City side that, at their best, do approach the excellence of that Barcelona team.
And not only has this City team taken their manager to his first European final in a decade – not to mention winning the Premier League and the Carabao Cup – but they’ve achieved much of it without a proper centre forward.
Guardiola’s ‘false nine’ policy this season may have been devised out of necessity but it’s proved stunningly effective.
Whether by accident or design, Guardiola can again be considered to have again elevated the game to new levels with his innovation. Frankly, he’s been taking the mickey at times.
Away to Chelsea in January, for example, with Gabriel Jesus sidelined with coronavirus and Sergio Aguero out of sorts, he just stuck Kevin De Bruyne up front and watched the Belgian lead a devastating three-goal first-half.
Phil Foden has enjoyed a stunning breakthrough season – and often from an advanced role
Riyad Mahrez, a wide forward, has been tucked inside to great effect at times this season
Man City goalscorers during 2020-21
17 – Ilkay Gundogan
16 – Phil Foden
14 – Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus
13 – Ferran Torres
10 – Kevin De Bruyne
6 – Sergio Aguero
5 – Bernardo Silva, John Stones
The following week at Manchester United in the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup, Pep led with Riyad Mahrez in the No 9 position and they breezed through with a 2-0 win.
A visit to the reigning champions Liverpool in early February saw youngster Phil Foden positioned there and he rounded off a man of the match performance with a stunning goal in an emphatic 4-1 win.
Then there were City’s memorable wins en route to Saturday night’s Champions League final with Chelsea in Porto.
The 2-1 home win in the first leg against Borussia Dortmund saw Bernardo Silva start as the spearhead in a 4-2-3-1 formation with De Bruyne, Foden and Mahrez in support.
Away from home in the return, the same trio saw City out of a tricky spot after Jude Bellingham’s opening goal to storm through in the second-half.
Clearly convinced of the merits of pushing midfielders into advanced positions, Guardiola stuck with this combination against Paris Saint-Germain and was rewarded when De Bruyne and Mahrez settled the away first leg, with Aguero and Jesus benched and not even required.
The second leg saw De Bruyne partner Silva in a 2-0 victory that guided City to their first-ever Champions League final with relative aggregate comfort in the end.
So in all the milestone games in what could on Saturday become City’s greatest-ever season, Guardiola has gone without a conventional centre forward and they’ve still prospered.
Ilkay Gundogan has embraced the role, too, and it explains why he is City’s leading goalscorer this season on 17, with Foden second on 16.
Gabriel Jesus has struggled to score prolifically and Guardiola has often left him out his team
Sergio Aguero enjoyed a fond farewell on Sunday but fitness issues have held him back
Most opposition managers can guess which strikers a team will deploy and adapt their own tactics accordingly.
Guardiola’s rotation of midfielders into the false nine role keeps them guessing. Will Thomas Tuchel know for definite in the lead-up to Saturday’s final whom his defenders will be facing directly? It’s highly unlikely.
The genius of De Bruyne has long been beyond any doubt while the talented Foden has enjoyed a fine breakthrough season but their versatility in becoming forwards has still been impressive.
Mahrez is, of course, a wide forward but has a skill set adaptable to a central role, while Gundogan and Silva have demonstrated strings to their bow many didn’t know exist.
It’s not quite a modern redrafting of the Total Football philosophy in which everyone on the pitch can do everything but it’s certainly refreshing.
Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan – City’s leading goalscorer – has been truly excellent all season
Phil Foden capped a man of the match display away at Liverpool with a stunning finish
However, Guardiola’s false nine strategy may prove to be a one-season wonder. It’s well established that City are in the market for a centre forward this summer, with a world class goalscorer such as Erling Haaland or Harry Kane very much in the frame.
That would certainly eradicate the need to push De Bruyne or Foden into attack. It has been the absence of a striker who can reliably supply 30 goals that forced Guardiola’s hand this season.
Given City’s achievements in this campaign, the prospect of them with a top quality centre forward banging in the goals is truly frightening.
It may be Aguero’s final season at the club and he may have gone out with a bang with those two goals against Everton on Sunday but he’s lacked the fitness and form to make it a truly special farewell.
Bernardo Silva has also stepped up into the false nine role to good effect at time this season
It now falls to Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea to decipher Guardiola’s intentions in the final
Just 19 appearances, eight starts and six goals amid knee and hamstring injuries plus a bout of Covid have meant Guardiola has been unable to depend on the Argentine.
Though Jesus has 14 goals and suffered injury issues at the beginning of the season, he still doesn’t look like the kind of striker who will power City to success.
The arrival of a Kane or Haaland would see him demoted in the pecking order and you do wonder whether he’d hang around.
More impressive has been the Spanish forward Ferran Torres, who has scored 13 times though often from a wider attacking position.
So there is certainly a striker vacancy at the Etihad Stadium and it will be filled over the summer. But the last few months have been pretty fun nonetheless and Pep’s false nine could yet take City to unprecedented glory.