In the space of a week, Pep Guardiola’s new-look Manchester City have handed out two hammerings to Steaua Bucharest and Stoke City respectively.
The former Bayern Munich and Barcelona manager has come to the Etihad Stadium in a bid to revive City’s domestic fortunes as well as ensure substantial progress in their Champions League ventures.
With a fourth-place finish in the Premier League last season as well as a European exit at the hands of Real Madrid the highlight of City’s season, changes had to be made to get consistency in both competitions.
And the early signs are promising.
A lot of people doubted how quickly Guardiola could change the mentality at the club and get them playing slicker football, with only a small period of time in hand before the crucial Champions League playoff clash.
However, any notion that the Spaniard required one season to “settle in”, has been wiped off instantly in his first three competitive fixtures in charge.
What Guardiola has finally instilled into this City side that both Manuel Pellegrini and even Premier League-winning manager Roberto Mancini couldn’t, is an adaptability.
In all three of their fixtures so far, City have started with two different formations as they continue to add strings to their bow. Their opening 2-1 Premier League win over Sunderland was perhaps uninspiring, but Guardiola used it as the first test of his team’s potential Champions League set up.
He deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation that completely controlled the game, despite the closeness of the result. In this formation, Guardiola chose a slightly unusual role for David Silva, as he sits further back than the front three alongside Fernandinho in this formation.
However, such is the dominance of this City team that Guardiola is allowing him to join the attacks and almost attack with the three in behind Aguero, with David Silva sitting just behind them in the middle.
Another key asset to their game is the pace of Raheem Sterling. He has started all three competitive matches for City, and his blistering pace has proven to be a real problem for all three opening opponents so far.
Guardiola is, of course, trying to instil a quick, fluid, passing game into this City team, but the culmination of their attacks is usually down to what Sterling can produce from the left.
Having that kind of pacey threat has allowed other world-class playmakers in the City team such as De Bruyne and Nolito to do their roles of providing service to Aguero.
It’s clear that Guardiola is looking to focus on his own team’s strengths when he goes to relatively tough places like Stoke. He clearly trusts his back four to keep tight, while allowing his attacking players the freedom to win games.
De Bruyne and Silva both played in the midfield three at Stoke, but once again Fernandinho sat back and allowed the pair to roam forward and join an attacking three that includes the likes of Sterling, Aguero, and Jesus Navas.
Whether this is a formation that will be used against other title challengers (the Manchester derby is here in two weeks), remains to be seen.
Despite Guardiola’s desire to play to his own team’s strengths and take the game to the opposition, you can’t imagine he can afford to ignore opposition threats such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, or Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Against Dortmund when he was the Bayern manager, Guardiola usually stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation coupled with two defensive midfielders to break up potential Dortmund attacks.
It will be interesting to see whether he chooses to adopt this same formation against the heavyweights of England and Europe – especially given the success he’s already having with the 4-3-3.
What is perhaps most improved in this Manchester City squad since the arrival of Guardiola is the individual performances.
Aguero, who has always been City’s main talisman for the last five years, has already scored six goals in three games – a five-goal improvement on his tally at this stage last season.
Sterling is the particular highlight, though. His debut season was marred by unspectacular performances and a lack of end product, yet he is quickly proving to be one of the main sources of attacking threats in Guardiola’s side.
His trickery and pace will win Manchester City a lot of penalties and free-kicks this season, and he will have to be watched extremely closely by opposition right-backs all campaign.
It’s clear Guardiola will do whatever he can to make this City side a swashbuckling success, and his decision to drop Joe Hart and sign Claudio Bravo from Barcelona is a sign that he’s here to do things his way.
The early signs are promising for Manchester City. However, the squad is still packed full of the same players who let the club down last season, and it remains to be seen whether their early dominance can become a consistent feature of the seasons ahead under Pep.