Leroy Sane has been the single biggest factor in Manchester City’s recent resurgence, but his true worth to Pep Guardiola’s team is not reflected merely in the goals he has racked up over the last six weeks.
For much of his first season at City, Guardiola has struggled to implement the positional play system that had been the cornerstone of his success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
His attempts to build on City’s run of 10 consecutive wins at the start of the campaign backfired - Guardiola says he made a “mistake” by introducing too many principles too soon - and it is only in recent weeks that the Blues have started to look most like a Guardiola team.
City enjoyed more consistent results after Guardiola simplified things in the wake of the 4-2 defeat at Leicester City at the start of December, but it is only since Sane’s return to the side in January - a week after another heavy defeat, 4-0 at Everton - that Guardiola’s men have looked solid at the back and devastating up front.
Many attributed that improvement to the arrival of Gabriel Jesus, the prodigiously talented Brazil striker who immediately displaced Sergio Aguero at the head of the attack, but he merely benefited from Guardiola’s new system, he was not the architect.
The most important player has been Sane. His five goals in the last nine games have unquestionably helped but, in combination with Raheem Sterling on the other wing, his basic attributes and a willingness to hug the touchline, have changed City’s system subtly but significantly.
Guardiola’s positional play model, influenced chiefly by Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, although there are others, relies on intelligent players moving into space, laying the ball off and moving into another space. The idea is to create superiority in numbers - the "overloads" Guardiola described early in his City reign - to create chances and guard against the counter-attack. To dominate games.
Manipulation of space is fundamental to the gameplan: Cruyff, the master of his craft, was dubbed “Pythagoras in boots".
Guardiola was able to use his players in such a way at his former clubs because of the type of coaching many of them had already had, either in La Masia or with Van Gaal's interpretation of positional play at Bayern, but the Catalan's attempts to start from scratch in Manchester have understandably taken time to get off the ground. It is only now that he is seeing consistent success.
After City’s 5-0 FA Cup win at West Ham in January, Guardiola said the open lay-out of the London Stadium, with the crowd far from the pitch, helped his side as it gave the impression that the playing surface was bigger than others in England.
It is not, of course, but the suggestion indicates how vital space is to Guardiola.
When asked whether Sane’s presence on the left has allowed the rest of the team to thrive on Tuesday, Guardiola nodded keenly in agreement: “The pitch is the pitch,” was his first offering. “Here in England, Germany and Spain the size is the same. We will make it bigger or smaller depending on our movements. It is simple like that.”
With Sane on the left and Sterling on the right, City have two in-form wingers who stretch the game, helping to create spaces in the middle. But it is one thing to create spaces and another to exploit them.
“Few of the many teams I have seen play have seduced me as much as that Ajax team,” Guardiola has said of Van Gaal’s 1995 Champions League winners. “What I marvelled at most was the tactical discipline and enormous capacity to apply it at the right moment. All of their players were conscious of what their role on the pitch was. They were capable of perfectly executing everything that I believe a football team should try to do.”
With Sane and Sterling taking up their wide roles, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva have been set free in the middle. De Bruyne and Silva are probably the two City players most capable of making best use of the space they are given, as well as creating spaces for others. When one of them has played wide, as had been the case before Sane’s emergence, their output suffered, and the team as a whole appeared less creative. That was the case in the period between Leicester in December and Tottenham in January when Sane was out injured and City generally picked up more workmanlike victories.
With De Bruyne and Silva working together centrally, the tactically revitalised Yaya Toure behind them and Sane and Sterling increasingly improving their own understanding of where to position themselves, City are playing their best football of the season.
“At the end they have to move at the right moment,” Guardiola added on Tuesday, highlighting how players both create and exploit space. “In the last games the wingers score a lot of goals, against Monaco, Huddersfield, Sunderland, they score goals and I like to be there.”
If you get it wrong, though, everything breaks down: “For some moments of the process everyone has to be in their positions. If not you occupy the position of the other [player] and the pitch will be smaller. If it is smaller it is easier for the opponent to defend.”
Nobody can say they have found City easy to deal with in the nine games since Sane slotted back into his position on the left. City have scored 25 goals, conceded just five and kept five clean sheets.
Guardiola insists his side have been improving gradually across the season, rather than just since Everton, but he acknowledged that “when our wingers are wide there is more space in the middle. When wingers are narrow there is less space.”
Sane had played before Christmas but his struggles adapting to a new club, coupled with Guardiola’s attempts to get De Bruyne, Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho into the same midfield, ensured the football was nowhere near as free-flowing as it is now. Sterling has Been impressive all season but without Sane to replicate his output on the opposite flank, City have lacked the balance to really thrive.
The system, at last, is working.