A stylistic investigation.

Like Alfonso Ribeiro and Carlton Banks, Dome Torrent may never be able to detach his reputation from his longtime role as Pep Guardiola’s assistant. That connection brings the weight of immense expectations, but the professional and personal relationship between Torrent and Guardiola is universally regarded as a positive by people who can put two and two together: some of Pep’s magic must have transferred to Dome simply by osmosis, right?

As Manchester City begins another season where they’re expected to crush all comers, it’s a good time to take a deeper look into Pep Ball and ask how attached Torrent has been to his old boss’s playstyle. 

What is Pep Ball?

A video’s worth a thousand words:

This team goal finished by İlkay Gündoğan embodies the ethos of their manager, who worships at the altar of possession. The 44-pass sequence gobbles up the space United’s defense concedes while taking only calculated risks.

Guardiola’s decade of success at the highest levels of European soccer is rooted in three critical aspects of his possession game: building out of the back, positional fluidity in the final third, and counterpressing.

  • Building Out of the Back 

Guardiola’s attacking style involves all eleven players on the pitch, which requires technically adept central defenders and a keeper who’s able to play like an outfield player. Hoofing it long is taboo; the team prefers to control the ball and pass through the press, leaving opponents scrambling to recover. Defenders look for line-breaking passes to stretch opponents vertically and create spaces for progressive transitions. The resulting style works against all types of opponents, and is as useful for breaking down a bunker as for exploiting more open games.

Central defenders have long been the engine of Guardiola’s rear-wheel-drive attack. Last season’s top four qualified Premier League center backs in attempted passes per 90 minutes are all on City’s roster, and Aymeric Laporte led all defenders in expected goal chain stats, which measure the value of shots from possessions in which a player had a touch. Pep’s teams have also long featured some of the best ball-playing keepers in the world: last season only Liverpool’s Alisson contributed to his team’s buildup as much as City’s Ederson.

  • Extended Attacking Sequences  

The ability to retain possession for long stretches allows Manchester City to be patient and fluid in the attack. Guardiola downplays the significance of the various formations he’s used in England (sometimes a 4-3-3, sometimes a 3-5-2 with Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker as wingbacks, often with a fullback tucking inside to create an asymmetrical 3-2-5 in attacking phases), and has famously referred to the numbers in his lines as “nothing but telephone numbers.”

The way his teams play in the attacking zone shows what he means, as attackers have freedom to interchange and explore all areas of the final third. Forwards and attacking midfielders become a creative, unpredictable collective that looks to overload one side to drag the defense horizontally and open up a quick switch to the weak side. This opens the necessary gaps for a break towards goal, when combination play heavy on flick-ons and passing triangles comes together to lethal effect. Last season Manchester City led the Premier League in passes in the opposing box and expected goals per shot—stats that speak to the persistence of their attack, as they investigate every avenue to get into dangerous shooting spaces. 

  • Counterpressing

Long buildups push defenses deep into their own half, allowing City to settle into an attacking set around the box. This puts Guardiola’s team in position to defend high upfield with a suffocating press that cuts out counters before they develop. The goal is to recycle the attack just as the opponent releases from its defensive shape, when it’s most vulnerable.

Staging the defensive front in the opposition’s half is a risky strategy, since it leaves a lot of space behind that teams who break forward quickly can exploit. Guardiola trains his team to push counters wide and extend the path to goal, buying the defense more time to recover. The aggressive counterpress works: last season City allowed the fewest opposition passes in the box and lowest expected goals allowed in the Premier League.

Does NYCFC Play Pep Ball?

Torrent inherited a team from Patrick Vieira already steeped in a possession-heavy ethos Guardiola would appreciate, yet the transition was far from smooth, as he struggled in a league very different from the elite clubs where he’d spent the last decade. Over the course of this season, though, Torrent has overcome his rocky start by adjusting Guardiola’s formula to his circumstances. 

NYCFC still build out of the back. Sean Johnson continues to improve with the ball at his feet and averages 35.6 passes per 96 minutes (third most among qualified keepers), most of them short and successful. But the talent gap between MLS and Manchester City means Torrent doesn’t always have players who can comfortably ping the ball through midfield pressure. To compensate, he’s added a healthy dose of directness to a team that nevertheless maintains 55.6% possession, second highest in the league.

Shifting the attacking phase deeper towards the halfway line leaves more room for quick, vertical transitions. NYCFC’s style often looks like a fast-forwarded version of Guardiola’s attacking flow, like in the above buildup against Montreal in May. While Manchester City’s patient, probing attack takes about 35% percent of its touches in the final third, NYCFC’s more direct approach tops out at 26%. Héber’s introduction to the squad has allowed for some textbook Guardiola-style positional fluidity, as his ability to drop in and push wide gives other attackers, especially Taty Castellanos, opportunities to exploit his striker space. On the pressing front, Torrent has dropped NYCFC down a gear to a still intense but more sustainable pace to survive routine cross-country road trips and other weird quirks of MLS scheduling.

In short, we might think of Dome Ball as a sort of bastardized version of Guardiola’s positional play—not for the worse, necessarily, but MLSified. A year into his tenure, Torrent’s transformation of NYCFC is still ongoing, as he continues to experiment with inside fullbacks, defensive midfielder-center back hybrids, a two-striker attack, and so on. We’ll never fully understand the nature of the Torrent-Guardiola relationship, but Dome’s ability to adapt their shared philosophy and make appropriate tactical adjustments to suit his squad suggests he may share one of Pep’s best attributes. ❧

Image: Edouard Manet, The Shadow that Lies Floating on the Floor

Written by Kevin Nelson

@Kevin_N_Nelson