By Peter Hall
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Even the best players in the world have not been spared Pep Guardiola's attacking tactical innovations.
"I was called up to Guardiola's office and he said he had thought about me playing as a false nine," Barcelona's Lionel Messi said last year.
"He was going to put Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry on the outside, and I was going to play as the false centre forward."
The game in question was in 2009, as Barcelona, en route to winning the treble under Guardiola, put on an exhilarating display of attacking football with this new system, hammering arch-rivals Real Madrid 6-2 at the Bernabeu stadium.
Guardiola was not the first coach to utilise the 'false nine' approach, with a striker operating in a deeper role to link up play, but his own love affair with the system was born.
The Spaniard usually kept a false nine set-up up his sleeve as a last-minute curve ball to bamboozle the opposition. However, at Manchester City this season, it has become less a secret weapon, more an unstoppable one.
As City romped to a third Premier League title under Guardiola 10 of their 72 goals have been scored by recognised forwards – eight for Gabriel Jesus, two for Sergio Aguero.
Argentine Aguero, City's all-time top scorer, and Brazilian Jesus have just 25 league starts between them this season, as Guardiola has prioritised his false nine plan.
Even in the biggest games – all but one of the knockout stage matches of this season's Champions League campaign – he has not started a natural centre forward.
Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan have all been deployed in the deep-lying forward role.
But it has not mattered who has played in the position as Guardiola has made his team a complete, fluid unit.
As City strolled clear at the top following a run of 21 successive wins in all competitions between December and March, Guardiola played down the praise coming his way.
"We have a lot of money to buy a lot of incredible players,” the City boss said in late February.
But when a reporter doubled down, asking if he himself then could win the league with this City side and all their riches, Guardiola replied: "But you would not play full backs inside."
Joao Cancelo is another example of how Guardiola has taken tactical tinkering to even greater heights this season.
The Portugal full back endured a difficult first season in England after a big-money move from Juventus in 2019, but he has been a key component to City's title success this time around, thanks to his manager.
On the team sheet Cancelo is down as a full back, but when the game gets underway he is anything but, often the furthest player forward for City on the wing, or more centrally.
"I like to dribble, make assists, play technical and attractive football," Cancelo said this month.
"The way he (Guardiola) sees football, the full backs play a lot on the inside, with their backs to the opposing goal. I was not used to it, but with training I feel that I'm better.
"He specifies every detail of the game and I think that the improvement of the team also comes from there."
Those details, from inside full backs to an unstoppable false nine system, has given City, and Guardiola, a title-winning formula.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Christian Radnedge)