Pep Guardiola experienced possibly the worst 20 minutes of his managerial career in Manchester City’s 4-2 loss to Leicester City last weekend.
City moved seven points behind league leaders Chelsea, and the inevitable pressure that follows the Spaniard is increasingly building at the Etihad Stadium. If the fans haven’t begun to question Guardiola’s methodology, the media is certainly relishing City’s misfortunes.
Guardiola is aware that results outweigh the overall performance, but his seismic quest since appointed Manchester City manager nearly a year ago insists the Spaniard must achieve the aforementioned traits. Trailing 3-0 to Leicester last season may have been accepted, even for a club as wealthy as City, but Claudio Ranieri’s side are currently flirting with a potential relegation battle, and were thoroughly embarrassed by majority of this year’s top sides.
But like any loss, or game for that matter, football is a learning experience for Guardiola. However, the harsh reality of modern football constantly reminds us that time waits on no man.
More so, Guardiola’s previous success abroad, which rightly generated hype across the continent is partially responsible for the scrutiny behind every City slip-up. Many regard Guardiola as the prototype manager of this generation, but the fact that the Spaniard has yet to conquer the Premier League combined with City’s current struggles, raises questions about the football displayed at the Etihad Stadium.
“I am enjoying the way that we are playing,” Kevin De Bruyne told Sky Sports. “I think we are playing good football and the way that we want to play is very positive. I think people enjoy watching us play which is a good thing.
“Obviously Guardiola is a great coach. It’s what I expected from the beginning. His style has always been there, it has little small changes every now and then because I think he also wants to evolve as a trainer by trying new things to get better.”
There’s more to the Guardiola’s philosophy than simply ball retention and high-pressing, but both traits helped the Spaniard’s previous sides excel with and without possession. More importantly, it’s about evolution for Guardiola. Wherever he’s managed there have been massive shifts both tactically and amongst the personnel at his disposal. But a move to Manchester City and the Premier League was always a risk in comparison to his time at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Over the past few seasons, majority of the top sides hovered around the same level of quality, whereas the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Spurs, and even Chelsea to a certain extent represent stable squads. Essentially, Guardiola’s arrivals at Barcelona and Bayern were much smoother transitions because he was working with flexible players that possessed a general idea of the Spaniard’s concepts.
Prior to Guardiola’s appointment as Barcelona manager, the Catalan club had finished third behind Villarreal and a whopping 18 points adrift of a Real Madrid side that lost seven games that season. Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph may have sparked a catalyst to a club side anchored by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but Guardiola sold the egotistical dressing room rebels, and instilled possession-based system built around his obsession with ball-playing midfielders.
In that time, Lionel Messi transformed into arguably the best player ever, whereas putting faith in Barcelona B players Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez generated elite prominence for the duo. Guardiola’s departure may have been bittersweet, but he was the architect behind one of the greatest teams of all times, whom are responsible for the revolutionary tactical obsession with ball-playing midfielders, and building attacks from the goalie.
At Bayern, Guardiola’s task was difficult and he may never truly receive credit for what was achieved at the Allianz Arena. Bayern were the reigning European Champions, but three consecutive semi-final exits deprived the German club of building the continental dynasty many envisioned.
Although the transition wasn’t equally swift at Bayern, the German club were recording the highest possession percentage in the country, but sustaining their level of greatness and evolving the club for the long-term is a crucial aspect of longevity that is often forgotten. In truth, Guardiola’s pragmatism ensured Bayern still played to their strengths – the wide players – but Phillip Lahm thriving in a central midfield role, Jerome Boateng transitioning into one of the best centre-backs in the world, and full-backs operating as additional midfielders illustrates the Spaniard’s invention.
At City, however, the task of identifying and signing a new crop of players, whilst integrating his style is quite tedious. With no fear of breaking barriers, Guardiola’s move to England currently represents turbulence opposed to the trailblazing tactical dexterity that often led to success.
Although Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini won silverware at the Etihad, individualism amongst top players secured narrow title triumphs in both eras. However, Guardiola’s quest of building a cohesive unit with a clear approach has forced several default system alterations. For example, the use of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva as deep-lying central midfielders and Aleksandar Kolarov as a centre-back ensures Guardiola has yet to change, but in most cases, including this one, it suggests the manager is unaware of his best squad, but Guardiola is renowned for aligning his side to expose the opposition’s weaknesses.
Antonio Conte’s job was already rumoured to be in jeopardy following two autumn defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, but a change to a defensive back-three has led to Chelsea’s current 10-man win streak. City’s inconsistent run, however, also hints that perhaps adaptation or is also required at the Etihad.
“The Premier League is making Guardiola look average,” said announcer Jim Beglin during City’s loss over the weekend. But that isn’t necessarily a negative outlook to Beglin and several members of the English media that still proclaim the Premier League as the best league in the world.
There’s not one match where the cries for Guardiola to embrace the open, physical nature of English football hasn’t been mentioned. Oddly enough, while the Premier League is so dependant on foreign players to provide quality, attention, and prestige to their top competition, Guardiola achieving success would tarnish the misconception that astute tacticians from abroad can achieve long-term glory in England.
Many classify Guardiola’s reluctance as arrogance from a man who believes his way is superior to the rest.
It’s why Claudio Bravo’s difficult start to his Manchester City career is heavily scrutinized, especially at the expense of England international Joe Hart.
It’s why the ongoing innovative tactical tweaks surfacing in Premier League football won’t be appreciated until later.
It’s the fear of change – that managers like Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola are capable of bringing the league back to European prominence by deploying approaches that go against English football’s tradition. Guardiola conquering English football would not only be devastating to the diehard Premier League supporter, but it would offer a moment of reflection to a league praised for it’s competitive nature following the rapid decline of it’s traditional top four.
More so, Guardiola’s progress given the circumstances is ahead of schedule. The counter-pressing, and attacking moves in the opposition’s final third have been periodically great, but it’s the defence that’s proved costly.
City’s back-line have struggled to cope with the increased amount of space they’re forced to cover, but more importantly they lack astute defensive minded players ahead of Bravo. Defending in isolation isn’t an easy task, but basic individual mistakes from nearly every member of Guardiola’s back-line is worrying. It’s the fine margins between success and failure, and truthfully, improving the defence is most likely next on City’s agenda.
But turning to full-backs to play in centre-back roles proved costly: Bacary Sagna doesn’t look comfortable in that area, and Kolarov – renowned his attacking traits – is being targeted for his defensive deficiencies and lack of pace in transition. Despite recurring John Stones errors, the City defender is still a work in progress, while Nicolas Otamendi is constantly forced into silly errors away from the penalty box.
Ultimately, that’s football, and failure to increase a lead and limit defensive errors comes with consequences. Guardiola may have his flaws – the persistence to constantly adjust in search of perfection, or the few minimal personal vendettas with players – but the implications that come with City’s future results can alter English football’s paradigm.
There’s a possibility Guardiola’s City won’t attain the levels his previous Barcelona or Bayern side reached, but there isn’t a better candidate capable of ending the constraints placed around the country’s football philosophy, thus equally preventing opportunities of growth and innovation.
Maybe then – and only then – football admirers will step away from the misconception that the Premier League is the superior competition the sport has to offer. Where Guardiola was once accused of being responsible for his own downfall, now, his personal battles rests in whether he could prove that tactical universalism exists – even in the fierce, high-paced Premier League.