Premier League: Pep Guardiola's 1st season at Manchester City has been one of tinkering and over-thinking
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City oscillated between a glimpse of the future and their many contemporary flaws, a team in a transitional phase.
With much hysteria and a touch of melodrama Pep Guardiola arrived in England, an isolated island of tactical stagnation, the last bastion that was still not enamored of Guardiola’s wild vision of fantasy football, a science-fiction version of outlandish and elaborate ‘Cruyffian’ football.
Guardiola faced a Zlatanic problem. In the UK, the Swedish striker was still regarded with disdain before he signed for Manchester United: Ibrahimovic had conquered the Old Continent with glorious goals, audacious tricks and much braggadocio, but always in ‘inferior’ leagues, always blacking out at key moments, so could the Swede surmount the world’s best league, a self-aggrandised 25th gala of football’s prime mercenaries?
Ibrahimovic came to Manchester, saw and indeed conquered. In fact, he had predicted his own Premier League ascension with his trademark grandiloquence — he would leave the city not as a king, but as God. Guardiola met that same English insularity: he’d only be a righteous coach when winning the English top flight — the Premier League as a benchmark for his reigns at both FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
City’s owners further burdened Guardiola. They required him to win the Champions League — the spangled coach was to be a fast-track ticket to continental glory. Perhaps then the stars were aligned, not for glory, but for a season of underachievement, or, indeed by Guardiola’s very own esteemed standards, a season of nonsensical failure.
Yet it all began with a brilliant flurry, an enkindling teaser of what football could and can be, a nascent ‘tiki-taka' discernible at intermittent moments of fine triangulations at the Etihad Campus. There was much promise in City’s games, with an early winning streak in the Premier League.
In the Champions League, Manchester City delivered ecstasy at home — just 52 minutes according to Guardiola — against FC Barcelona. Kevin De Bruyne, whose delicate touches and cerebral football are so oft understated, outplayed his illustrious opponents. In fact, City made the Catalans look ordinary. After the interval, De Bruyne’s support act for Sergio Aguero, as Guardiola switched to a 4-4-2, was instrumental in a City renaissance. They won 3-1.
But that’s where the ‘Guardiolan' blueprint sputtered — the rebirth was all too brief and footballing fullness never materialised, not even, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would have it, in the fullness of time — that is, at the end of the season. Guardiola and City scrapped to a third place with 78 points, crushing Watford 5-0 on the league’s last match day.
But Guardiola won’t win silverware this season. It’s a new and terrible sensation for him. His City oscillated between a glimpse of the future and their many contemporary flaws, a team in a transitional phase with a coach seeking improvement. Guardiola had many grievances about his new environment, but perhaps his personal flaw contributed to the malaise. In the bowls of the Etihad Stadium, crisis mongers whispered repeatedly that ‘Fraudiola’ was faltering, refusing to alter his blissful vision of the game, rejecting the idea that football the Tony-Pulis-way — arguably without Rory Delap’s long throw — did exist.
That wasn’t blasphemy from Guardiola, but revealed that he isn’t a manager in the plenitude of the word. Guardiola isn’t Antonio Conte, who adapted his system to his players as the Italian recognised both the strengths and weaknesses of his squad. Guardiola simply refused to do that, giving in to his manic obsession to impose his philosophy. He did rotate his line-up, altered his tactics, but his methods and management always remained the same.
His defence was the root cause of his problems. Guardiola didn’t heed the hint. In training, Guardiola tends to dedicate more attention to defensive organisation than anything else. After all, instructing how to defend is far more complex than teaching how to attack. “Attack is more based on innate talent,” said Guardiola once. “Defence is about the work you put into it. Defensive strategy is absolutely essential if I want to attack a lot.”
His back line has to be a sustainable, forward-minded organism. It’s the initiator of the ‘Guardiolan' game. Without that first construct, his team loses its potency. Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and others were not going to deliver the build-up play Guardiola has so been looking for.
And so Guardiola’s first season in England has been a grating 10 months of tinkering and over-thinking, but without a fundamental epiphany. The City coach is a purist. He doesn’t want to dilute his theories, but that comes with consequences. Perhaps next season, with a projected influx of stardust players, the Guardiola-way may still topple the Premier League.
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