In the world of England’s Premier League fans and pundits are consistent in their claims that their competition is the most competitive, the toughest and most physical challenge there is in football.
The Premier League is a fantastically run league. It is a commercial powerhouse. But at least until the most recent past, it has endured the reputation as a competition where the product on the park has notably lagged behind the stellar outputs of the marketing men.
So keep that important context in mind. We will return to it later.
To understand how Pep improved Man City, and with it the quality of England’s Premier League, then we need to go back to the day his side were defeated 4-2 at Leicester’s King Power Stadium in December 2016.
After the defeat to Leicester, a side who were flirting with relegation at the time, Pep appeared to be at a crossroads. The honeymoon period with the nation’s media was declared officially over and for the first time Guardiola was forced to ‘show his working’.
The pundits said City’s sides were soft and the defenders simply not streetwise enough. Their coach was criticised for his squad not trying to impose themselves physically which, for many, is the baseline for winning in England.
For his part, Pep fronted it up to the critics and declared that he would both stick to his style and also not allow English Football’s received wisdom to intimidate him.
His answer was: “I’m not a coach for tackles. So, I don’t train for tackles. What I want is to try to play well and score goals and arrive more. What’s tackles?”
This was on December 10th, 2016.
Of course, Pep Guardiola would likely have started to analyse the reasons behind Leicester taking a 2-0 first half lead as soon as he got onto the team coach after the game. He will have known that it takes time to come to terms with the league in England but equally he is not someone who is necessarily going to compromise his style to adapt.
This Leicester game though, will probably have challenged Guardiola to change the way he analyses the flow of an average game in England. Because on December 16th 2017, he returned to the fray with some key observations.
For the first time, the coach gave us his definition of the English question, the complexities he or any coach needs to resolve for success in the Premier League.
This is a competition notable for its unpredictability of outcomes. But while most ascribe this inherent game to game unpredictability to the rigours of hard, relentless, physical competition, Guardiola suggested that it is the extended period that the ball is in the air that gives English football its unique character.
He said: “I understood English football the day I saw one game – I was at home – Swansea Crystal Palace – nine goals, eight set-pieces, we’ve to control that. So the ball is stopped, controlled. Corners, throw-ins, falls in, goals. That’s English Football. I’ve to adapt to that. Because, never before I’ve to live that. Of course, there are corners, there are many things but not with that kind of influence in the game.”
So, why does the ball being in the air add such profound uncertainty to England’s football?
Guardiola explained this indirectly when asked about what he expected Watford to do? He answered that, they are good with aerial balls and would play very much like Leicester, West Brom, Stoke. He says that when the ball is in the air whoever wins it is stronger and better in that moment. So, if a Watford striker wins it against his defender, then that striker has snatched the initiative and his side have momentum. But even if we accept that fact as significant, there is the issue of how you resolve the problem in order to proceed.
For example, a high press won’t obviously work against a composed back four or a decent footballer-keeper that kicks it well from backpasses. So why press high?
If you accept you won’t pinch possession high up the park then the next best outcome from a press is to win second balls.
But not all the sides play the same way. Liverpool presses high and are already in a counter attacking formation by the time they win the ball. Spurs, Chelsea compress and expand the space around the ball as they wish. United sit deep and wait to pounce on your mistakes with notable quality. Arsenal being Arsenal will try to balance everything out but typically find themselves answering a question that no-one has posed. The rest mostly play the same way with little variations. Leicester has pace and efficiency, West Ham had a little guile but currently limited ambition. Watford are robust. West Brom work for set-pieces and set-pieces alone.
And so it is that Man City have different methods to tackle different systems in the League and these are bound by some common themes that give Pep Guardiola’s current side its identity.
The most striking thing is that City’s full backs no longer automatically go on an adventure. They are excellent at timing their moments to attack, being unpredictable in the initiation of their build up.
With most of the lower half sides which sit deep and clear their lines as early and long as possible, City maintain a low block with full backs tucked in. Their fullbacks hardly progress at all when compared to Pep’s former sides.
At Bayern, Guardiola’s fullbacks did various jobs. They moved into spaces usually reserved for central midfielders, sometimes they split wide from their centre backs and always carried an attacking intent, hugging the touchline. But at City this season, you see them largely sticking close to the nearest central defender. Keeping them close (along with Fernandinho’s cover) usually helps City to win second balls quicker and if they fail, at least this can halt the fall-out of a physical tusssle lost in open play or following a restart.
City’s greatest addition this season is an added unpredictability to the way they initiate their build up play. And this is working primarily due to how good Ederson is with his feet and also due to a marked improvement in other players’ tactical abilty.
The game 4-1 win against Spurs on December 16th 2017 showed us exactly what City can do.
The keeper Ederson hit a pinpoint pass about 35–40 yards straight towards a backtracking Aguero with the weight of the ball so perfect, it helped Aguero receive, turn and start running at Spurs in an instant.
A few minutes later, Ederson chose to pass it to Delph. A combination of Delph, Fernando, Mangala and Gundogan took about six Spurs players out off the game with passes and movement all within about 10 square yards of space. That was incredible.
The key here is that there is no Kevin De Bruyne or Sane involved in either passage of play and it is a fact that emphasises that City’s most dynamic players are out there, free in space, where they can roam and do damage in the final third.
And there are notable improvements, seemingly in every player within their supporting cast.
Mangala was offered to West Brom in exchange for Jonny Evans in August 2017. Mangala was also of interest to Crystal Palace until Palace struck a deal with Liverpool over Sakho. Delph looked set to feature only in the Carabao Cup. But those two players are key with their recent performances. Milner when played at Left Back did his job better than the natural left backs starting at about 13 rival clubs. I have no idea what to say about Delph. He will commit mistakes but at heart he is a box-box centre mid who is brave in possession and is accustomed to taking chances. A lot of what is required of the left back is the product of instant risk analysis and also hard-wired instinct. It is a hard role to learn as a mature player. So, this points up the tremendous job done on the training ground at City.
And it is not all about movement, positioning and passing. There is also the mental aspect too.
In Jan of 2017, Everton beat City by four goals. Pep, in his post-game conference, spoke about being strong.
“In so many games we create enough chances but when they arrive they score and the second time they arrive they score. That for the mind of the players is tough, mentally tough and that is why we must keep going be strong and work harder.”
In the recent game against West Ham, the underdogs created once, scored once. City made sure that West Ham wouldn’t sucker punch them again before a lead was established in their favour. West Ham managed to create a second opportunity in the dying minutes. But City managed to do enough to close out the game and take the points with a combination of solid organisation and dynamic attacking play.
Late winning goals against Bournemouth and Southampton also indicate that these are City players that are confident and trust in their abilities. These abilities are not individualistic in expression, but are correlated and collective. They remain patient, they stick to their plan until they create the openings they need to score. City are a team. First and foremost.
I believe Pep has been most successful in making City greater than the sum of their parts – a squad that feels stronger and better than they are as individuals.
The most impressive part is that City are dominating without committing themselves in challenges, overly much. Should this continue, Guardiola will have ripped up the book of accepted wisdom that dictates how, when and where teams win the title in England.
He is on record as saying: “Give me time. If you analyse last month, yes, I am failing but give me some time. Sir Alex Ferguson, my idol took 11 years to win EPL, Liverpool is 25 years since they last won the league and I said from the very beginning of me being here – I need time. Four home games and we scored four goals. I am responsible and have no defence against that. Does it mean I need to change what I believe in. No, I need to improve what I believe in. That is my perception. We’ve to be strong and accept all your opinions. But I wish, I hope they will give me a little bit more time.”
A year and a week after this statement was made by Pep Guardiola in December 2106, where are we now?
The Scoreboard Journalism of fans, and too many ex-players, can only take you so far in the short term – and that is despite the fact that, of course, results inevitably define every manager’s tenure. What occurs in between is always far more interesting than a roll-call of fixtures and results. And that is no more so than in the case of Pep Guardiola’s reign at Man City so far.