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21st Jan 2017

One moment in Man City’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham revealed everything about Pep Guardiola’s fundamentalist philosophy

There's nothing 'safety first' about Pep

Tony Barrett

As the ball landed on top of Hugo Lloris’s goal, seventy metres away Pep Guardiola had gone full blown Rumpelstiltskin.

Banging his foot into the turf and waving his arms like a toddler having a tantrum, this was not a manager who liked what he had just seen. Tottenham Hotspur might have been opened up and a chance might have been created but how it all came about fell short of Pep’s perception of perfection.

The cause of his frustration on this occasion was Gael Clichy’s decision to pass the ball back to Claudio Bravo when the defender had options forwards and sideways. No matter that by doing so, Clichy triggered a direct move which culminated in an opportunity falling to Nicolas Otamendi; football fundamentalists cannot allow their methods to become contaminated by inferior thinking, even if it does prove effective. 

It is that tension, between pragmatism and idealism, which remains the predominant feature of Guardiola’s debut season in charge of Manchester City. While the manager believes only by adhering to the ways that served him spectacularly well at Barcelona and Bayern Munich will give his new club their best chance of success, those who have to put his ideas into practice are clearly not yet sufficiently convinced by them to implement them at all times. 

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


As a result, doubt, both internal and external, hangs over City in a way that no one had expected when they enjoyed a ten match unbeaten run at the start of the season. Recognising that, Guardiola has attempted to shift some of the uncertainty from his players onto himself. “Why would I say the guys are not good?” he asked rhetorically prior to Tottenham’s visit to the Etihad. 

“So I don’t understand the lack of respect for the professionals when they have amazing players and they are not good enough for me. Maybe I am not good enough for them. They are Manchester City players, top players.”

Guardiola’s answer might not have corresponded to the question he had been asked – whether the players he has are as good as the ones he’d had before – but it was a response which was clearly aimed at his own dressing room rather than at the press corps. Attempts at lifting morale don’t come much more transparent.

Any notion that Guardiola might be harbouring self-doubts or that he is starting to wonder whether his philosophy will be as effective in England as it was in Germany and Spain should have been dismissed by the end of a compelling first half.

Having been criticised remorselessly for his team’s defending in last weekend’s catastrophic loss to Everton, Guardiola reacted not how his critics might have demanded but exactly how he wanted. Rather than strengthen the defence, he went on the attack. This is not a manager who does not know his own mind or one wrestling with uncertainty, it is one who makes decisions according to his own code and nobody else’s, which is why Clichy’s seemingly noteworthy back pass had provoked such a negative reaction.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)


The result ensured it had got lost in the subsequent recriminations but City had also spent much of the first half of their previous game at Goodison Park on the front foot only for a failure to take their own chances to become even more costly when Everton took each and every one of the four that they created.

Memories of that reversal hung in the air as City created opportunity after opportunity against a strangely subdued Spurs side only for Hugo Lloris to remain unbeaten at the interval.

The understandable fear was that City would pay for their profligacy once more, that the moment they came under pressure they would yield.

In the event it was Spurs who cracked and in a manner that City could identify with as Lloris gifted them two goals in quick succession as the basics of goalkeeping deserted him. Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne were the beneficiaries but it is entirely possible that their team mate at the other end of the pitch enjoyed their goals most, given they meant he would no longer be the only keeper in the spotlight.

Guardiola was also being vindicated, on the day at least, as his bold approach paid dividends but such is City’s brittleness that even positions of command can become vulnerable and their dominance came under threat from the moment Dele Alli pulled a goal back for Spurs.

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


All of a sudden, the challenge for Guardiola and his players changed as the dynamic of the game moved from them being in total control to their ascendancy coming under serious challenge.

It is at such times, when the margins narrow and the risks increase, that managers revert to the kind of safety first policy that saw Clichy pass to his goalkeeper rather than a team mate but Guardiola’s touchline dance of despair had already informed us that moving to a more pragmatic approach was probably out of the question. Stood on the touchline, the City manager was animated once more and again his message was unmistakable – keep pushing forward.

Maybe this is Guardiola’s idea of what pragmatism is though. Maybe when you have Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov in central defence and Bravo in goal you have no option but to attack. There might be an argument for defending deep but when those are your defenders it probably makes a lot of sense to keep the ball as far from your own penalty area as possible. A theory which, if shared by Guardiola himself, makes Clichy’s seemingly safe back pass the kind of unnecessary risk that City can ill afford to make until they recruit the kind of players who can be trusted in that part of the pitch. 

Even after their advantage had been halved, it still looked like City would have enough going forward to ensure Guardiola’s gameplan yielded maximum return. The combination of a weak finish from Raheem Sterling and an unpunished shove in the back prevented them from securing a deserved win but as was the case last weekend, a big moment going against City at one end was followed by a big moment going against them at the other as Son brought the scores level with a shot that swept past Bravo. It was the sixth goal that the Chilean had conceded out of the six efforts he had faced in less than two matches.

Out of desperation, Guardiola turned to Jesus and it appeared that Guardiola had found his saviour until a linesmen intervened. Out of sheer anguish, Guardiola fell to his knees at the exact same spot where he had raged at Clichy an hour earlier.

Once again he was suffering for his art as only he can but at least this time it was in the knowledge that his team had, in the main, performed as he demands.

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