Is Pep Guardiola a bald fraud? Statistics reveal some bald truths
The most interesting question now is how the City coach will respond
Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola shows his despair after Roberto Firmino ended his side’s hopes in this season’s Champions League at the Etihad Stadium. Photograph: EPA
Is Pep Guardiola a bald fraud? Before Manchester City’s three consecutive high-stakes defeats in the last nine days, this seemed to be one of the more urgent questions of the modern sporting age.
It looked a simple enough dichotomy. Is the man who gave us the most compelling elite club team of the modern age and the finished article Lionel Messi a high-class coach whose teams still retain a skein of brittleness against the best opponents? Or is he, in fact, a fraud. And not just a fraud, but a bald fraud. A bald foreign fraud, the worst kind of fraud there is.
Things have moved on in the past few days, glossed by the elimination from the Champions League on Tuesday night at the hands of a fine, compact, ice cold Liverpool team. The public appear to have spoken. An internet search for the phrases “bald fraud” and “Pep Guardiola” over the past seven days produces a decisive 4,700 matches, even if many of those relate to an article by the otherwise excellent journalist Ken Early in The Irish Times openly denying – imagine! – that Guardiola is a bald fraud.
Before that first-leg defeat by Liverpool, these same search numbers were down in the one thousands. And frankly the data doesn’t lie. The question is no longer, whether Guardiola is a bald fraud. It is instead: how long has he been a bald fraud? And how was European football, with all its misleading facts and data and elements of obvious beauty so easily tricked out of its jewels, its virtue and its timeshare in Alicante by this handsome egg-headed swindler?
There is of course another point of view. Stepping away from the tribal blurts of received footballing opinion, it is possible the bald fraud narrative is an oversimplification. Football has always loved its pig headed certainties, its binary shades, although it is a relatively new idea that successful, confident, (foreign) people are no longer allowed just to lose but must instead be “found out”, exposed, stripped bare of their fanciness.
The main point here is that sticking to this narrative also misses the best bits of City’s recent struggles. Not to mention the deeper fascination of how Guardiola, who is actually pretty good at coaching football teams, might adapt to an effective, considered response to his team’s frictionless domination of the first three-quarters of the season.
The first point is obvious enough. Other football managers are also allowed to be clever, adaptive, resourceful people at the top of their profession. If Jürgen Klopp and José Mourinho have found a way to interfere with the fine point machinery of Guardiola’s team, this doesn’t naturally mean his life’s work is meaningless, his trophies the tarnished baubles of a cosseted princeling.
City fans have been quick to point to bad luck (Leroy Sané’s disallowed goal at the Etihad Stadium) and to the fact anyone can lose in knockout football as evidence that nothing has changed. The truth is somewhere in between. Something different has clearly been happening in the past three games and indeed in the last 10, five of which have been lost.
The basic statistics from those past three defeats make for interesting reading. City dominated every metric, as is so often the case. In defeat to Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United they had more corners (23 to six combined) more shots (51 to 19) and – of course – more possession of the ball. Across those 270 losing minutes City made a staggering 1,778 accurate passes to their opponents’ 799, an average of three and a half more accurate passes every minute of every game.
This wasn’t all cold possession or meaningless sideways passing. City were still pressing forward and making chances. And yet on the one metric that matters they lost by a combined score of 8-3, to opponents who for long periods appeared comfortable sitting out that familiar sky blue weather front.
Balance of play
So what has changed? There are two obvious answers. The balance of play was exactly the same as in two big games City won earlier in the season against Manchester United and Arsenal – but with one exception. City also dominated the dribbling numbers in those previous games, whereas in their last three games they were out-dribbled every time, with City players dribbled past four or five more times on each occasion.
This stat chimes with the wider sense of a shift of attitude, a change in the way City’s opponents have been prepared to play without the ball, knowing they also have a way to attack. For most of what was in the end a comfortable two legged victory Liverpool sat and waited without seeming rushed or panicked, a team prepared to see not having the ball as an opportunity, a chance to strike from deep at what can be a fragile defence.
Again this is not a magic bullet. City have not been “exposed”. But all managers study their opponents for weaknesses, and while Nicolás Otamendi, in particular, has improved under Guardiola he was also reduced to a cartwheeling funk every time Mohamed Salah ran in his direction.
Hence those dribble stats. Hence Manchester United’s controlled, driving aggression in the second half at the Etihad Stadium. Perhaps there was a clue in Crystal Palace’s performance at Selhurst Park on New Year’s Eve, when Roy Hodgson sent his team out to press aggressively and isolate Wilfried Zaha against City’s defenders, producing their biggest test to date.
Again there is nothing in this that requires anyone to be shamed or retrospectively stripped of their achievements. Guardiola’s excellence brought some studied excellence in response from Hodgson – and now from Klopp and Mourinho. The league is improved by this process, our entertainment glossed and given shape.
The most interesting question now is how Guardiola will respond. Elements of English football have been desperate for him to fail, and in exactly this way, to be exposed as lazy and vain, an Improper Football Man, all foreign-accented short cuts and dossier-fondling privilege. Let’s face it, he ticks some pretty hot boxes, from the basic offence of being both foreign, successful and arrogant, to deeper issues of method and attitude, of a notably academic, theorising approach.
The easy response would be to go out and buy players good enough to implement those ball-playing tactics without weaknesses, players so good the system will always work. It will be fascinating to see how he plays it, whether he tinkers with his own set-up or looks to surprise his opponents in turn, as he did in varying methods at Bayern Munich, or simply coaching what he has to more and better of the same.
Defeat will always leave Guardiola open to the taunts of the bald-fraud squad. In reality, to lose this way, still hammering at the same door, lost in his own methods, is simply a part of his appeal, those draining, quixotic defeats another layer to the pleasure his teams can bring. – Guardian
* Pep Guardiola has been charged with two disciplinary offences by Uefa following City’s Champions League defeat to Liverpool on Tuesday. The City manager faces a first charge having been sent to the stands for protesting to referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz after Leroy Sane had a goal incorrectly disallowed.