Ken Early: Guardiola’s radical collectivism faces sternest test
Manchester City boss needs to avert loss of faith in system after series of setbacks
Pep Guardiola has a different perspective from the one most players have grown up with. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty
The moment when you felt it was turning into a really difficult afternoon for Manchester City came in the 50th minute, when a City attack broke down in the Wolves half with several City players marooned ahead of the ball.
João Cancelo reacted decisively, chopping down Ruben Neves on halfway, but Neves had already played the pass to Patrick Cutrone, who ran threateningly through the middle as the referee Craig Pawson played advantage. City’s defensive midfielder Rodri got back to barge Cutrone over and stop the attack. Rodri knew he was taking a card for the team. The surprising part was that Pawson then turned to Cancelo and booked him as well for the initial foul.
There have been complaints that referees have been lenient on the tactical fouling that is a crucial element of City’s attack-minded defending, yet here City took two cards in one passage of play. Defending their way is a high-wire act at the best of times, and now two of their most likely disrupters of counter-attacks knew they could not afford another tactical foul. The wire just got 10ft higher.
Ten minutes later Pep Guardiola made his first tactical substitution of the game, and it was a curious one for a coach who needed a goal in the next 30 minutes.
Riyad Mahrez has lately been playing the best football of his City career, producing an especially stellar performance in the 3-1 win at Goodison Park last week. At last he was showing the skill, speed and power that made him Footballer of the Year in 2016, the season he helped Leicester City win the title.
Mahrez thrived at Leicester in a role with a lot of creative responsibility. In a side where most of the players were focused on defensive shape, he was the joker who made things happen in attack.
No individual has that kind of freedom under Guardiola, who sees creativity as something that happens when all the players stick to their roles in the attacking choreography, rather than a kind of magic that is sprinkled on moves by the intuition of one or two gifted players. If Guardiola wants his wingers to stay wide, they better stick to the touchline or they’re coming off, and so on.
It’s hard for somebody like Mahrez to come in and thrive in such a system. All he had to do to play for Leicester was stay fit. At City last season he had to get picked ahead of two of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva – good luck with that. When he did get picked you could see that he was desperate to impress, but sometimes he seemed nervous, and sometimes overeager – trying to do too much – when Guardiola is looking for players who play their part in the plan with discipline.
When Sané damaged his anterior cruciate ligament in the Community Shield, Mahrez’s path to a regular place opened up, and with more involvement he has grown in confidence. Yet here was Guardiola hauling him off after an hour, in a situation where Mahrez might have thought he was one of the players who was most needed on the field.
The replacement was Bernardo Silva, who has always been more consistent for City than Mahrez, yet why did Guardiola settle for a like-for-like swap? It was because of those yellow cards. Guardiola could have used Bernardo in midfield rather than on the wing, in place of Ilkay Gundogan or David Silva. But with Rodri, his main defensive midfielder, compromised by the booking, he couldn’t be relied upon to cover the defence all by himself: Gundogan would have to help. And in fact Gundogan would soon go in the book for a tactical foul on Adama Traoré.
With 10 minutes to go, Wolves scored the goal that effectively won the game. Cancelo, who was in the right channel midway into the Wolves half, tried to pass into a crowded area in the centre, and when the ball was booted back towards him he tried it again. This time the pass out of defence was better, finding Raul Jimenez on the run outside and beyond Cancelo, with only Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho guarding the 70 yards of space between him and the City goal. There was still a lot to do.
There was an extra layer of psychodrama here, in that we were watching a virtual rerun of a situation that had happened in the first half. Otamendi had found himself one on one with Jimenez, flung himself into a challenge and was beaten easily. On that occasion he was bailed out by Fernandinho, who got back to block the shot and subsequent follow-up.
Now here he was again, one-on-one with Jimenez, with Fernandinho marking Adama Traoré in the middle, and Cancelo running back to cover. What Otamendi had to do was clear: stay between Jimenez and the goal and slow him up until help arrived. Instead, he flung himself into a challenge and was beaten easily. Now Fernandinho had to come across, leaving Traoré free to take the pass from Jimenez and score easily.
Many observers would conclude that most of the responsibility for the goal belonged to Otamendi. But when Guardiola spoke after the game, it sounded as though, for him, the key mistake was Cancelo’s. “We lost the ball inside,” he lamented. “That’s happened because maybe we were not solid in our build-up ... What you have to do is put the ball outside in that situation, it’s good. When that happens, we concede few. It’s not just about the defensive side.”
Here was an example of Guardiola’s radically collectivist outlook. Even a really crass individual blunder is not as offensive to his eyes as failure to follow the rules of the system. Defenders slip or mess things up – that’s football. But players trying stupid passes into the wrong areas at the wrong moments? That’s inexcusable.
It’s a different perspective from the one most players have grown up with. Conventionally, defenders who get beaten one on one deserve blame, while skilful attackers get to invent the game on their own terms. For Guardiola, mistakes by defenders are not necessarily a big deal, while attackers had better stick to the plan.
You get the impression it’s a constant battle for Guardiola to persuade the players to see things his way. Remember Fabian Delph in the Amazon documentary, shouting in the dressing room for his team-mates to stick to “the basics of football!” Guardiola disagreed, telling the players: “Football is so so complicated, guys.” Delph now plays for Everton, while Guardiola’s collectivist approach has yielded 198 points in the last two seasons.
Whether City can claw back the eight-point gap to Liverpool will depend on whether Guardiola can keep his players convinced that his counterintuitive collectivism is the right way, in the face of demoralising setbacks like yesterday.