Ken Early: Guardiola’s courage will be rewarded in long run
Most managers would have looked to shut Spurs down; Pep decided to try to outplay them
If Pep Guardiola could go back in time and do his first six months at Manchester City over again, he might hope that this time around, his players would lose a couple of matches in the first few weeks of the season.
Instead, City began by winning their first 10 games and making it look as though the season was going to be easy. When the bad results eventually arrived, the impression of crisis was exaggerated. It plays much better with fans to start badly and improve, than to do it the other way around.
José Mourinho is benefiting from this recency bias, which is why so many people are prepared to believe he is making Manchester United great again, even though United are sixth in the league and still two points behind Guardiola’s strugglers.
The impression of crisis surrounding City may be exaggerated, but the pressure on Guardiola is real, which makes his daring approach to the match against Spurs on Saturday evening all the more laudable.
He knew that City were coming up against one of the toughest and most ruthless sides in the league, and that defeat would be portrayed as a season-killer. This was the kind of pressure game that reveals what a manager really believes in. Guardiola chose all-out attack.
Defensive roleYaya Toure is nobody’s idea of a defensive midfielder, but he was the only player with a defensive role in City’s front six. A lot of managers would have dwelt on the pace and energy of Spurs’ midfield and looked for ways to cancel them. Guardiola decided to try to outplay them.
City’s plan worked so well that midway through the first half, Mauricio Pochettino was forced to abandon the three-man defence with which he had begun the game. It kept working in the second half, when City scored two goals that owed as much to dogged persistence as to inspired attacking play.
It worked right up to the moment in which Raheem Sterling was winding up for a shot that could have put City 3-1 ahead, until he was knocked off balance by a desperate shove by Kyle Walker.
With hindsight that was the moment that City ran out of luck. Within a minute, Son scored the equaliser with Spurs’ second shot on target.
After the game both Guardiola and Pochettino were both invited to give their views on the pivotal refereeing decision. They said the same thing, but in very different ways.
Guardiola, who has frequently expressed bewilderment at English refereeing, returned to that familiar theme. “The rules here are the rules. So maybe one day Mike Riley will explain to me. When he is pushed, I don’t understand.”
As so often, Guardiola sounded as though he thought of himself as a missionary spreading the light of civilisation to a dark and distant land, unable to hide his horror at the depths of mindless savagery across which he has stumbled. He should have noticed by now that this doesn’t play well with the public.
Pochettino agreed that England is different, but with the Anglophile spin that explains why English football has embraced him as an honorary English football man.
“For me it wasn’t a penalty, like the first goal Sane scored was handball. It’s a good balance because in the two actions, that is England. For me it wasn’t a penalty; in England it is different, you’re different, you are in a different world here.”
Best in the worldPochettino has been in England long enough to understand that England doesn’t mind being told it’s a different world – as long as there’s a clear implication that it’s a better world. Last week he gave an interview to the Argentine paper La Nación which would have delighted those who argue the Premier League is the best in the world.
English football, Pochettino suggested, was actually underrated in other European countries, where they erroneously believed that the Premier League was still just kick and rush. In fact, English football was an example to the world because of the way the supporters combined passion for the game with respect for its practitioners – unlike in countries like Argentina, where too many people seemed to think that going to matches was all about hurling abuse and insults at the players.
Pochettino would have been delighted with Walker’s crafty shove. He told La Nación that he was against the introduction of video reviews to aid refereeing decisions in football, not only because frequent pauses to review decisions would bore the spectators, but because players getting away with murder was all part of the charm of the game. “El fútbol es sorpresa y picaresca creativa,” Pochettino said – “football is surprise and creative roguery”.
Actually, Pochettino’s Spurs play too fast and with too much emphasis on collective responsibility to leave much room for individualist pícaros or tricksters. For now, their roguery mainly consists in getting away with fouls at the back. The rest will come in time.
The same is true of City. Guardiola couldn’t get the win he wanted, but at least he failed in a promising kind of way. He understands that you cannot get the best out of your players unless you are prepared to believe in their potential. There will be days when Guardiola suffers for taking risks, but in the long run, courage will have its reward.