Michael Walker: Guardiola may be about to defend by going on the attack

City manager’s selections, his ideas, are under scrutiny – not least from himself

 

On June 24th, 2013, Pep Guardiola was ceremonially introduced as the new manager of Bayern Munich. There were 247 journalists on Munich’s Sabener Strasse, an indication of the global scale of Bayern’s coup, and reaffirmation of Guardiola’s unparalleled status.

Even though Bayern had just won the treble under outgoing Jupp Heynckes – Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League – Guardiola’s arrival was seen as an upping of quality.

Bayern had success; now they wanted success with ribbons. Guardiola was the ultimate statement of that intent.

“My football is simple,” Guardiola said that day, “I like to attack, attack and attack.”

Fast forward 3½ years to Goodison Park last Sunday. When young Ademola Lookman smacked in Everton’s fourth through the vague attempt at goalkeeping made by Claudio Bravo, it confirmed Manchester City’s fourth defeat in the last eight league games.

December 3rd - Man City 1-3 Chelsea; December 10th - Leicester 4-2 Man City; December 31st - Liverpool 1-0 Man City; January 15th - Everton 4-0 - Man City.

The combined scoreline of those four games is 12-3 to City’s opponents. “I like to attack, attack and attack.”

City did win the other four matches – against Watford, Arsenal, Hull and Burnley, so all was not lost. But at the beginning of this run, City were one point behind Chelsea, today it’s 10 points; they were two behind Chelsea on goal difference, now it’s 15; they were six points ahead of Tottenham, now they’re three points behind. It is Spurs who go to City next.

Criticism

Manchester CityPremier League

For some that is the case already. Their prosecution rests on City’s defence.

City have not just conceded more goals than the five other realistic title challengers, they have conceded more than Middlesbrough. Guardiola has fielded 13 different back fours and six different back threes. There have been just four clean sheets; Chelsea have 12, Spurs have nine.

This raises individual questions – the decision to buy Bravo and ostracise Joe Hart, for example, or the misguided belief that Vincent Kompany could regain and maintain full fitness.

There is then the broad question of style. In Marti Perarnau’s fascinating first book on Guardiola – Pep Confidential – in which Perarnau was given backstage access to Guardiola’s life and work at Bayern, Guardiola at one stage states: “Defensive organization is the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football.”

Like attack.

Guardiola’s philosophy is that possession brings control and that control causes stress on the opposition, who then break down: “Move it about, stir it up, introduce disorder”, he says.

There is a passionate anti tiki-taka speech from the man most associated with it. Possession for the sake of possession? Guardiola detests it. And yet City had 70 per cent possession at Everton. What did they do with it? They lost 4-0.

Clearly Raheem Sterling was denied a penalty at 0-0, which altered the game’s flow. Even so, City’s defensive disorder may have been revealed afresh. It has become a characteristic. Guardiola’s response at Goodison was to say that the defence “is not the reason” for the poor defensive record, “it is a consequence.”

He was talking about defending as a team. That is a rational assessment.

Yet – “tackles”. It was after the Leicester defeat that Guardiola said he is not “a coach for the tackles”. It seemed like a failure of stubbornness.

New football environment

When he says “here I cannot do that”, Guardiola sounds like he is accepting that the frequent natural disorder of English football, a man about to adapt. That was seven matches ago.

England is not La Liga, where he understood the game intuitively. Barcelona also had some fabulous defenders such as Carles Puyol and the brilliant patroller, Sergio Busquets. Those are cornerstone players.

In his three years at Bayern – three Bundesliga titles – it was different again from La Liga. Bayern were domestically dominant. In Guardiola’s three seasons they lost just nine league games and three of those came after the title was won in his second season. So you could argue: six defeats in three seasons.

At City this season there have been five in 21 matches. Losing at this rate is new to Guardiola. Hence his selections, his ideas, are under scrutiny – not least from himself.

“Guardiola’s Achilles heel is his anxiety,” writes Perarnau. “He carries with him a deep fear of coming under attack, which was probably born during his playing career. He was physically fragile and lacked athleticism . . . Pep found he could cope with his fear by playing with a touch of audacity.”

Anxiety and audacity: enter Gabriel Jesus. The 19-year-old Brazilian is free to start against Spurs. But he is not a centre-half. He is not Mike Doyle. We should not be surprised if Guardiola is about to defend by going on the attack.

2 – Daryl Murphy vindicates Rafa Benitez’s transfer policy

Suddenly Daryl Murphy has become a big name at Newcastle United. This is not due to belated first-team action – and two goals – following his move from Ipswich last August, it is because Murphy has become symbolic.

Prior to Rafa Benitez’s tenure, Newcastle’s transfer policy was to sign and sell on. Players of a certain age were not considered as there was no sell-on value.

Yohan Cabaye, signed aged 25 for around £4.5 million and sold for close to £18 million, is an example. Quite a profit. However, Cabaye, sold in January 2014, was never properly replaced and in May 2016 Newcastle were relegated. Quite a loss.

Benitez, an experienced man, saw this. He asked for control of transfer policy and was given it. He signed Murphy, who will be 34 in March. Last Saturday Murphy scored a later header that turned a 1-1 draw at Brentford into a 2-1 win for Newcastle. One point became three.

The next day the Sunday People reported that Newcastle owner Mike Ashley was asking questions about the new transfer policy. This was an intriguing report on various levels.

Three days later Benitez talked his way around it. He mentioned Murphy. He knows his value.

Where it leads, we do not yet know. But, suddenly, there is a question mark over Benitez. Which, suddenly, is why Murphy’s a big name.

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