May 27, 2019, 12:06

Pep Guardiola is making his critics look foolish at Manchester City

Pep Guardiola is making his critics look foolish at Manchester City

As Manchester City continue to devour Premier League opposition, Pep Guardiola is being completely vindicated by his decision to stay true to his ideas about the game. His critics should accept that they are being proven emphatically wrong, writes Adam Bate.

When Michelangelo finished painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, according to 16th century historian Giorgio Vasari, all who saw it were left awestruck. But one cannot help but wonder whether it really was everybody who reacted in that way.

Perhaps some pointed to the state resources at his disposal. Others might have noted that Botticelli and his pals had already done the hard work on the walls. And besides, surely anybody could have come up with something special in four years.

Pep Guardiola only has a three-year contract at Manchester City, but a little over one year into this particular job and his masterpiece is coming together. City’s renaissance means that the Premier League title already appears to be an inevitability.

The numbers are extraordinary. Guardiola’s team have scored 13 goals more than anyone else in the competition. They have played the most passes and had by far the most possession. They have had the most shots on target and faced the fewest at the other end.

Just as significantly, they have registered those numbers by playing with ambition and adventure. With a style unlike that of any of their opponents, City are the most exciting side in the country to watch. They play with panache and they just keep on scoring.

All of which leaves them with an eight-point lead. Some speculate that City could go through the season unbeaten. Rival managers Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte have even suggested that the title race could be over already, so relentless have City been.

But what has been the reaction to the sight of this extraordinary side in full flow? To the thrill of seeing David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne cast their spells in midfield, while Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus make such stunning progress.

Still it is greeted with cynicism. Let us see what winter brings for them and their fancy play. What is to be expected when so much money has been spent? No matter that this is a team full of young players, many of whom are chasing a first league title of their careers.

Such churlishness is difficult to explain but perhaps the reason lies in Guardiola’s refusal to compromise. The fact that it is so obvious that he has brought his own style to bear on the Premier League and – a little belatedly – he is having his way with it.

When foreign ideas have flourished in the past, these innovations introduced from abroad have been framed instead as a fusion of styles or even the regurgitation of the very best of Britishness merely masquerading as revolution.

Consider Arsene Wenger’s early accomplishments at Arsenal. They owed much to the influx of world-class talent from abroad. And yet, it has become customary to stress that Wenger’s success was built on the British back four that he inherited.

Liverpool and Tottenham’s pressing is lauded but note how keen former players are to point out that this is no different from the closing down that was customary in the 1980s. Chelsea’s back three? Every coach in the land had dabbled with that before.

Guardiola’s style of play is so alien to accepted wisdom that it offers no such escape route. It seems that English football cannot forgive him for this lack of compromise. How can the strongest league in the world possibly be tamed like this? Were we doing it wrong all along?

Guardiola said his team could have scored even more against Leicester

When Claudio Bravo struggled to replace Joe Hart last season, some felt their point had been proven. Guardiola could backtrack on Hart and any subsequent success would then be explained by the decision to recall the England No 1 and acknowledge his qualities.

Instead, he replaced Bravo with the much-younger Ederson – a goalkeeper even more eager to come off his line to thwart opposition attacks and whose commitment to playing the short passing game that Guardiola preaches is total. He has been excellent.

When Manchester City showed vulnerability in defence last season, it was suggested that there was a lack of leadership and an unwillingness to do the basics. Was Guardiola really the right man to instil defensive discipline into John Stones?

But Stones has since flourished by playing the Guardiola way. Not only does he boast the best passing accuracy in the Premier League, but Manchester City are the only team in the competition not to concede a goal from a set-piece this season.

Set-piece strength

Manchester City are the only team in the Premier League not to concede a goal from a set-piece this season.

When beaten 4-2 at Leicester last season after not making a single tackle in the first 35 minutes, Guardiola invited derision in his post-match press conference. “I am not a coach for the tackles,” he said, “so I don’t train the tackles.”

That remains the case. City rank among the bottom three for tackles this season. But they were still able to go back to the King Power Stadium on Saturday and earn a 2-0 win to secure their 10th consecutive Premier League victory.

Left with little option but to accept that this triumph is set to be achieved entirely on Guardiola’s terms, his critics opt to argue that this success is a natural consequence of the resources made available. How could anyone fail?

It is a point of view that requires a certain dexterity of thought. For example, many of those so ready to dismiss the achievement of getting these players to play so splendidly were also the ones who had mocked Stones and Sterling for their flaws.

Kyle Walker was derided as not being worth £50m. Now City’s success is guaranteed precisely because he cost the club £50m. Benjamin Mendy was not cheap either but this does not quite explain Fabian Delph’s passable impersonation of David Alaba.

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So perhaps it is worth flipping that question around. Even if it is possible to believe that any top manager would succeed at Manchester City, it is just about impossible to imagine that any other manager would be succeeding by doing it quite like this.

This City side is challenging so many of those old notions about what a title-winning team must look like and how they need to play. Guardiola has taken the style that he made famous at Barcelona and shown that it can be transplanted to England too.

As for this being a bit different to his previous assignments on the continent, that is true. His great Barcelona side never did manage to pick up 34 points from their first 12 games. His Bayern Munich team matched it only once in three attempts.

Guardiola once said that Johan Cruyff built Barcelona’s cathedral, he just had to maintain it. But he is more than a maintenance man, just as Michelangelo was more than a painter and decorator. Guardiola is building something special at City. His canvas deserves praise not caveats.


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