I know we are not going to win at some point … I know what’s going to happen to me when we don’t.” Manchester City were unbeaten and still freewheeling through the light traffic of early season when Pep Guardiola was asked in September about his chances of winning the quadruple. His reply was most memorable for its exasperated, commendably fluent grasp of English swearing. More significant was his realism about the traps already laid, the sense of semi-crisis, real or imagined, that has always been waiting to break.
And so it came to pass. Fifteen league games and a relativity small helping of tactical free jazz into Guardiola’s first season as City manager, the dawning of the age of Pep has already begun to chug through its first spell of heavy weather. City play Arsenal at the Etihad on Sunday at the end of a week of diffuse but genuinely fascinating pressure, alleviated a little by victory at home to Watford on Wednesday.
As high-pressure systems go, the current squall doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with points gained, likely long‑term outcomes, or much beyond the thrillingly tenacious identity politics of English football. City are fourth in the Premier League, with more points at this stage than in four of the last seven seasons.
There have been bumps and jolts but Guardiola took a while at his previous clubs to groove the machine and junk the spare parts. He remains the acme of the Prozesstrainer coach, whose methods must be taken like a dose of medicine, complete with minor side effects and a need to complete the course.
The noises off will continue, and rightly so given the run of five wins in 16 matches across all competitions; albeit stoked by a degree of iconoclastic glee at the error-strewn defeat by an inspired Leicester City. Plus, of course, there is the business with the tackles.
To recap: pressed on the fact City had failed to “win a tackle” in the opening 35 minutes against Leicester, Guardiola went off on one of his familiar prickly, theory-laden digressions, announcing at one stage: “What is tackles? I don’t coach tackles.” At which point you could almost hear the headline klaxon, the high fives back on the desk, the T-shirt slogans being printed. Oh, Pep. No. Not tackles.
The backlash and the backlash against the backlash have followed. Let’s face it, elements of English football have been desperate for a chance to portray Guardiola as effete and entitled, for our own muscular island league to “find him out” in some decisive fashion. If you believe what you read, Sunday afternoon can’t come quickly enough for Arsenal, who have finally found a team they can kick off the park, an Arsenal all of their own. This time, finally, they get to be Gary Neville.
An equally pointed response has followed from those more sympathetic to the methods of a coach whose fingerprints are all over the outstanding club football achievements of the last decade. There is a little of the old reflexive fear of abroad here. Jozef Venglos, the first genuine overseas manager in England, was condemned 25 years ago for his refusal to shout loudly enough at his Aston Villa players. The end came shortly after Venglos banned the drinking of tea during training.
With this in mind, Arsène Wenger will perhaps have a little sympathy for his opposite number. Wenger was also an alien interloper in his time, although not quite with the same kneel-before-Zod intensity. Guardiola, unashamedly academic, preposterously roll-necked, openly hostile to the dominant culture, is perhaps the least English non-English manager ever to visit these shores. Not to mention a presence that tends to chafe with his self-possession, his army of converts and zealots. Lo, he is come. To deliver us into the light.
The truth is somewhere in between. For a start Pep was right. He does not coach tackles. His Barcelona crop of 2010‑11, the most notable club team of the last 20 years, finished 19th out of 20 in La Liga’s tackle league. Anyone who watched them press and hog the ball knows they still left the opposition battered and drained. Xavi, the best midfielder in the world at the time, was the 285th most prolific in terms of tackles in the division, making 32 all season. There are more ways to strangle an opponent than simply putting your hands around his neck.
The Leicester game was fascinating for other reasons. More worrying for City is the fact Leicester out-skilled rather than out-tackled them, scoring four excellent goals while having only 22% possession and 371 touches to City’s 903. Pablo Zabaleta touched the ball 106 times and had 96% pass completion but still spent the first half looking utterly confused in a strange false 2 role. Riyad Mahrez made only 17 passes and in effect decided the match.
These are the details that will concern Guardiola. City lost because their execution was poor. Not because they did not tackle but because they did not pass like Mahrez or finish like Jamie Vardy. The problem was not too much fine-point Pep-ball. It was not enough of it. Plus, of course, some obvious, rather conventional failings of personnel and positioning.
Under pressure, holes have appeared. Since the bruising 3-3 draw with Celtic, City have lost all four of their domestic matches against teams in the top seven by a combined score of 10-3. Guardiola himself has been oddly vague in places.
It seems fair to ask how, given his contacts at City, and given Joe Hart’s very public 10-year career, it took Guardiola until after the season had started to decide he needed to source another goalkeeper. Claudio Bravo may or may not be a high-class shot-stopper but Guardiola has hardly given him a fair shot, signing him on 25 August and depriving him of a pre-season in his new team, some privacy to make mistakes and settle. For a master of detail, a man who never sleeps, brain always whirring like a chess computer, this seems a very rushed piece of major surgery.
City also managed to spend £115m in the summer on players they do not really need right now: two inside‑forwards, a so-so sweeper‑keeper and an apprentice ball-playing centre‑half. OK, fine. But you forgot the full-backs and the A-list backup for Vincent Kompany and Sergio Agüero. Obvious holes remain, holes that Pep, DVD-scouring obsessive, must surely have noticed. Instead, a system has been plastered across the available personnel with all the attendant wrinkles and snags.
Guardiola has some more everyday problems for Sunday. The absence of Agüero will once again dull City’s attacking edge. Fernandinho has been a vital cog but is likewise still suspended. The injured Ilkay Gündogan will be hugely missed. Beyond this City are simply a streaky team generally. This is the seventh season since the good times started to roll and each has brought a sticky run at some point.
This time last year City won seven times in 15 games. The year before it was four in 15 from the end of January. There is still a jumpiness, a need to drive this team on from within that has in the past come from Kompany or Yaya Touré.
Guardiola’s defence will concern him, too. Back-three or back-four City had not kept a clean sheet in eight games before Watford in midweek. Rather than bringing the expected fluidity and verve, the endless subtle changes and tinkering seem to have furred the arteries. City are yet to play the same midfield shape and personnel in two successive matches. At times it has looked a little too much to take on the hoof.
This is the dilemma Guardiola faces in mid-season, a familiar test of principle for a genuine, often infuriating footballing aesthete. It seems fair to say that had Hart played the past 14 games and City’s summer budget been spent on a solid centre-half and two full‑backs then they might be top of the league. But they would also be essentially the same team, further away than they are now from a state of total Pep, that coherent, fluid, possession‑based bundle of Guardiola‑spec parts that is the ultimate goal.
Hence the jarring insistence on applauding players who make mistakes, most notably the Bravo-John Stones axis, who even when they play poorly, play poorly Pep-style and are therefore still part of the process. Stones has given the ball away more than any other regular central defender in the league. But he has also carried the ball forward more times over 90 minutes than any other defender in Europe, an indication of progress perhaps, but above all of a principle taken on board.
Win or lose against Arsenal, Guardiola will maintain the time he really starts to fail is not when players make mistakes learning the system but when he abandons it for a compromise. Arsenal will press relentlessly at that tender central defence. For once Wenger’s team approach this fixture as insiders, a settled domestic force ready to offer another test of Premier League virtues. It promises, as ever with this evolving Project Pep, to be a fascinating spectacle.