Manchester City in Crisis? What Crisis?

Manchester  City are six games without a win. It’s the worst run of games Pep Guardiola has experienced as a coach. Yet talk of a crisis is something premature, surely?

When Pep Guardiola took his side on a run of 10 wins to start his managerial career at Man City, there were already people crowing them Premier League champions, with European domination added in. Some even had the quadruple guaranteed at the Etihad. Well, after the loss to United last night at Old Trafford that is no longer a possibility. But as is the way with the media and general culture in this country in the present day, it’s one extreme or the other. It’s either amazing and fantastic, or terrible and it’s all capitulating. After six games without a win there’s now a sense that people think City and Guardiola’s ‘project’ is in crisis. Is this madness?! A crisis already? Really?

Jose Mourinho needed the win more than Pep Guardiola did on Wednesday night. In fact he was extremely desperate for it. After the criticism he received after Liverpool and then the embarrassment of the Chelsea game, Mourinho needed a win from this game. At home, against your clubs biggest rivals, against your coaching ‘nemesis’. It was set- up to be a classic, yet it really wasn’t. In truth it was a very poor game. But United won’t care, they grabbed the goal to win the game and Mourinho can breathe, for now. This will help keep the wolves at the door. A loss would have rattled the door, threatening to break it down and consume Mourinho. Yes I think this game was that important for United’s manager.

Not so much for Guardiola, who hasn’t been under the same pressure and judgement which his rival has. Understandably, after all his team is top of the league. Yes perhaps they have lost the electricity which their initial games brought. But losing this game wasn’t going to cause a problem for Guardiola. I’m sure he wanted to win, and he chose a good, yet certainly reserve team for the game. But in the aftermath of this loss the pressure on him isn’t as great as had it been Mourinho. But some fans and those in the media are starting to point to a mini-crisis at City. Questions are being asked with Guardiola’s ‘style’. Truth is, there’s not a problem at City, but Guardiola should be seeking to get more from his side, as this article will discuss.

A New Leader to Bring City to the Top 

The Celtic game seems to be noted as the calatyst of this bad run of games. For me they went into to the game too casual and expecting an easy game, similar to what Barca had experienced in match day one. But the atmosphere and energy of Celtic made things a lot harder for City. In the following game Spurs were fantastic, denying City space and time to play out, effectively denying City the style of football they seek to implement and impose on the opposition. This game clearly pointed to flaws in City’s team, the vulnerabilities which certain players possess, the predictability of their play and the anxiety in the players when the game went away from them. They did look nervous and lacking in confidence. But truth was, Spurs were better.

But listening to the ‘pundits’ in this game discuss (and critique) Guardiola’s style and philosophy of football was a frustrating experience. One poor game apparently meant that Guardiola should rip up his style of football and ‘adjust’ to the needs of English football. It was typical English exaggeration, an extreme reaction to one game. It was evident that a certain number of people were waiting for this ‘blip’ to happen, were ready to pounce on Guardiola and his ‘philosophy’ to pronounce that what he sought ‘would not work in England’. These ‘pundits’, so called ‘experts, either don’t appreciate what Guardiola does because they don’t like him or his style of football, or simply they fail to appreciate or understand what he does. Probably a bit of both.

It’s easier though to critique something you don’t understand or appreciate, rather than seek to understand it. Yes City are currently in a winless run of games, but did you see the Everton game? City were fantastic! The football was scintillating, they had 19 shots (8 on target) and they missed two penalties! Everton went defensive and sought to attack on the break, and it worked for them. 1-1 was frustrating for City, yet you can’t criticise how they played.

In the Southampton game City weren’t at their best yes that’s true. But more criticism aimed at John Stones for a mistake, which for me was Vincent Kompany’s error. Why did he decide to step out of that position? It made no sense to me. Another 1-1 and more criticism. But even though it was a disappointing result Guardiola’s ability and willingness to switch formations, the fluidity of the attack, was excellent. At Bayern he used the 3-4-2-1 formation often and when he did Bayern played their best football in my opinion. You could see that the more City get this formation right, the players will really thrive with the space and rotation this style promotes. This is no crisis, it’s simply a run where City aren’t scoring enough goals, even though they are creating chances and dominating games. I still believe that City will win the league. The quality of players and their coach’s intelligence and tactical flexibility will be the difference.

There is just this feeling that our culture overall fails to appreciate what Guardiola seeks to do. Remember some people thought Barcelona played ‘boring’ football and in England the culture of the game through recent decades has been one of ‘up and at ‘em’ football. Meaning that perhaps some people just cannot get past their cultural bias and need to be entertained with energy rather than appreciate quality. And t’s not just in England, Franz Beckenbauer criticised Guardiola at Bayern for playing a style of football which was ‘boring’ also. So he has his critics. And it’s fair to say that not everyone appreciates Guardiola’s style. That’s fine. But you can’t dismiss that what Guardiola has done sine 2008 has revolutionised the game.

Based on what Guardiola has achieved in his time in management it is evident that he is the most ‘visionary’ coach and thinker of his generation. His education in football as a player and coach has given him the cultural exposure and indoctrination to become the new proponent and revolutionary of the totalfootball philosophy. From MIchels to Cruyff to Saachi and now Guardiola football’s cycles are often bred of visionary or reactive coaches. In Guardiola we have a true visionary and we should be looking to dissect and learn from this great tactician and thinker of the game.

Guardiola has pushed the boundaries, enhanced the tactical level of the game, and through his style and the dominance of this style forced coaches to be smarter and tactically better against him. Initially there were the copycat coaches, those like Rodgers, Martinez and Villas-Boas who sought to replicate how Barca played. This didn’t work all too well for these coaches, as there’s more to it than just seeking to copy how a team plays. In fact the most important development was the emergence of the anti-thesis teams; the enhancement of defensive based, transition sides.

The enhancement in defensive quality in recent years has asked more questions of teams, particularly Guardiola’s sides. In tournament football it has been the defensive/transition based approach of sides which has become the route to success more so than the possession teams. We’ve seen it in the Euro’s this year and the Champions League , with Madrid more of a counter attack side and Atletico certainly a strong defensive unit. Possession have been shown (discounting Leciester last season) to continue to dominate the top domestic leagues, of which Guardiola has continued to pick up trophies each year.

Issues to address if greatness is to be achieved

The cliche goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and that is the same with Guardiola’s project at City. The education required to build the knowledge and understanding of how he wishes to play takes time to master and gain a deep appreciation of. We are still in the cognitive learning stage for this team. So there will be problems along the way. It’s important to understand there will be problems, and not be too concerned when they happen, but at the same time assess what these problems are and seek to address and improve them.

Because there are problems and concerns. Firstly players. You can’t deny that De Bruyne’s injury curtailed the progress City were making. His absence coincided with the start of this poor run of results. And it’s not a surprise that they missed their best creative player of the season up to that point. De Bruyne is a fantastic player, who has such intelligence in his movement, positioning and decision making. He has made Guardiola’s style tick when at it’s best. Without him City weren’t as good. Take any team’s key player out and you will suffer a little or a lot. City lost the ability to score the amount of goals they were doing at the start of the season. And Aguero struggled in De Bruyne’s absence also, as well as picking up an injury himself.

And let’s just touch on injuries. It’s obvious really that to succeed at the top level, you need your best players fit and firing. There’s no doubt that injury issues caused problems for Bayern on the pitch and off it too, with conflicts arising between coach and medical team regarding injuries and rehab. This isn’t good for harmony and trust between staff and this can cause issues with the team also. So was it Guardiola’s training methods which were the issue? Under Heynkces this side looked fit, hungry and energetic. There is a case that Guardiola’s methods and beliefs in training and ‘fitness’ affected certain players, both physically and mentally.

Guardiola may need to adapt to the culture of physical development more so than the culture adapting to him in this respect. This week we have seen issues over Kompany Aguero could be up there with the very best but his injury issues have continually plagued him in his time City, will Pep improve him like he did with Messi? Aguero’s injury record has been the obstacle which has prevented Aguero from being the unquestioned best player in the league. This is a world class forward, capable of winning games for his team with his quality. His relationship with De Bruyne led to some scintillating football at the start of the season.

City have suffered as both players have dropped of due to injury. It’s a concern if this continues, but the season is a marathon, not a sprint and Guardiola (City fans hope) has learnt his lessons about injuries and injury prevention from his time at Bayern. Because it was injuries which prevented him from winning a Champions League trophy in his time in Munich.

In agreement with some of the doubters

But I must say I can’t help but agree somewhat with the doubters of Guardiola’s style. Firstly let me state that I think Guardiola’s philosophy, ideas and desire to play the style of football he does is fantastic as much as it is entertaining. For me he is writing the future game as we speak and watch the game. At their best Guardiola’s sides play some of the best football I’ve ever witnessed. However, the game against Barcelona pointed at the problems he and City will have if they wish to dominate European football, as well as England.

Truth is Barcelona are better than City, in almost every position. This is the case now, and I can’t see this changing so dramatically in the coming seasons. Now regardless of whether City matched Barca up till the sending off, with the 1-0 scoreline reflecting a tight game, City were second best in the game, even against a Barca nowhere near their best. While some people think Guardiola is ‘brave’ to play “his” way against Barca at Camp Nou, there’s a sense that it’s more like naïvety than bravery. This has been seen before. It happened in the semi-final versus Barcelona in 2015 also. Three goals in the second half killed the tie and denied Bayern a chance to reach the final. That game was lost due to a poor tactical set-up, leading to individual errors, poor decision making and a real lack of creating chances. It made the gap between the sides look vast. Guardiola exposed his own Bayern side with his tactics.

And while City created more chances than Bayern did 18 months ago (perhaps had Aguero started those chances could have been converted),  they didn’t look as though they could win the game. And like Bayern, individual mistakes and poor decision making cost City. Yes this game was a ‘gimme’ in terms of Guardiola assessing his team’s credentials against the best in the world without a real concern about the outcome. Yet what he should have taken from the game was that his team wouldn’t be able to compete with them trying to play ‘The Barca Way’. And this is where I question Guardiola.

We’ve been informed, and have seen particularly at Bayern, that he approaches each game slightly differently. We’re told that he assesses the opposition intently, seeking to find their weakness and then looks to exploit it. At Bayern I thought (semi-finals of the Champions League apart) this approach was evident and worked fantastically. Bayern weren’t just brilliant, they were also the most flexible team we may have seen. Their ability to play different styles, formations and use different strategies, made them extremely versatile. Yes the quality of the squad helped, and the versatility within that squad offered Guardiola many options. Yet while the owners of City want Guardiola to implement a Barcelona model through the club, it may be a better idea to install a philosophy more like what he did at Bayern  This is what he needs to develop at City.

If he simply seeks to make City a Premier League Barcelona I think that is the wrong choice. By all means have a 4-3-3 positional play style part of your teams arsenal, but he needs to do more. He needs to stretch the boundaries of his team to embrace the variability of his squad and the diversity of the league. Effectively can he create a team who can ‘do it all’? And that means defend well too.

Neglect defending at your peril

If he was to win the Premier League this year it would be a great achievement and a huge step forward for his project. However I do believe that in order for Guardiola to truly succeed at City, he needs to focus on the quality of the team defensively. And we-ve seen early on this season that his side have understood and implemented the counter-press/transition reaction to losing possession. This pressing game was a key reason for Barcelona’s success under Guardiola. And one which will be needed as more sides seek to cede possession and seek to counter attack against his City team, as evidenced by Everton and Southampton recently.

But there’s this nagging feeling that the quality of the defence at City just isn’t good enough for them to become the best in Europe. Out of Barca, Bayern and now City this is the worst defence he has taken over in terms of initial quality. There’s no player of the type of a Puyol or a Boateng to lead the defence, meaning that instead of looking to build on a great defensive platform and add the quality of positional play tactics into these players, he is having to work with the defence to get better as defenders. I don’t think he’s had this problem to face before. Pique came on due to his experience with Puyol and Abidal as leaders next to him. Stones, a similar type player to Pique in that sense, yet who does he learn from exactly? The pursuit of Bonnucci from Juve was understandable, because City desperately need a world class centre back who can defend individiually, who understands playing in a back 3 and 4 both with and without the ball and who is a leader and communicator. They don’t have this player right now.

And the final point is that for City to have a chance of becoming the best in Europe, they cannot try and be Barcelona. Guardiola may seek to implement positional play ideas into the players, and it’s shown to work so far, yet the game versus Barcelona required a different approach. He approached the semi-final in 2015 naively and paid the price. I thought he would have learnt his lesson. A lesson that if you try to play Barcelona, even if you’re the great Pep Guardiola, they are better than you at it. And not only that, even they’ve gone to a new level since Enrique came in, in which they look to transition more often. Meaning they can offer weapons of possession and counter attack which can exploit even the best defences.

What I commend Guardiola for, but also find his shortcoming, is that he feels that he must play the way he believes, or which is expected of him, every game. Yet it is not a sign of weakness or failure to adjust your tactics, style or strategy to win games. If anything providing more options and variety to your team is a positive. It means you have varied solutions to different problems posed. While players like De Bruyne and Sterling are excelling under Guardiola and his possession based approach, remember that both players were at their best before arriving at City because of their transitional ability to counter attack at speed with quality. I wish that Guardiola embraced the counter attack more, because it would provide City with such a potent weapon. And in the big games, the games which determine success or failure, it may be that deciding to contrast your style with your opponent, more than fight fire with fire, may be the solution to overcoming that particular side.

Continual ‘shortcomings in the Champions League for Bayern must have made Guardiola consider if there was a need to approach games differently in order to win. Time will tell if he has learnt the lessons of his time in Germany and if he can provide his City side with the tools to overcome any side, in any way. That won’t be a sign of weakness on his side, that will be a sign of his greatness.

In the meantime, calling City’s present state a crisis is foolish and naïve. It may be that this is Guardiola’s hardest challenge as a coach so far in his career. However I see the building of a great team, who are developing under a great coach. A few speed bumps along the way are inevitable on a journey like the one they are experiencing.  Truth is we are witnessing the creation of one of the best sides the English game will have witnessed from one of their own. The test for Guardiola however, like in Germany, won’t be just domestic success, but Europe too. And this is where Guardiola needs to show how great a coach he truly is. If he wins the Champions League with City (however he does it), then it will be his greatest success as a manager.

By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)