In the aftermath of Manchester City’s 4-2 loss to Leicester City on Saturday (10 December 2016), the knives have started to come out on Pep Guardiola. It was a shocking performance and criticism was fair. Yet to blame his philosophy and critique a team trying to play out from the back was perhaps a bit extreme. But it’s clear that Guardiola divides opinion; those that worship his philosophy and style of football and those who think what he tries to do is too complex, unnecessarily risky and ultimately flawed.
It felt that even after City’s great start that certain people were just waiting for the fall so they could voice their disapproval of his ideas and methods. For many he just doesn’t fit in with English football culture. Talk of a crisis are perhaps exaggerated also, but it’s clear something is not right within the team. Compare this to Chelsea and the turnaround Chelsea have made after they were in an apparent crisis and it’s interesting to consider that Antonio Conte has embraced a style which not only suits his players but the league also.
If you go back to the evening of September 24th Man City had just recorded their 10th successive win of the season, beating Swansea 3-1, with players like Aguero, De Bruyne and Sterling looking in majestic form. People were already pronouncing them title champions after just six league games. An 100% record with a goal difference of plus 13.
Chelsea at that stage were in 8th, with 10 points. That day they lost 3-0 to Arsenal, following on from the home defeat to Liverpool. It meant their September had seen them take just one point from a possible nine. Questions were being asked of Antonio Conte, his side looked a shambles versus Arsenal and it appeared that the issues of the season before were showing again. Were the key members of this team focused? Could they be relied on? Was Conte struggling to get his message and ideas across? It appeared that of the new incumbents to the league, Conte was finding it hardest to adapt. And then it all changed. October saw a whole new Chelsea, they were vibrant, dynamic and very, very effective. Conte experimented with a new formation and it changed the fortunes of the team. It has seen them go on a run of nine straight games without dropping a point. Seven of those without conceding a goal. A goal difference of +20. They’ve catapulted themselves to the top of the league and currently lie three points ahead of second place Arsenal. It’s been one hell of a turnaround by Conte.
Contrast that with City and Guardiola. After that Sept 24th success at Swansea, where things were looking so good for City, they had an interesting game against Celtic in the Champions League where they looked rather vulnerable defensively. That could be put down to an element of complacency on City’s part and the desire of Celtic to perform in front of their fans. There was no apparent sign of worry.
And then came a very poor and disjointed performance against Spurs in which City were exposed quite badly by a high pressing and energetic performance from Spurs. City offered very little in the game in an attacking sense, struggling to find their rhythm to play out effectively. The absence of De Bruyne, who was injured looked to be a reason for the lack of cohesion and fluidity in City’s play. And their defensive vulnerabilities were exposed again.
October turned into a poor month for City, with two 1-1 disappointing draws versus Everton and Southampton at home as well as a 4-0 loss to Barca and a 1-0 to rivals United in the league cup (granted with an under strength side). In a matter of weeks it appeared that the side who many had crowned as champions in September, now appeared extremely vulnerable. That being said, a 4-0 win versus West Brom and a 3-1 defeat of Barca at home seemed to steady the ship and allay any fears of a crisis at City. However the past two Premier League games have made people seriously start to question City, their coach and the players.
A battle between two of the games greats
It was the biggest game of the season so far. A true heavyweight clash. Conte and Guardiola had never faced each other before they met at the Etihad on December 3rd. Two of the most successful coaches in recent seasons, who had dominated and influenced their respective leagues, winning titles, trophies and transforming the league in their own image. The meeting between Barca and Juve in the 2015 Champions League final had Guardiola and Conte’s fingerprints all over the teams. For them to come up against each other in England would provide a very interesting encounter. With one encased in the philosophies of Italian football and the other in Barcelona’s Cryuff methods, how would they fare in England? Would it be a different game, a culture which they would struggle to adapt to?
When the ball came across to De Bruyne, just two yards out with an open goal in front of him, it seemed Guardiola had won the battle. 2-0 and you couldn’t see Chelsea getting back from that. But he hit the bar. A slight lean back and what seemed a definite goal turned into a shocking miss. Moments later Chelsea were down the other end and Costa made it 1-1. The game had swung in a matter of seconds. 10 minutes later it was 2-1 Chelsea, a blindingly quick counter attack set off Willian who slotted it away with a beautiful finish. All of sudden City looked vulnerable and weak. When Hazard made it 3-1 in the 90th minute it crowned a new title favourite, knocking City very much off their perch. And when Aguero and Fernandinho (arguably two of their most important players) were red carded for violent conduct, the wheels of City’s season looked to be coming off. That final 35 minutes of the game exposed City’s weaknesses; both tactically and mentally.
This was a side who looked incapable of defending counter attacks, who looked slow defensively and who had lost any belief or confidence in what they were doing. The foray at the end was a sign of frustrations. This was a team who had lost their way. The fact De Bruyne’s miss could be so damaging to them highlighted the fragility of this squad mentally. Their inability to keep a clean sheet, just 2 in 15 games, highlighted a serious issue with this team defensively. One in which has brought serious questions about Guardiola’s philosophy.
Defensive frailties killing City
It seems madness to accuse of Guardiola of being tactically naïve, or that his style of football ‘doesn’t work’. One only has to look at what he has won since 2007 (his success at Barca B should not be underestimated) to see that this is no fluke and this style does certainly work. People may throw out the argument that he inherited great players and teams, yet this to an extent is naïve. He made his teams and players better, he educated them to take their games further. And his sides have been regarded as the best in the world. He’s proven enough to make you know that this is a world class coach, probably the world’s best. However his City team are struggling right now.
It’s clear that the move to a back three, in a way to accomoadate Gundogan into the side, in another way to offer more defensive cover, has not really helped City. Before when the formation was a 4-1-2-3 it worked almost perfectly, and this coincided with their great start to the season. The positional play of the team, the width created by the wingers and the quality of the football overall seemed to suit City perfectly. Since changing the formation there’s a more disjointed feel about the team. It seems he’s looked at evolving his team’s formation a bit too early.
A big issue with moving to a back three is that he doesn’t have the quality of defenders to be efficient in this style. They are being exposed too easily in 1v1 situations, look slow and weak and there’s very little protection from midfield (something Fernandinho was offering early in the season). Kolorov is an average full back, yet alone a centre half, and he has been badly exposed for his positional and physical limitations in recent games. The fact Guardiola appears to trust and rely on him is a big concern.
It has also cost John Stones, who is the only proper centre back, and even he lacks the defensive qualities to be relied on as the main leader of the defence. He won’t get much better without a world class defender next to him, which is why Guardiola clearly wanted to get Bonucci in the summer. City are lacking a defensive leader who can marshall the defence and organise it properly, whether as a 4 or 3. Otamendi defends with little composure or tactical nous, he looks to dive in for everything and can get exposed very easily. Kompany’s injury issues looks to be chronic and it’s safe to say he can’t be relied on. A high quality defensive acquisition is essential.
When people talk of Guardiola and say “well he had Messi” etc etc, they always neglect to recognise that he had Puyol and Boateng. Two world class defenders. Puyol particularly was pheonoemol for both Barca and Spain and importantly he was a key influence on supporting, guiding and leading Gerard Pique. Pique without Puyol would have looked like Stones now. These young players need experienced heads around them to be guided and helped. Puyol’s leadership, demands and organisational skills were key for Barca’s success, yet very rarely mentioned. But he set the tone for the defensive energy, the focus of the team, he was the leader. Where is City’s leader? Because I don’t see a genuine one in that team. And it shows.
For all David Luiz’s apparents failings (which I don’t actually agree with) he has shown to be a fantastic addition to this Chelsea defence. Playing with maturity, composure and intelligence he is leading his defensive line, conducting play and importantly defending brilliantly; reading and intercepting and tackling and heading. For me he is the best defender in the league right now. Who knows how he would play under the more expressive Guardiola? Yet under Conte he is playing his role to perfection and mentally looks completely switchd on. Something City don’t have in their defence.
City lacking mental strength
When the going gets tough the team seems to lose it’s confidence and energy. This was shown in the Chelsea and Leicester game this past weekend. The sudden 2-0 deficit was a knockout blow they never recovered from. When they look like they’ve lost belief City go into this mode of passing the ball, yet with very little purpose and it’s very predictable. They don’t seem to play with any tempo and they don’t react quickly on losing the ball. No wonder they are being exposed in transition and struggling to break down defensive blocks. But this seems to be a default mode this City fall into when they lose their intensity. It happened last season.
Don’t forget City started last season with a fantastic focus and energy, in which people then were crowning them champions early on. But the wheels fell off quickly and they got into a rut. The tempo of their play dropped, they became easy to defend against and they lost their intensity defensively. This is happening again. Which points to an issue with personnel as much as coaching.
It seems to me the team is lacking genuine leaders who can deal with adversity. There’s a lot of ‘nice’ players in the team, who when it’s going well can look very good. But questions have to be asked of the team’s mental strength and character when they’re up against it. Because it seems they don’t have anyone who will stand up and deal with the demands this requires. The lack of leadership and the inability to bring one in is costing City.
This is not a possession or philosophy issue necessarily, although the team isn’t playing with the necessary tempo or confidence, meaning a lot of possession is wasted, predictable or lacking purpose. They are also lacking transition’s in their play, something they did well early in the season. And counter attacks can be the best way to score, while possession can be argued to be more a way of ‘controlling the game’. The problem is that there are sides in the Premier League who are getting better at controlling games without the ball, and proving to be very efficient in transitions. City’s inability to react effectively when losing possession, the ease which they are giving the ball and the positional problems they have when the ball is lost, are all very concerning. Guardiola has a lot of work to do. He needs to re-ignite the energy and belief in the players and as he says “run, run, run”. They aren’t doing this right now. It really is last season all over again.
Conte’s impressive work
And compare this to Conte. My god it’s the polar opposite! The back three works because they are more organised, positionally and mentally. I mean they can actually defend. It also helps when they have two of the best, if not the best, defensive midfielders in the league in front of them. It’s not easy to exploit Chelsea in transiton because they have such a strong base. Something which has improved dramatically since the Arsenal game. For all the goals and wins this is a defensive side. And when you are defensively strong, you provide a great platform for success and positive attacking play.
This 3-4-3 is working to near perfection right now. And a big part of it, along with the organisation and understanding of roles and positions, is the simple idea of cohesion and consistency. This is now a settled side. It hardly changes, except for tactical changes with substiitions. But we know the XI and how they will set up. Compare this to Guardiola who has made the most changes this season, 50 in total. There’s evidently a sense that Guardiola doesn’t know his best side or is constantly seeking to try new ways to bring out better performances. Of course the irony to this is that at the start of the season, the more balanced and consistent selection brought out greater performances and results.
Conte either fell upon this formation or decided this was the one which would bring out the best in his players, and hasn’t it just! As mentioned, this is a side who can defend as a 5 + 2, meaning they are extremely orgnaised and solid, while knowing they have three fantastic forwards who offer strength, speed, 1v1 ability and finishing which makes them so effective. Costa is dominating defences and Hazard looks like one of the best in the world right now. They are enjoying their football. And Conte deserves a lot of praise for getting these players on board and focused on working hard.
What’s great about Chelsea is that they also have the quality to be a possession based side when needed and can control games with and without the ball. They use transitions excellently and have proved to be very good with set pieces also. This is the most complete side in the league, by a long way to be honest.
Compare them to City. Chelsea can do everything it seems and do it very well. City seem stuck on focusing on build up play and dominating possession yet are neglecting the other key elements which successful sides need and have. Guardiola’s previous sides were the best and most successful when they worked hard defensively, when they pressed, when they transitioned. His side now aren’t doing this right now. But Conte’s are. Confidence does that to players.
Compare the body language and self-confidence in Chelsea, reminiscent to City early in the season. City have lost that now. Guardiola’s test as coach will be to re-ignite his team’s energy and willingness to defend. Credit to Conte, after the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal he seemed vulnerable and under pressure. He’s adapted and worked hard with his side and turned it around. Both are great coaches, their trophy haul in recent years proves that, but this league requires constant work and focus. It may have it’s faults but this league demands of it’s side consistent focus and energy. You can’t afford to be complacent or casual. Guardiola now has his greatest challenge as a coach, it will be fascinating to see what he can do when his back is against the wall.
By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)