Guardiola's total football model vindicated

AP
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was basking in a victory that might have wrapped up the Premier League title and turned on the skeptics who doubted him.
AP

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was basking in a victory that might have wrapped up the Premier League title by early December and turned on the skeptics who doubted his philosophy could work in English soccer.

“People said in England you cannot play that way,” Guardiola said after City’s 2-1 win at Manchester United last Sunday. “In England, you can play that way as well.”

And who can argue with him? His team is setting standards never before seen in the history of England’s top division — and doing it in style, too.

With the 4-0 victory over Swansea City on Wednesday, City has won a record 15 straight games — a feat never achieved in the 129-year history of England’s top division — and dropped just two points all season, to establish an 11-point lead after 17 games. They’ve scored the most goals (52) and conceded the fewest (11) in the league. According to Opta, the official statistics supplier to the Premier League, City has an average possession of 71.6 percent in matches, an average pass accuracy of 88.5 percent, and has had more touches in the opposition box (616) than any other team.

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Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola (center right) celebrates with his team at the end of his side’s English Premier League victory over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford last Sunday. City won 2-1.

Even in the toughest periods of his first season as City, when the team was eliminated in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League and clinched a top-four finish in the league only on the final day, Guardiola never wavered from his belief in the fundamentals of his philosophy: Dominating possession; attacking at every opportunity and trying to win every game.

He often paid lip service to English soccer devotees who felt he needed to tweak his tactics to succeed in the Premier League, notably because of the intensity of the schedule, the weather and the perceived high standard of the top division. 

Maybe he did so to downplay expectations, too. “I’m not going to change England and I don’t want to do that,” Guardiola said in January, when City was toiling amid a period of inconsistent results midway through last season. 

“Of course, it’s going to change me. That’s why I came here — to be changed.”

In some subtle aspects, perhaps the man from Catalunya has changed. 

He’s recognized the importance of the second ball, acknowledged that his team will not control every game for 90 minutes and grown to understand the difference with English referees.

But deep down, Guardiola was never going to change. His philosophy, developed at Barcelona under the tutelage of his mentor, and one-time coach, Johan Cruyff, was too ingrained. Only now does he feel he is being vindicated.

“We are clear, we are open,” Guardiola said after the win at Old Trafford. “We want the ball, want to attack, want to try to win the games in the way we believe. The others can do whatever they want. My players want to play, want to attack.

“Sometimes they’re quicker, sometimes they’re faster, but they’re not a team who try to look for something special. Because we are honest. We’re going to face the opponent face-to-face, to try to win.”

Imaginechina

Pep Guardiola shouts instructions to his team while Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho looks on in the background during the Sunday game.

Guardiola has treated matches away to big rivals United and Chelsea in the same way he has any other side. And he doesn’t hide it.

City had 65 percent possession against United, which had supposedly regained its so-called fear factor at Old Trafford having not lost there in 40 games in all competitions, and had almost double the number of shots (14 to 8).

In September, City went to Chelsea and beat the defending champion 1-0 with a display that was even more dominant than that against United. 

In both games, Guardiola played a front three with two attacking wingers, and playmakers David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield.

There was no obvious sign of tailoring his formation according to the opposition.

“We came here, like we were at Stamford Bridge and all the games since I came here, to try to win,” Guardiola said. “And I’m so happy.”

Last season, Guardiola maybe placed too much faith in the ability of some City players who weren’t good enough or skilled enough to carry out his orders. 

His full backs, for example, weren’t technically gifted enough to move into midfield and either contribute to attacks or be an initial block to a counterattack. Now, after another spending spree last summer, he is close to having his ideal team.

Xavi Hernandez, a playmaker and captain under Guardiola at Barcelona, said upon the coach’s arrival in the Premier League in the summer of 2016 that Guardiola “changed world football” and “is one of the few people who can change English football”.

The manner of City’s relentless march to the Premier League title shows Xavi could be right.

When he was presented as City manager in July 2016, Guardiola — in an attempt not to sound too arrogant — said that “to come to the country which created football and believe you have to change something, would be a little bit presumptuous.”

“I’m not good enough to change everything,” he said then.

Maybe he is.

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