Last season Manchester City endured the worst start suffered by Pep Guardiola in his managerial career and still won the league, easing up towards the line, by 12 points. They’ve won three of the past four Premier League titles, in which time they’ve averaged 91 points per season. Last season they scored 10 more goals than anybody else and conceded four fewer. By the time this season gets going, they may have signed Harry Kane and Jack Grealish. How on earth, then, do you stop them?
The easiest way, perhaps, is to play them in the later stages of the Champions League, where Guardiola’s tinkering remains a major concern. Set up a difficult one-off game and give him time to think about it and there is a decent chance he will devise a way of playing that breaks his own side’s rhythm and ends up bringing about the fate he is so determined to avoid.
The decision to omit both Rodri and Fernandinho in the Champions League final could haunt City. It may be that if, as seems likely, the clubs backed by state investment funds and oligarchs – less affected by market forces and the pandemic downturn – find their advantages magnified and come to dominate, that the defeat to Chelsea in Porto ends up being seen as merely part of the greater narrative, the first all-petroclub final, a last slip by City before a golden age of European success. But it is also possible that the ramifications of that switch could linger.
Guardiola is a brilliant coach. He takes great players and makes them better. Over the past 13 years he has changed how football is played, the parameters of what is considered possible. But he has his flaw in the Champions League, one magnified by repetition so that it seems in the biggest games he does not quite trust his process but must cover for the opportunities it affords the opposition.
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No system is failsafe; Guardiola’s teams dominate games by controlling possession and pressing high up the pitch, but that inevitably means that if a team can beat City’s press – which is extremely difficult – there will be space behind the defensive line they can exploit. What made the glitch in the Champions League final so unexpected was that Guardiola last season had made an adjustment to his approach that seemed in part to have lessened the danger posed by other sides on the break. It was rare that both full-backs went forward at once – an issue Louis van Gaal had highlighted in Guardiola’s second season in England – and, by often keeping five men behind the ball, City were able to close down opposition counters more efficiently than in the past. And yet, at the last, Guardiola lost faith.
The question is whether there comes a point at which that fatal tendency starts to undermine the players’ belief in him. What did Fernandinho or Rodri think when they saw the team sheet for that final, and then saw Kai Havertz steaming through the space in front of the back four where a holding midfielder might reasonably be expected to have been? Perhaps all that is outweighed by Guardiola’s obvious gifts – players must equally know that they have improved under him – but he is an intense and difficult figure and it would be no great surprise if some started to question whether it is worth putting up with his constant demands if he is then also the person costing them the greatest prize.
Raheem Sterling hinted that all might not entirely be well at City in his post-match interview after England’s 1-0 win over Croatia during the Euros when he observed there were “a lot of different reasons” for his poor form over the final two months of the domestic season. It’s a sign of City’s might, of course, that every slight potential flaw is seized upon – and if Kane and Grealish arrive, Sterling may not be around much longer anyway – but Guardiola’s is a method that demands absolute buy-in: sophisticated pressing will break down with the slightest inefficiency in any part of the mechanism; any doubts in the theory, any reluctance to carry out instruction.
Which is to say that if it does go wrong for City, it could go wrong spectacularly and quickly. But realistically, it is very unlikely to go wrong. The addition last season of Rúben Dias and the re-emergence of John Stones cleared up the major weakness in their squad. Guardiola’s method doesn’t require a centre-forward, but with the departure of Sergio Agüero there is an obvious vacancy; Kane would be a clear upgrade – at least given Guardiola’s reluctance to field the Argentinian. The direct running of Leroy Sané was never replaced, but Grealish offers a different kind of threat from a similar area. Even the possible shortfall at the back of midfield has been covered by offering Fernandinho a year’s extension to his contract. A squad that was formidable last season is likely to be even more so this.
So how can Premier League opponents unsettle City? They lost six times in the league last season, and in the FA Cup. The first two of those defeats, at home to Leicester and away at Tottenham, came in the early part of the season before City had really got going, while Guardiola was still revising his approach. There was then a defeat by Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjær again upsetting Guardiola by having his side sit deep and strike on the break. As City’s focus shifted to the Champions League, there were defeats to Leeds and Brighton, again both founded on the counterattack.
But most significant were three defeats in a row to Chelsea: in the FA Cup, league and then Champions League final. It obviously helps if you have a squad as gifted as Chelsea’s, but the message is clear: even with Guardiola’s tweaks, the best way to beat City is to absorb pressure, ideally not too deep, blocking the passing lanes into the box, and then look to spring into that space behind the defensive line.
Knowing the formula, though, is only the very first step; putting a plan into action against an exceptional team is another matter altogether.