Wednesday 21 February 2018

Miguel Delaney: History turned on its head for elder statesman and young pretender

Guardiola has held edge over Wenger in the past but that could be about to change this afternoon

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will be hoping attacker Alexis Sanchez can make hay against the Manchester City defence in this afternoon’s game. Photo: PA
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will be hoping attacker Alexis Sanchez can make hay against the Manchester City defence in this afternoon’s game. Photo: PA

Miguel Delaney

When the question is put to Arsene Wenger, there isn't even a moment's hesitation. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona of 2008-'11 are easily the best team he has faced in his career.

"Yes," Wenger immediately answers. "I played a semi-final against Milan with Monaco. They were good as well, but with Arsenal we faced maybe Barcelona at its peak - at the time when Xavi was young enough, [Andres] Iniesta was coming up. They were the best team I have played."

Wenger is so enthused, in fact, he comes back to it when asked a totally different question. "They were all hungry, young," he recalls. "[Leo] Messi was 20, 21, 22. They were all coming up with a huge hunger and desire. It was all natural for them."

So far, though, very little of it has come naturally to Guardiola's Manchester City. They've been so laboured of late. The Catalan must feel a long way from such Barcelona peaks, because he is currently suffering what is by far the worst run of results in his career. That fact alone has refuelled a lot of the old debates that have dogged Guardiola's career, especially in England: how much of his success was down to his players; whether the Premier League really is a more demanding competition; whether the vaunted reputation he came with was really worth such acclaim?

It's been impossible not to detect a real glee within some of that, a delight at the notion that this revered foreign genius is finally getting a reality check. From that perspective, the visit of Arsenal to the Etihad today is timely. Wenger could tell Guardiola a fair bit about hostile receptions to new ideas.

"I should get some newspapers when I arrived here," the Arsenal manager said at his Friday press conference. You really only have to read one of the comments from that 1996-'97 season, when Wenger had just arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, to realise the extent of it. It came from someone he now considers a friend, and whose words carried more weight than anyone. In April of that campaign, as a debate about fixture congestion grew and the French manager suggested the outlandish idea of extending the season, Alex Ferguson snapped back: "He's a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football."

Even allowing for passive-aggressive comments from Sean Dyche and Tony Pulis about how they - yes - also get their players to run more, Guardiola has heard nothing close to that, but the derision did reach a peak last week. Some of that was understandable, as Leicester City found it ludicrously simple to score against City. It was all the worse because the defending champions were supposed to be the side that were easy to read this season, not the sophisticated ideas of Guardiola.

The reality is obviously a lot less simplistic than the way Jamie Vardy so regularly scored against City, and that goes right back to the original debate about Guardiola's Barcelona. Yes, of course he benefited from having some of the best players in the world. That's obvious. Anyone would.

Just having the best players in the world, however, isn't enough to be talked about as one of the best teams of all time. You need something more, something that fully maximises the talent you've got. You need everything. That's what that Barcelona were. That's what Guardiola ensured, and was a key factor in. They were the perfect union of players, idea and manager.

The manager had a clear innovative idea on how to get the best out of such a talented group of players, and the players innately understood the idea, because so many of them had grown up in the same Barcelona philosophy as the manager.

Guardiola has not had that at City. Worse, those close to the City hierarchy say Guardiola has actually been surprised that the tactical education of so many of the players has been so basic. He found a squad that had only played the loosest 4-4-2 formation under Manuel Pellegrini, and where the attackers barely had any tactical instruction. It helped explain why the Chilean's City side were so inconsistent, looking so brilliant for four matches, then dismally lax for the next two.

That is a world away from what Guardiola has been trying to instil. He is trying to get the players to the point where they all understand how to play various roles, so they can seamlessly interchange in a match, and then just completely outmanoeuvre opposition sides. A classic example of that without his Barcelona core ironically came in Guardiola's first trip to the Etihad, in his first season at Bayern Munich.

The German champions simply unravelled City back in October 2013, in a 3-1 win that felt like a 7-0. They were that good. Players like Philipp Lahm and David Alaba understood what he wanted so well. When the players don't fully understand it, though, you see what has been happening at City for the last two months. The manoeuvres are still a bit too complex for the team, leading to chasms occasionally opening up between the players for opposition forwards to stroll through. For all the debate that has provoked, though, it is understood most of the players - particularly Kevin De Bruyne - still think Guardiola is "class". They still think he improves so many aspects of their game, and still think he needs time.

Time still doesn't excuse perplexing decisions, though. No matter what Guardiola is trying to get his players to understand, it's still hard to comprehend how he could play a backline featuring one novice centre-half and three full-backs in front of a goalkeeper low on confidence against that Leicester attack. It's all the more surprising when it is known that the City manager wants to upgrade in January, in central defence, central midfield and full-back.

Some of this comes down to a classic football dilemma, really. A manager wants to build a long-term philosophy but can't do it without the confidence derived from short-term results, but those short-term results might not come without the compromises that could damage long-term building and the bedding-in of ideas. Figuring out the balance is key. Guardiola doesn't seem to have it right now.

For his part, Wenger is known to be a huge admirer of the Catalan, and probably falls on his side of the argument. He seemed to make that clear on Friday, stating: "I think he has strong beliefs and that is the most important thing for a manager."

But for all the debate about Wenger and how justifiably heralded he was for the revolution he brought to English football, he did have one significant advantage when he arrived. He didn't quite have the tactical blank slate Guardiola does. He had a ready-made title-winning back four, but also one ready for his ideas. Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn have talked about this enough over the years.

History has been inverted in other ways. Once a revolutionary like Guardiola, Wenger is now the conservative elder statesman, whose opinion is sought on everything. He has been peppered with questions about the new generation of managers, and that itself reached a peak on Friday, with so many questions about Guardiola. It was difficult not to feel some sympathy for Wenger, as his input to a game he is involved in almost felt ignored.

Sympathy is not needed, however, because there's another irony. After all the talk about so many new managers and what they represent, Wenger is still there, still in the top four. His longevity might actually be an advantage this season, because it has ensured he has a side that is gradually coming together. There has been a focus about Arsenal that has been absent from sides like City, and you could genuinely fear for what the directness of Alexis Sanchez could do to that Guardiola backline.

Victory would be all the more meaningful for Wenger because of how many times the Catalan has reduced his sides to rubble. They've met on eight occasions, and Guardiola's sides have won four of those games, all of them by two goals or more.

Now, it is Wenger above Guardiola, and he can go four points clear to really assert his superiority. That's the opportunity. That, however, is precisely why victory would still mean more to Guardiola. He needs to get back up to speed, to reassert that he should be setting the pace.

  • Manchester City v Arsenal, Sky Sports 1, 4.0

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