Friday 20 September 2019

City boss seeks steel to conquer in style

Guardiola insists he is 'pragmatic' and will adapt - without compromising 'principles'

Getting Alexis Sanchez to sign a new contract is hugely important to Arsenal’s hopes for success. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Getting Alexis Sanchez to sign a new contract is hugely important to Arsenal’s hopes for success. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

James Ducker

It would be easy to bill Manchester City's meeting with Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow afternoon as a showdown between the Premier League's two purists, but Pep Guardiola was keen to dismantle any notion of him perennially prioritising style over substance.

That is certainly an accusation that has been levelled at Arsene Wenger over the 12 years since Arsenal last won the title, but Guardiola believes that purism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.

The City manager is the first to admit that his introduction to English football has been an eye-opener.

But he is also adamant that it is not just the experience of the past six months that has taught him about the importance of allying silk with steel.

Guardiola insisted yesterday that he was a pragmatist as well as a perfectionist during his time as head coach at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. And he dismissed the idea that he is too inflexible to succeed in English football.

Guardiola has won 21 trophies since beginning his management career with Barcelona in 2008, becoming arguably the most sought-after coach in world football as a result.

His reputation, though, has taken a knock during a testing first few months at City, with several pundits suggesting that his passion for high pressing, possession-based football needs refining if he is to win titles in England.

Guardiola attracted plenty of criticism for saying, after last Saturday's 4-2 defeat at Leicester, that he did not coach his players how to tackle, with former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore suggesting that such an approach was "deluded".

The Catalan has acknowledged that he needs time to adapt to the demands of the Premier League, in which his team have fallen from first to fourth place after collecting only 15 points from the last 30 available.

He said: "I am the pragmatist. Look at my past, I am so pragmatic. I'm here because I won. I want to win. I'm so pragmatic, guys. I want to concede few goals and score goals.

"To build something, you need time. So I try, as much as possible, to make the team better. I think my perspective will need more time.

"I'm here to learn what works here. But at the end, it's 11 against 11, the pitch is the same. And try to, of course, adapt.

"But the principle isn't going to change. The principle is the opponent has the ball, I'm going to pick it up. I want the ball and, when I have the ball, to make a good build-up.

"I'm going to adapt, I am adapting to the league. Actually, I am adapting to the quality of my players.

"But the way I am going to play, every day that passes, I am more convinced what I want to do."

Asked if Arsenal's circumstances over the past decade had underlined to him the importance of marrying different qualities to achieve success in the Premier League, he was unequivocal. "I am pragmatic," he emphasised again.

Guardiola's logic is simple - he could not have won 21 leading trophies in seven seasons as a coach in Spain and Germany without his teams having a steely streak to complement their thrill-seeking DNA.

But the Premier League presents different challenges and Guardiola acknowledges he is still striving to find the right balance.

The question is whether he will prove to be better at finding it than Wenger, who he yesterday called Arsenal's "commander-in-chief".

It is a phrase Guardiola says he has found himself employing regularly after bingeing on Netflix television series such as House of Cards, which charts a Machiavellian politician's rise to the role of US president.

"I understand it's not easy to win the Premier League, but I have a lot of respect for his career," Guardiola said of Wenger.


"I admire the way he tries to play and especially the quality of the players they like and they buy.

"If we are lazy and not strong enough, they have the quality (to hurt us)."

During his time with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola pitted his wits against Wenger in eight Champions League fixtures, winning four and losing two. Perhaps significantly, Guardiola won all three of the two-legged knockout ties in which they met.

"We have a lot of respect," said Guardiola. "Arsenal always has a huge quality. They buy the right people, good players. They have fast players up front, they can defend well, use perfectly the counter-attack - they are a good team."

"I like the way his teams play. He has been here a long time. What that happens at a club such as Arsenal, it's because a person is doing a good job.

Meanwhile, City will seriously consider making a bid for Southampton central defender Virgil van Dijk next month if they continue to get exposed at the back over the coming weeks.

City would rather hold off on bringing in new players - apart from the arrival of Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus, who was bought in the summer - until the end of the season.

However, a repeat of the recent defensive performances that caused City to concede three goals against Chelsea and four at Leicester City could force the club into the market, with Van Dijk, who is also interesting Chelsea and Everton, earmarked as a potential target.

City go into this weekend's games in fourth place in the Premier League table and cannot risk failing to qualify for next season's Champions League.

Guardiola's team have conceded eight more goals than leaders Chelsea and fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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