Sunday 21 January 2018

James Lawton: Guardiola’s La La Land may not have Hollywood ending

City manager in tight corner as Spurs bring perfect storm

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

Pep Guardiola may not yet be a dead coach walking but few great football reputations will have been as imperilled as his when Spurs arrive at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow.

Certainly the man who reigned so brilliantly at Barcelona, who gave football the tiki-taka style that some thought had changed the game forever, has never been in a tighter corner.

Never before has his self-belief been probed so deeply. Never has he looked so short of the conviction which underpinned his superb career as a player and a coach.

Guardiola was supposed to dominate the Premier League, create an unanswerable combination of sophisticated football and vast wealth. Now, he fights to survive and, some say appropriately, takes his battered troops to see a hit musical movie entitled 'La La Land'.

Manchester City, so toothless, so inept while crumbling 4-0 at Everton last Sunday, might have been better off at an old war movie. Tomorrow they face a team displaying all those qualities which separate consistent winners from those still searching for an effective way to play.

Expression

As City's big-name players struggle, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen are reaching for new levels of expression, while the Spurs' defence bristles with efficiency and an urge to thrust forward.

Their coach, Mauricio Pochettino, is so popular, so persuasive, he has managed to talk the notoriously frugal Daniel Levy into improving the contracts of their top players which, if not buying their loyalty, make them much less vulnerable to financial overtures from China and all points west.

Early in the season, Spurs were the first to question the certainties implied in City's hiring of the world's most celebrated coach.

They announced, in a 2-0 win at White Hart Lane, that they were a team of uncommon composure and flair. And they did the same, quite beautifully, earlier this month by stopping dead the apparently relentless march of Antonio Conte's Chelsea.

Then, last week, the normally combative, eighth-placed West Brom were mastered so effortlessly that their tough old pro manager Tony Pulis shook his head in bewilderment.

It means that, for Guardiola and City's dismayed hierarchy, tomorrow carries the threat of a perfect storm.

Even confirmation of the £27m signing of 19-year-old Brazilian scoring prodigy Gabriel Jesus seems less like a gleam of sure-fire redemption than a small pocket of light amid some very dark clouds.

What has happened to City? They have become a porous mess, ageing, irresolute and utterly lacking any sign of a central, driving intelligence.

There are deficiencies which have brought four defeats in their last eight Premier League games and left them two points and one place away from the Champions League places.

Most critically, they have brought on the biggest question of all: What has happened to Guardiola?

Where is his poise on the touchline, his innovation on the tactics board? When will he begin to organise a defence which is variously showing its age (Kolarov, Sagna, Clichy, Zabaleta), its rawness (John Stones) and dangerous volatility (Claudio Bravo and Nicolas Otamendi)?

And where is the cohesion and balance that might get more consistent results from the outstanding but currently flickering talent of such as Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva?

Will Yaya Toure, as he approaches his 34th birthday, ever again produce anything like his old grandeur?

They are questions bound to haunt Guardiola (below) ahead of tomorrow's match - along with the one posed by Manchester United's Alex Ferguson when he heard that his young, all-conquering rival was about to walk away from the sublime Barcelona of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Barca destroyed United in the 2011 Champions League final and afterwards Ferguson openly wondered why a 40-year-old coach, already among the legends of his trade, would choose to walk away from such a group of players.

"I can't tell Pep Guardiola what to do," said Ferguson. "But I do question the wisdom of walking away from a team filled with players of such quality.

"In this life, this game, you never know if you will ever have such good luck ever again."

Undeterred, Guardiola took a break in New York, whiled away some of his time at the great Metropolitan art museum, and presumably imagined that he would resume the pursuit of football masterpieces, refreshed, re-charged, in his own good time.

But it was speculation that wilts, at least for the moment, beside the weight of Ferguson's basic point that if you are in possession of the genius of a Messi, the force of Xavi and the brilliant midfield acumen of Iniesta, there will never be a time quite like the present.

No doubt Guardiola has reasons to believe that he can reinvent both himself and Manchester City. But, if he needed any evidence that football has a habit of moving on without too much sentiment, he need only consider the growing speculation that his successor at the Nou Camp, Luis Enrique, might be nearing the end of a regime which not so long ago was rivalling his own greatest achievements?

And who is it Barca are said to have in mind as Enrique's successor? The great Guardiola, to be rescued from his ordeal in the north of England?

Rumoured

No, the number one candidate is rumoured to be the man who will stand a few yards down the Eithad touchline tomorrow, coolly orchestrating what could be the most devastating blow yet to the besieged reputation of Guardiola.

At 44, Pochettino is still without a major trophy but his work at Southampton and Spurs, after a promising start at his old club Espanyol - his first result as coach was a 0-0 draw with Guardiola's Barca - has put him in the front rank of a new generation of coaches.

The sensational rise of Kane and Alli is widely attributed to Pochettino's careful nurturing and this week Kane celebrated his hat-trick against West Brom with the assertion: "I think he is the best coach in the world. He makes you believe there is nothing you can't achieve."

Players, and not least Messi, used to say that about Guardiola. But that was before he stopped to smell the flowers and find himself, at least for a while, in a football version of La La Land.

Irish Independent

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