Monday 11 December 2017

John Giles - Pep Guardiola spent big but is profiting from allowing his players to express themselves

Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola

As an examination of Manchester City’s credentials as the most likely team to relieve Chelsea of their Premier League crown, their big win at Stamford Bridge deserves top marks.

I was very impressed with everything City did from front to back and while always inserting a rider at this stage in any season, my instinct tells me that this is an improving team and that Guardiola has made a great deal of progress.

City comprehensively outplayed a Chelsea team I fully expected to win but I could have no argument with the result, other than to suggest it could have been worse for Antonio Conte.

I see that momentum is gathering behind the hint he gave on Italian radio last week suggesting that he is ready to return to his homeland after just two seasons in the Premier League.

Whether there is any truth in the suggestion that he is already sounding out Serie A clubs or not, speculation will not go away and that is not good for Chelsea.

Just look back a few short years and Jose Mourinho’s implosion. Conte has had to deal with just as much interference but his answer was to accept his fate until he can find a better alternative and I think his players recognised that and settled in for the season.

But with more speculation in the air about next summer, there is the chance that Conte could become a lame duck. There’s no sign of it at the moment but it’s something to keep a close eye on.

It won’t help Conte’s state of mind that Guardiola’s team outplayed Chelsea on their own ground and that the City manager is fully on top of his job after what can only be described as an eccentric first season at the Etihad.

For a start, I’m pretty sure we have seen the last of the mad experiment he tried with full-backs and his goalkeeper. The current version of City has a nice balance between defence and attack.

I don’t think Guardiola has compromised one bit on his willingness to encourage bravery among his players which is, in turn, a courageous thing for any manager to do.

Any manager can spend a lot of money on the best players but very few will then let them do what their talent allows them to do.

I see Guardiola’s willingness to support his players’ skills with his total backing in every aspect of City’s play so far this season but there is a much better balance to the team now and the only variable is consistency.

City had a hot streak a year ago too but collapsed under the weight of expectation which Guardiola’s arrival brought and I’ll suspend judgement for another few months

I can’t help but contrast City’s stunning recent form with Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, who, loosely speaking, subscribes to the same philosophy as Guardiola but is completely blind to the shortcomings of his team in defence.

He makes noises which suggest he is trying to fix the problems Liverpool have been struggling with but he is damning himself with his own words.

After drawing with Newcastle, he spoke about all the chances his players had missed and barely mentioned the terrible defending which cost Klopp another two points. His team is now seven off the pace and there’s just six weeks of the season gone by.

Is he in trouble? He certainly is. He believes that somehow everything will click and Liverpool will get the points “they deserve”. In Klopp’s mind, this means that his attacking players will find their scoring boots and convert some of the chances they’ve been missing.

But he keeps ignoring the elephant in the room. Liverpool keep giving away goals which would embarrass a park football team and Klopp doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

Instead, he talks obsessively about the chances missed and doesn’t seem to understand that if Liverpool had got the defending right against Newcastle, he wouldn’t have needed another goal. One would have been enough.

I don’t think this is just about the personnel but it would certainly help Klopp a great deal if whoever is responsible for buying players is making certain that Virgil van Dyke or other quality defenders will come to the club in January.

By then, Liverpool could well be battling for fourth place at best and patience at Anfield wearing thin.

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