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You can't bring about a revolution overnight


Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp need time to establish their methods with their players, but how long will they get? Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp need time to establish their methods with their players, but how long will they get? Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Getty Images

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp need time to establish their methods with their players, but how long will they get? Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

The fashion these days is to knife a manager at the first sign of trouble. Nobody is allowed to build, nobody is allowed to learn from a mistake. Move to a new country, take over a new team, try to adapt to a new environment, and if you're not winning titles six months later you're a fraud. Neither Jurgen Klopp nor Pep Guardiola are under pressure as such heading into today's game at the Etihad, but both are facing grumblings of discontent.

When Steve McClaren was sacked by Derby last week, it meant that a quarter of all league clubs had changed their manager in the previous 100 days.

Aitor Karanka's exit from Middlesbrough followed on Thursday. The level of churn is absurd and counterproductive on a number of levels. It's a troubling thought that, had they been working in the modern era, there is a significant chance Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby, Don Revie, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough (twice) and Alex Ferguson would all have been sacked before they had enjoyed real success.

Sacking managers has economic consequences and makes player recruitment over the long term chaotic. But there are also tactical implications. Short-termism breeds simplicity and conservatism. Few managers, knowing the sword is dangling over their heads, are going to take tactical risks, or are going to seek to impose a system that takes time for players to assimilate. Everything will be simplified; nobody will look beyond the next game.

Liverpool, in the first half of this season, showed what Klopp's approach can achieve, but it took lots of work last season and in the summer to get to that point. The issue now is to work out what has gone wrong since the turn of the year and put it right for next season (probably by expanding the squad, perhaps by trying to lessen the physical load at least to an extent and certainly by trying to improve the defence and work out a way of unlocking deep-lying opponents).

Guardiola's project, his basic theory of play, is more complex. His preferred term for his philosophy is juego de posiciĆ³n and to instil it he divides the training pitch into 20 sections. The lines marking the penalty areas are extended for the full length and width of the pitch, while the vertical lines marking the sides of the six-yard box are picked up again at the edge of the 18-yard box and extended to the edge of the other 18-yard box. The zones nearest the touchlines are then split again, halfway between the 18-yard and halfway lines.

The idea is that players adjust their position according to which zone the ball is in. But that is just the foundation: ideally players should be flexible enough to fill a zone that would, in the initial template, be filled by somebody else, creating a level of rotation to overman in key areas while maintaining a structure that should both offer passing options and maintain a defensive shape that can react effectively to the loss of possession and a counterattack by being immediately prepared to counter-press.

At its simplest level, the zone principle should mean that no more than three players are in a line horizontally and no more than two vertically: if a player moves into a zone that means four in the same horizontal line are occupied, one of the other three should automatically move. That should ensure that the man on the ball always has two or three passing options and allows possession to be retained - the endless rondos that Guardiola favours in training making his players supremely adept at giving and receiving the ball in tight spaces - which is why his sides regularly have so much of the ball.

When it is not aimed directly at the opposition goal, passing is designed to allow the team to generate the right structure, whether to mount an attack or to be prepared to counter-press. Guardiola has said it takes 15 passes for that structure to be created. There is, in other words, a direct link between offensive and defensive strategies.

"Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly?" Johan Cruyff asked during Guardiola's spell as coach at the Camp Nou. "It's because they don't have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres."

Instilling those positional ideas is difficult. While basic elements such as a holding midfielder dropping between the two centre-backs to overman when playing out from the back against two centre-forwards, or even the full-back coming inside when the winger goes wide and vice versa, can be readily grasped, the principle of responding constantly to a mental pitch map is rather harder.

At Barcelona, Guardiola was dealing with players who had been prepared for his extreme interpretation of the theory from their upbringing at La Masia; at Bayern Munich, he was working with players who had been instructed in a (more cautious) variant of the philosophy by Louis van Gaal.

At City, he was virtually starting from scratch, which is perhaps why implementation there has proved so much trickier. It seems likely there will be a clearout in the summer and that more signings will be made, but perhaps most important is that players who are already at the club assimilate the 20-zone system.

Since the defeat at Everton there have been promising signs in that direction, which perhaps explains why Guardiola was so clearly irritated by his players' lack of fight in the first half in Monaco. As he relentlessly rubbed ear and nose, only breaking off every now and again to scratch his chin, he reiterated that the defeat had not been the result of individual errors or tactics but of attitude. That, of course, is also partly his responsibility, but losing to Monaco in that way doesn't invalidate his more general strategic approach.

Today's game is essentially a battle for the minor places, a scrap to see who reaches the Champions League. That is a cause of frustration, particularly given how Antonio Conte has - with no European football - had an instant impact at Chelsea but, realistically, in both managers' first full season, at this point their sides were always going to be works in progress.

Manchester City v Liverpool

Sky Sports 1, 4.30


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