Monday 18 December 2017

Miguel Delaney: Pep's philosophy in desperate need of win after stuttering run

Victory against Saints would end worrying downward march of Guardiola's side

This is just the third time in more than seven years of management that Guardiola has
This is just the third time in more than seven years of management that Guardiola has

Miguel Delaney

After the public dismay and discussion about recent results, Pep Guardiola was keen to add one comment to it all at his Friday press conference. He pointed out that, even as Manchester City won 10 games in a row at the start of the season and so many made grand statements about his side, he consistently said they "were not ready to win the Premier League".

While this was obviously an understandable attempt to keep talk about his team measured either way, it's probably fair to say he didn't expect quite such a swing in results either. He certainly isn't used to it. Because, out of all the stats repeated in the aftermath of the 4-0 evisceration at the feet of Barcelona, there is one that should stand out.

This is just the third time in more than seven years of management that Guardiola has failed to win for four games. One of those was at the end of a season at Bayern Munich, after a title had already been secured, rendering it a bit irrelevant. If Southampton avoid defeat at the Etihad today, though, it will also match the other of those runs. That was the only time Guardiola has failed to win in five games.

Before anyone gets too excited about how instructive this is about Guardiola's ability to adapt to the vaunted intensity of the Premier League, it's worth noting when that spell came. It was February-March 2009 at Barcelona. So, the worst run of Guardiola's career still led to his best season - and best year - as he won a treble amidst every available trophy.

The Catalan did have Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta actually in his team rather than tormenting him, though, and it's still difficult not to think the last three weeks have indicated this season is going to be much more of a challenge.

The aura of invincibility has at the very least started to evaporate, replaced by a pressure to get winning again and get the season back on course. It is not just that City's run of successive wins from Guardiola taking over was so abruptly stopped, and hasn't started again, creating this doubt over whether their opening form was little more than one of those early-season periods of grace. It is that Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur showed a specific way to get at them, before Barcelona showed everyone the type of team that really should be feared. And it is evidently not City.

Comparisons with Guardiola's best teams at Barca and Bayern have instead turned to comparisons with last season, when Manuel Pellegrini's City lost two successive games - including one comprehensive defeat at White Hart Lane - and never recovered. A zip was gone, and there's a slight wonder whether it is repeating.

This run, after all, has led to other complications. City are no longer just not winning. They have challenges to solve. Claudio Bravo has become a problem, at least in terms of the reaction to any single slip. It's highly possible the goalkeeper could end up being talked about as one Guardiola's most important signings but, right now, he is one of the players inadvertently turning mere defeats into big debates on style. For a number of reasons, mostly the way England number one Joe Hart was jettisoned for him, every error he makes is being treated as more than an error; more than a player adapting to a new country and team. He has almost become a proxy for wider scepticism of Guardiola's idealism and judgement; an opportunity to argue he's overrated. Further up the pitch, an undeniable dependency on the drive of Kevin De Bruyne has been exposed, and there are now stories of Sergio Aguero's anxiety after being dropped for Barcelona.

City sources say it is true some of the coaching staff feel the Argentine could do much more in general play rather than just be a finisher, but they also point out Guardiola wasn't actually that sold on Robert Lewandowski on first signing him, but gradually convinced the Bayern striker of the need to improve his all-round game. They also point to the training ground as a key factor in what is going on now.

As Guardiola stressed on Friday, "after three months together, you cannot imagine how difficult it is to build something. Barcelona have been playing together for 15 years, they play in a natural way". That intensity to his own management is also one reason why we're unlikely to see last season repeated. The City boss is trying to develop that core philosophy but also striving to maintain the unpredictability and vitality that defines his teams.

To do that, he tactically plans in cycles between international matches. Guardiola will come up with a specific strategy or team movement that initially takes opposition sides by surprise, but then switches up before too many can cotton on. Those who have worked with the Catalan say it is why his sides are often at their slowest just after coming back from international duty, as the squad are getting used to it, and just before the next trip, when opposition are getting used to it.

Back a week now, does that mean they will back at their optimum against Southampton? Recent results mean they at least need to win. If they do blow Southampton away, though, Guardiola would argue that they don't need the sudden swing in opinion that comes with it.

Manchester City v Southampton

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