Paul Hayward's weekend lowdown: Pep Guardiola is misguided to talk about the English 'long ball'
Pep Guardiola rolled out an immortal phrase to describe what he thinks you will see this weekend. “The ball don’t travel with the team,” he said, arcing his hand from defence to attack to denote the English long-ball game.
Manchester City’s manager was not lumping every side into this category - he exempted “Tottenham and Chelsea” - in an interview with Gary Lineker on the BBC, but his disdain for the second-ball was plain.
“It’s boring,” he said of the need to train for incoming bombardments of his artistic City team. “I like to train the things I like.
“In Spain, the ball is so important. So important. In Germany the physicality is strong and the counter-attack is a strong weapon.
"Here [in England], the defender is here [using his hand to mark one end of the pitch] and the striker is here [the other]. This kind of ball, if you win, it’s good. If you lose, it’s a counter-attack. That way football in England is nice because it’s box to box and it’s attractive for the people. It’s difficult to change what’s in your blood, your body - and all the history of playing that way.”
Guardiola, it should be said, was not disparaging the English footballer. He mentioned his own Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Kyle Walker, as well as Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Adam Lallana as examples of Englishmen who “want to play.”
But the claim is dubious, because it ignores the reality that only eight of the 20 Premier League managers are British, while only around a third of starting players are eligible for England selection.
‘English football’ no longer exists at Premier League level. It does further down, but not in a world where the top eight managers in the table are all from overseas.
At these clubs, the ‘English lads’ in the dressing room are not the dominant voice, and whatever is in their “blood, their body,” is not shaping tactics on the pitch.
Guardiola is on safer ground if he is alluding to games against West Brom, Stoke, Burnley and perhaps Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace, but none of those sides, with the arguable exception of West Brom, could be described as purely a Route One operation.
Where direct play exists, it has returned to respectability as one option in a team’s arsenal, rather than as a religion. Stoke, for example, might try to cut you up with Xherdan Shaqiri, or hurt you late with high balls to Peter Crouch.
Most Premier League spectators like that mix of styles. And they know that trying to match Guardiola’s team on the floor is a quick route to a 6-0 thrashing.
So if Guardiola finds teams scrapping for “second balls” on the edge of his penalty box, it’s likely to be because the opposing manager has declined to get into a passing contest with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. At the top, the English football “culture” has been erased by cosmopolitanism.
Guardiola mentioned long balls to “[Marouane] Fellaini and [Paul] Pogba,” in this respect - a gentle cuff at Manchester United, which Lineker picked up on. You could imagine Jose Mourinho’s face. At United, most of the time, nowadays, the ball does travel with the team.
A Premier League return for Carlo Ancelotti?
Carlo Ancelotti could yet end up back in the Premier League, but there is no rule on these islands protecting title-winning managers from the sack, as Ancelotti knew already from his time at Chelsea.
The firing of Bayern Munich’s manager this week prompted plenty of sniffy comment about how hard it is to please Germany’s biggest club and their politically powerful dressing room.
Yet England’s top division is no safer. Ancelotti lost his job at Chelsea 12 months after winning the league and the FA Cup. Jose Mourinho was ejected from the same club seven months after carrying the Premier League trophy around Stamford Bridge. Most infamously, Claudio Ranieri won the league with 5,000-1 shots, Leicester City, but was chopped nine months on from that miracle.
Even the current king, Antonio Conte, looked none too steady on his horse in the months after Chelsea won last season’s championship - partly for reasons to do with his own conduct.
champagne-drenched manager could see his moment of victory these days as the start of something big. It’s just as likely to be the end. The reason: colossal player power.
Turf Moor blockers putting bodies on the line
Burnley could block a winter storm. Their defenders are running up some amazing stats for frustrating the opposition with physical self-sacrifice.
In the Premier League’s analysis, Ben Mee leads the table for blocks with 15. James Tarkowski is close behind on 12 and Jack Cork has 10. The clearance stats are all Burnley too. Tarkowski has made 44 headers out of the danger area, with only Brighton’s Shane Duffy (47) higher placed. Mee has 34. On the ground, Tarkowski can claim 62 clearances.
Managers these days reserve a special mention for defenders “who enjoy defending,” rather than trying to impersonate Franz Beckenbauer. Negation often looks like a hard thing to enjoy, but Burnley’s goal-protectors find pleasure in strange places.
Arsenal looking great on paper
If Arsenal could send their balance sheet out onto the pitch this weekend, Brighton would be in trouble: turnover above £400m for the first time, a £44.6m pre-tax profit, large cash reserves and wages at 47.2% of income. If only financial reports could win titles.
The late, greatly wealthy Freddy
Freddy Shepherd will be mourned by some Newcastle fans when Liverpool come to Tyneside, but the late chairman was no textbook philanthropist. Accounts published in 2009 showed that the Sir John Hall and Shepherd families made almost £146m from their years at St James’ Park.