Sunday 25 August 2019

Stephen Hunt: Pep's not that far off with his City plans - but he needs to get more streetwise and protect his 'keeper

Netminder Bravo is having a tough time but Guardiola is close to getting his tactics right

Pep Guardiola has struggled a bit so far this season, but his players need time to adapt to his tactics. Photo: Getty Images
Pep Guardiola has struggled a bit so far this season, but his players need time to adapt to his tactics. Photo: Getty Images

Stephen Hunt

Every manager I played under had the same set-piece, and it was so simple, but I would use it to cause a lot of difficulties for Pep Guardiola and Claudio Bravo.

I'm sure you'd recognise it. It's called the 'bus stop', and would involve all the players lining up on the penalty spot. The set-piece taker would then launch the ball deep and high onto that spot, the 'keeper would come, and it would just be chaos; one big mess. Out of that, you would then try and score on the second ball. It's something that could get repeated joy against Bravo right now, because of his vulnerability. It's not even like John Stones is a Nemanja Vidic who will just clear people out in that situation to head the ball away.

If I was playing City today - as Arsenal are - I would regularly use it without hesitation, and would expect a fair bit of joy out of it. The fact you can even think like that, against a manager as celebrated as Guardiola, shows the issues he's got right now.

I still have a lot of admiration for him, though. He's taken an awful lot of stick in the last few weeks, and it would be easy for me to jump on the bandwagon now, but I think it's all bit more complex than the way this debate usually goes.

I actually don't think City will win the league. I think they'll finish second, behind Liverpool, who I'm sticking with from pre-season. That might surprise you given Chelsea's recent winning streak, but the key with the leaders is how they respond when teams realise how to rumble the tactic that has led to that run. That is why I'd still have questions there, and why I think City will finish above them.

Chelsea's run also complicates the most important question about Guardiola, and that is whether he is doing as you would expect right now. I wouldn't say City are too far off, actually. Despite the difficulties of recent results, they're a point ahead of where they were last year after 16 games, and that was when they were still right in the title hunt before the collapse - when it really went wrong. It's just no one could have guessed Chelsea would go on a run like this, and City would surely be closer otherwise.

Have I been impressed with the performances? Yes and no.

When Guardiola's approach is working, it's absolutely brilliant and great to watch. When it isn't, though, it just looks very naive.

Those are the stakes of the football he's trying to play. That's the line.

Of course, a big thing here is that Guardiola knows he has absolutely full backing from the City hierarchy. That's why he can freely talk about the "sack", as he did the other day, because he knows there's no prospect of it. I actually thought he handled those questions very well on Tuesday and took the pressure off himself. You could even see it after they beat Watford, that there was just this calm satisfaction. That was in contrast to Jose Mourinho after Manchester United's win at Crystal Palace, as he seemed to make such a big show of hugging the players.

It didn't actually look that natural to me, since it wasn't like they were back in the top four after a long time or anything. The simple feat of winning two consecutive games for the first time since August didn't really match the extent of the celebration. It was as if Mourinho was trying too consciously to generate momentum. Guardiola wasn't like that. Now it might be different if it was March and he was 11th or 12th, but he isn't and he has the mandate to play his way.

In that regard, all the best managers are stubborn. Every single one of them. Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, take your pick. Even the way Klopp had a go at the Nevilles over Loris Karius, and then still dropped him - I'll tell you now that Klopp wasn't making that decision based on the media fuss. Top modern managers like him analyse everything, from the little signs at training to the reams of stats available to them, and gradually make their decision on that - not on the basis of the fans or the media. I thought he was right to drop the 'keeper, and I don't think his judgement was clouded by what happened with the Nevilles. No chance.

He was just clever enough to know when to do it anyway. Guardiola will be the same. Top managers may be stubborn, but they're not stupid. That's why Klopp changed the goalkeeper, that's why Guardiola doesn't bring full-backs inside so much, but I think he still has to adapt more.

That's his challenge now, and it starts right at number one. Guardiola does have to do a bit for Bravo, who I would have some sympathy for here, since he hasn't suddenly become a bad goalkeeper from his fine displays for Barcelona. The manager has to take a bit of responsibility to tackle the issue.

Now in all of this, you're always hearing murmurs about Joe Hart, but I don't think he's the answer. Guardiola clearly wants to play a certain way, but Hart's kicking still isn't good enough. He hasn't suddenly turned into a super goalkeeper, either. Don't forget he had a disastrous Euros, too, when he was caught on the wrong side of arrogance with everything he was saying. So he's not this hero that City should bring back. Anyone watching the Euros shouldn't fancy Hart, but you're always better when you're gone. I'm twice the player now that I'm a family fitness coach!

Bravo won't be such an issue if he's allowed be more selective with his kicking. I think he'll adapt to the physicality of the Premier League, just like David De Gea eventually did, but if Guardiola doesn't adapt to what opposition are doing to Bravo then he will remain in an awkward place.

It comes down to this: if the goalkeeper continues to play it out all the time, with no variation, English teams will continue to press and cause them problems. I think Spanish or German sides would sit back more, meaning always playing it isn't as dangerous. The specific problem here, though, is that it's almost part of the Premier League culture to press high; to always be trying to win the ball back. So it would help Bravo to change it up sometimes, to keep opposition guessing.

The City crowd have actually been a bit of an issue as well, and could be one reason why they went so long without winning at home. When the defenders and goalkeepers are passing along the back, after all, they know where it should be going and have a clear plan. Just like many English players, though, the crowd aren't yet used to that plan. Their enthusiasm to win the ball back and get it up the other end is greater than any other country, so there's automatically this impetus when City are in possession, and it can sometimes turn to anxiety. Until the Etihad fans adapt to this, opposition sides will fancy visiting City.

At the same time, Guardiola's own team are still learning his ways too, and he'll strengthen the side in January. I would expect him to bring in a centre-half and, especially, an aggressive defensive midfielder. There's also the fact he's played nearly every team in the league now, too, so he'll have a better idea of what England is about and be better prepared.

He just has to adapt a bit more himself, too. I know that sounds very basic, but it's true. I'd like to see a bit more variety, to be a bit more streetwise against teams, to not put his goalkeeper under so much pressure.

I would back him to get it right- it just might not be enough to win the league this season.

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