A Man Must Have a Code – the ‘Arrogance’ of Pep Guardiola

Pep thinking

Image courtesy of Daily Mirror

As Manchester United catastrophically lost to West Brom at Old Trafford to hand Manchester City the 2017-2018 Premier League title, I felt more than a tinge of satisfaction. Not that I was delighted that Manchester United (the team I have supported since I was about 7 or 8 years old) lost, but rather that Manchester City, playing how Pep Guardiola intends them to, were crowned champions. And in doing so, decimated the field. It provides a stark contrast to the rudderless display of United’s individuals against bottom-of-the-table West Brom which itself was a microcosm of United’s season so far – no tempo, patchy fluency and lacking identity.

As Guardiola motioned “one more” to the Manchester City faithful at the end of their impressive 3-1 victory over Spurs at Wembley yesterday, only the craziest punter would have *expected* that “one more” would have meant a Manchester United home defeat to West Brom. After a difficult 10 days, in which his team lost 3 games on the bounce to United and Liverpool (giving up leads in two of those), there was talk about Manchester City’s air of invincibility being swept away, of cracks in a city build on sandy foundations. Cracks, perhaps – the quest for perfection is a never-ending journey, but after their dominant win at Spurs, we were left in no doubt about the stability of the foundations created. The 16-point lead between the Champions and United is built on a code, the Guardiola code.

Guardiola has never hidden his code. To give his team the best chance to win the game, it must dominate the ball. “Without the ball, we are a humble team”. Rather than gamble on giving the opposition a chance to test his team’s weakness, he takes away that opportunity – by having the ball. When they don’t have it, they hunt for it. For him, it is easier to control your fate when you possess the reason for the game you play. There is one ball – he wants his team playing with it (exclusively). He has remained faithful to it. From the sterling work he did with Barcelona B, to creating a steamrollering juggernaut with the Barcelona first team, and then moving to Germany where he converted Bayern Munich into a relentless winning blackhole, swallowing all points available in Germany. And now, Manchester City. Towards the end of last season, as his side closed in on third place (and a trophy-less first season), his methods were questioned by all and sundry. “You can’t win with small players”, “You can’t win without physicality”, “the pace of English football is too fast for your ‘brand of football’”. They came for him, pundits, journalists, ex-pros and the hardened Guardiola -sceptics. English football is not like Spanish or German football – “the best league in the world”, the competition, the pace and the physicality could never allow tiki-taka take hold on the British Isles. Guardiola got tetchy, got chippy, he delivered cheap shots (Gary Neville felt the burn), but amidst all this, was careful to explain why he would not change his code. Third place? A sure sign that English football had cracked Guardiola. It was only the 2nd time in his career his team had failed to win the league. What did he do? He simply doubled down. Arrogance? Pragmatism.

Man City

Image courtesy of Scoop Nest

With a team of Pinkies (the wee Silvas, Gundogans and Jesuses of the game) and the Brain (oh, and a brace-face goalkeeper better known for his passing and kicking), Manchester City, with 87 points from 33 games, are on track to record the following records:

  • Most points in a season (currently held by Chelsea (2004/2005 – 95 points)
  • Most goals scored in a season (currently held by Chelsea (2009/2010 – 103 goals)
  • Best goal difference in a season (currently held by Chelsea (2009/2010 – 71 goals)
  • Biggest winning margin (currently held by Manchester United (1999/2000) – 18 points)

Losses to Liverpool and Manchester United (but, Liverpool in particular) were put down to, among other things, “arrogance”. It beats the imagination. I argued that contrarily, arrogance was far a reason for those defeats as Russian chemical poisoning was. In the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at Anfield, Pep Guardiola’s humility was on display for the world to see. You questioned his team shape? You questioned how his side set out to try and contain Liverpool? His insecurity came home to roost. And it crowed –too loud. In altering his team scheme and set-up so jarringly to counter Liverpool’s strengths, he nullified his own. He didn’t betray his code so much as he compromised it by his callow acceptance of the superiority of his opponent’s qualities. It is a lesson you hope he learns; to avoid tinkering too much. In many ways, he is like Rafa Benitez – they are obsessive in their desire to constantly adjust in-game. Of course, they operate by different codes, Benitez less a disciple of the school of “Possess the ball” than Guardiola, but both have suffered for this across their careers.

The next step for Guardiola is to build on the dominance of this season’s football. Exiting the Champions League should not detract from the sterling work he has done. They said he couldn’t win, that he would have to compromise – he did. Devastatingly. All it took was increased familiarity. The Champions League tie against Liverpool should be *the* learning point for next season. The code remains paramount but, just maybe, there is room to become a touch arrogant, to send your team out to fully commit to marrying the code with a willingness to always play games on their terms. The first leg at Anfield? Run with Liverpool. They press? You press too. Oh, and try to cut out the careless mistakes. Otamendi and Ederson were culpable for what I’d call some extraordinary errors across both legs which City could have done without.

Congratulations to Manchester City and Pep Guardiola – they have put together one of the most dominant seasons in English football history, playing football exactly as they desired to do so and winning games on their own terms.

 

 

 

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Moments (3) – A Stunner at the Theatre of Dreams

The irony of consolation goals is that they never really are. For a goal to be a consolation goal, the game really must be out of reach, which then raises the question of what there is to celebrate. “Ironic cheers” often accompany such, especially where there seems to be a belated effort to rescue the game – like mouth-to-mouth on a dead horse. Another curiosity about these goals – they are often spectacular. With nothing to lose, players can let loose, be free and try things. “Row Z? We lose anyway.” This piece recalls one such goal. As you read, recall your favourite consolation goals…

 

7-1.jpg

“On a scale of 1-7, I was a 9”

SE7EN – 1

The delight on Cristiano Ronaldo’s face was picturesque, back when his joy was unsullied by conceit. It was a more innocent time for him, and indeed for Manchester United. Back then, the sense of self-congratulation and self-promotion that has invaded the club today was absent. Arising from the ‘barren years’, there was a humility among stars that had shrunk, and upcoming stars that had never tasted true success. Ronaldo scored his 1st Champions League for Manchester United in his 4th season – he didn’t take it for granted. Roma, the recipient of his virginal vaccination, took 6 more gleefully delivered goals. As a fan, it was a night of ecstasy at the Theatre of Dreams, especially following the 2-1 trouncing (yes, trouncing) received at the Stadio Olimpico a couple of weeks prior.

7-1. Ryan Giggs’ 4 assists (joint most assists in a game with Neymar, I believe), Alan Smith’s calmly executed exclamation mark to a sleekly constructed counter-attack (still one of my favourite goals ever), Michael Carrick’s locating Her Majesty’s bonce in the top corner…Patrice Evra (before he loved this game) scoring the 7th goal while cutting in from the right as an inverted right back. These were memorable, particularly so when recalled as a collective happening. However, nothing remains as vivid, and as incomprehensible, as Daniele De Rossi’s consolation…

The Moment

It’s 6-0 at the time. The game is dead and buried. There is no Twitter, so my excitement is confined to the gleeful anticipation of catching up with friends when I return to boarding school. Roma hasn’t played badly – they’ve just been blown away. Nobody blames the oak tree for being uprooted in a hurricane. Heading towards the 70’ mark and Francesco Totti, in possession, drifts out to the right wing, lifts his head and surveys his options. Before he’s closed down, he whips a medium height cross into the box. I don’t think there’s any danger because:

1. It is SIX – ZERO; and

2. De Rossi is backing the…SIX – ONE!

I remember the ball hitting the net and Van der Sar trying and giving up at the same time. I think I clapped; no, I know I clapped. I know I wanted to see the replay because my mind refused to fully process what my eyes had seen. The replays don’t show anything I didn’t see before – he’s fully backing goal, with no sight of where it is. The ball comes across and he wraps his right leg around to connect with the ball at an angle, exerting enough spin, to send it flying into the bottom corner which he is completely backing. I’m a sucker for technique – it remains one of the most impressive volleys – goals – I have ever seen. Period. A picture says a thousand words so here’s a moving picture for you to view:

“Back to goal? No problem”

What Came Next…

Kaka came next, a freak of his time reminding us that the consistency of a freak is a surer bet than freak 7-1 victories. Milan stomped past Fergie’s boys in the semi-final on the way to yet another Champions League success. Manchester United ended the season as English Champions for the first time since 2003.

RADU

 

 

 

Moments (2) – Wayne Rooney scuffs me into delirium

wayne-rooney-goal-v-stoke

History maker

Media reports in the lead up to the 2011 Champions League Final told us that Manchester United had spent days working on set-pieces and corner kicks to exploit Barcelona’s lack of height. On the day, Manchester United’s corner count – 0. Shots on target? 1. Barcelona? 12 shots on target, with 6 corner kicks. What should have been crushing disappointment at the end of the game was only slightly mitigated by the fact that we had been beaten by possibly the best club-side in history. Respect. Nevertheless, during the game, in the one moment we offered a taste of what we could do, I lost my mind. Read on as I recount the moment Wayne Rooney made me lose my voice…

The Context…

Manchester United and Barcelona met in the Champions League Final for the 2nd time in 3 seasons, with the former having been to the final 3 times in 4 years – while Barcelona was widely lauded as the best team in history, Manchester United was probably on par with this team heading into the Wembley spectacle (at least in terms of consistent success).

In 2008, I watched the final in the bedroom of one of my school teacher’s (caveat – there were lots of other boys in there and it was only for the football). When Van der Sar saved Anelka’s unconvincing penalty, we all went bonkers, save for my lone Chelsea-fan friend, Nanu. In 2009, watching in Edinburgh, I marvelled as we hopped aboard Barcelona’s carousel, dizzied by the mesmeric passing combinations and dribbling of Messi and co. In my mind that night, Iniesta was the best player on the planet (even Rooney thought so).

I viewed the game from a friend’s studio flat in Aberdeen. We had some hope. After all, Arsenal had beaten Barca that season, and Barca had a quite shocking record in England at the time, although their previous appearance at Wembley had yielded a Champions League trophy in 1992). Barca also had players ‘out of position’ – Mascherano was set to continue at centre back with captain shaggy, Puyol, on the bench. Abidal, just returned from liver surgery, would resume his left back position but nobody knew how he’d hold up against an Antonio Valencia in the form of his life.

The Moment…

“It’s peak!”

Barca started the match strong and took the lead in the 27th minute, with Pedro sliding in a neat finish from Xavi’s pass. With no Barcelona fans in the room (except me, of course, and I was on leave for the day), the room was quiet. Going behind wasn’t surprising – all the British media’s proclamations of Manchester United’s greatness withered away with each 1-2 and nutmeg from the men in stripes. The game was literally over until the moment. Then was over after that anyway.

In response to Barcelona’s suffocating pressure, Sir Alex Ferguson instructed his side to push up a bit more. Barca won a throw-in about halfway into their half; seemingly there was no danger. The ball was thrown to David Villa, but with Rio Ferdinand in close attention, the ball bounced back along the line in the direction it came from. Fabio flicked a pass to Wayne Rooney in close attendance, who controlled and played a short pass to Carrick just to his right, who wall-passed it back – Sergio Busquets out of the equation. He then flicked another pass to an onrushing Giggs who returned it. Now my friend and I share this joke, and it’s been running for years, that Rooney is the “scuff-king”. He scuffs volleys, taps ins, even overhead kicks (surely a shinner counts as a scuffed attempt, right?) Well, his finish here, beautifully swept into the right corner came off his ankle.

This was me:  jose-mourinho-celebrates

Can’t hold us back

The next 2 minutes were spent jumping hysterically on a bed, yelling my head off (think it was a Latin-style pundit GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL **To be continued*) for two minutes and hugging my friend like he’d been to hell and back. Thinking back to that moment again, I can’t recall celebrating so intensely since or indeed before. Perhaps the surprise of the goal, completely out of the blue, coupled with a prior despondency provoked that exuberant release.  We lost in the end, but I’ll never forget the isolated minutes of unrestrained joy.

Today…

Wayne Rooney became Manchester United’s top scoring player on Saturday – a hell of an achievement. However, the joint England and Manchester United top scorer’s (still remarkable!) career has felt somewhat underwhelming. Some could even argue that at the 2011 Champions League Final, he was already past his peak – most would argue his final individual season was 2009/2010; once unshackled from his place as Ronaldo’s Robin, he plundered . There has been recent Chinese talk, with Mourinho stating that he wouldn’t stand in Rooney’s way if he desired a move (hard to imagine Rooney trying to say “I love Evergrande” in Mandarin) – sign of respect or sign of dispensability? Arguably both, but it does inevitably suggest that the scouser’s time at Old Trafford is coming to an end. Will he get a statue? It’s unlikely. However, he is a Manchester United legend and should be remembered as such.

RADU