Tim Lees is the current Academy Director at St. Louis FC. He was Youth Development Manager at Wigan Athletic and managed the U13-14s philosophy at Liverpool’s academy. He holds a BSc Hons Degree in Sport Psychology, a UEFA A Licence and has been a guest speaker at several youth national coaching events. His book, ‘Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession’, provides an outstanding, in-depth strategy on how to create and establish a specific playing philosophy in possession. Below is his analysis on Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.
For a number of years I would have paid to watch eleven shirts of a team coached by Pep Guardiola drying on a clothes line but now the question is whether the line is just the most expensive one in football. And is it sagging?
When Pep Guardiola took over a fading Barcelona team in 2008, even the people closest to him could not have predicted what would follow in the next four years. He was extreme in his methods, relentless on his principles and brave in his conviction on everything from transfers to systems and selection. Winning the treble in his first season, becoming the youngest manager to lift the Champions League and amassing 14 trophies does not tell the whole story. The 2011 Champions League Final performance versus Man United was a mesmerising display of adventure, technique and creativity, on par with the majestic 5-0 drubbing of Real Madrid in 2010. These two performances are timeless masterpieces that will be studied, dissected and analysed for several decades. Since 2008, Guardiola has been the fulcrum for evolving the game on a worldwide scale. He conquered Europe through implementing. Cruyff’s ideology but did it with his own stamp. It suddenly became popular to dominate the ball again, people began to believe in physically deficient players with superior technique, and offensive creativity was admired and promoted. The spacing, control and movement in Guardiola’s teams were arguably more advanced than anything we had seen before and the speed of play was breathtaking. Looking back now, the success of this style or method seemed like it was pre-ordained but one cannot forget, it was Guardiola who believed in it when not many others did.
It was Guardiola who continued to drop the centre backs to the by-line a minute after Valdes gave the ball to Benzema to go 1-0 down after 2 minutes at the Bernebau. “No, we play the same way and we never change. It doesn’t matter if we concede playing this way because it will get us the rewards at the other end of the field. This is the way I grew up, this is the way I played and this is the way I was taught.” Fast forward five years and Guardiola has been branded by several sections of the British media as a ‘charlatan’ a ‘fraud’ and has been ‘getting away with it’ due to the players he had at his disposal. For someone who has achieved everything in the game as both a player and coach, it is in Manchester where Guardiola arguably faces the biggest challenge of his career. Are the pundits and media correct in their claims? Does Guardiola have a plan B? Is he overrated? This article looks at several problems that Guardiola has at the Ethiad:
The topic of new signings is a contentious one. Every manager going into a club needs to bring some of his own players in to suit the way his approach. The profiles are vital to ensure the style of play can be executed. City were the biggest spenders in Europe in the summer of 2016, with over £170m spent on just seven players. Pep has had astronomical finances to spend and it could be argued that it was not used as efficiently as it could have been. If he needs another £100m to build a Championship winning side (these are the rumoured figures) then one must ask, how good of a coach is Guardiola? There are 91 other full time managers currently employed in England that will tell you they could produce a dream team with £274m (as would 100% of the ones not employed too!). When a new manager comes into a club, he needs time to imbed his beliefs; there are no shortcuts. Popular opinion is that new coaches need hour after hour, month after month on the training field to build a style of play through honing tactical preferences and microscopic details. Although this is true, it is in other areas that managers need time for their methods to become embedded. Building deep individual relationships with players can only come through being exposed to different situations and circumstances, on and off the field. Building that trust can only come with time. In a playing style like Pep’s, mistakes HAVE to happen for players to understand the relevant distances and specific details. Take one small example; Guardiola wants to dominate the ball in the opposition’s half and as a result wants to counter-press to retain territorial superiority.
Part of this process is that the centre backs will often be caught in transition due to not being high enough, not being tight enough, not attacking with the defensive mindset of “expecting your players to lose it”. These situations can only become specific and understood after conceding to counter attacks. This whole process needs time and a training field will not give a manager enough variables and changing dynamics to replicate it fully. He will need video from games and to talk players through phases individually. However, there comes a certain point where a manager must accept that the style does not suit the players or the players do not suit the style. At this point, the very best managers change slightly to accommodate. This is not to say they must go from 70% possession to dropping and countering off 20%, but instead making minor changes to suit the group of players. Whether this means changing personnel, changing the system or changing the tactical intent, change has to happen. The simple answer cannot always be “give me another £200m” as 99% of managers will not have this luxury. The reality is that Guardiola has now had two transfer windows, spent more than £170m and had over seven months with his players. He has had time, that cannot be argued. Does he have the players to play his way? Not 100%, but that is no excuse.
Take Conte, for example, in his first season at Chelsea. They have conceded less than any team in the league yet individually their defenders are not without their deficiencies. Alonso is very good going forward but showed continually at Bolton, and Fiorentina that his 1v1 defending is extremely questionable, and that is being kind. David Luiz is positionally erratic and Victor Moses played most of his career as a winger with little defensive responsibility yet now plays as a wing back. I would hazard a guess that Cahill and Azpilicueta have had very limited exposure in a back three, certainly at Premier League level. The difference is, Conte found a system that suited his players and made it work. In a back four, if Moses and Alonso got forward then leaving Cahill and Luiz isolated for counter attacks would be asking for trouble. Indeed, you could argue that they are protected by two of the best pivots in the league but Conte has found a way to get his team functioning whilst hiding their deficiencies. If they played 4-3-3 with the same attacking intent, Chelsea would be exposed. With this said, there are glaring weaknesses that Guardiola needs to strengthen.. His ageing full backs have consistently been liabilities and I would be amazed if Pep did not break the bank for two energetic workers who can contribute offensively but more importantly, defend 1v1 when they need to. A defensive minded pivot, Kante-like, would also make a huge difference. These positions should have been his number first priorities over a new GK or various additional pocket playing midfielders.
It was very surprising when Pep acquired Bravo from Barcelona. In a league that is extremely physical, intense and direct, it was a mistake to release someone as reliable and consistent as Joe Hart. Hart may not have Bravo’s feet, but Guardiola had to have known that Bravo makes mistakes aerially and it was naïve to think that this would not be put under the microscope more than ever. Pep must have seen what happened in David De Gea’s first season and although the ’keeper is a vital piece in Pep’s philosophy of getting to the half, I feel he underestimated the goalkeeping profile needed. To win a league, the spine of the team has to be reliable, consistent and to have not only technical but physical qualities. Arsenal are the best current example of how having extreme technical talent but an unreliable spine can inhibit you. No team wins a long league format without having defensive reliability and a strong central core. Pep’s core at Barca was Pique, Puyol, Busquets & Messi, at Bayern it was Neuer, Boetang, Robery, Lahm and Lewondowski yet at City is changes weekly.
As a huge admirer of Guardiola, even I find some tactical decisions extremely strange this season. It is inexcusable to think that Yaya Toure has the discipline and tactical intelligence to play as a pivot on his own in a 4-3-3; Pep knew this much earlier at Barca. Equally, the experiment of Zabaleta playing as a controlling central midfielder and Kolorov as a centre back were extremely questionable in a level such as the Premier League.
Defending The Counter
This is his biggest problem yet ironically it was potentially his biggest strength at Barca and Bayern. Xabi Alonso speaks about the high percentage of Pep’s sessions and pre match being based around the defensive side of the ball, in particular, stopping counter attacks. There is no doubt that the absence of a disciplined defensive pivot would help but if you don’t have one then find a way. Guardiola very rarely plays with a defensive midfield pair, but if your centre backs are continually exposed then you have to change. Indeed it would give him one less player ahead of the ball (which will bother him immensely) but that solidarity is vital. If he didn’t want to play with a double pivot then he could invert the full backs once the ball has gone past the midfield line or roll another centre mid around on the weak side to defend with two; these are various options but I have been surprised by how open City have been. Considering Guardiola’s philosophy is often based around having +1 at the back, an overriding Bielsa’s influence, the frequency with which they have been exposed has been surprising. Playing the style he does at such a high level and coming straight from Germany (the epitome of counter attacks), there are few experts in the world with better knowledge of preventing counter attacks than Pep. Ottamendi and Stones are very poor decision makers in space. They drop at the wrong times when they should be retaining positioning high up the field and they hold their line (Leicester goals) when they should drop and concede the space. Stones has incredible potential and will improve greatly under Pep, but if your players cannot defend a specific scenario then keep them away from that as much as possible.
As someone who has studied Guardiola in forensic detail, you would go far to find a bigger advocate of his methods than myself. What he achieved at Barca and Bayern was nothing short of incredible and goes much deeper than trophies in a cabinet or records on his bio. He evolved the game and moved it to amazing heights, but he did so with some of the best players in the world. It cannot be denied, in tough times when they were playing poorly, Messi often got Barca out of trouble, but to suggest he is the reason Pep was successful, is idiotic. Guardiola is one of the best coaches in the world and will be a success at Man City long term. In order for him to replicate the legacy left at Bayern and Barca and based on current performances and the continuing problems that continue to plague his team, this summer is going to be another expensive one for Pep Guardiola and the sky blue side of Manchester.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimLees10