When it was announced that Pep Guardiola would be joining the Man City ‘project’ and arriving in the Premier League the press and pundits alike were clambering over superlatives to describe how great he was and how he could change the face of the Premier League.
6 games into this Premier League season, you could be forgiven for thinking the pundits were correct. 6 wins out of 6 including a victory against rivals Man United, and arch managerial nemesis Jose Mourinho, things were great for Man City and Pep Guardiola. In that run they scored 18 goals and conceded 5.
Many people were already tying sky blue and white ribbons on the Premier League title ready to hand it over to the Spaniard, who had immediately cracked the Premier League. Tottenham however had other ideas.
Spurs beat Man City 2-0 and looked good for it. It lead to run of only 1 win in 5 games following the Tottenham defeat, drawing with the likes of Middlesbrough and Southampton. In the aftermath some questioned how Pep would recover after a tricky patch in a League that is so unforgiving with fixtures coming thick and fast, no game is a given like in Spain or Germany.
In reality City never really recovered from that Spurs defeat, and since then haven’t had more than 3 league wins in a row. They have been on a poor run of late by their standards, losing 4 out of the last 8 league games. This reached boiling point at the weekend as they were humiliated by Everton at Goodison Park losing 4-0. Man City find themselves in 5th place, 10 points of the top spot with Guardiola already conceding the title.
Guardiola looked dejected at the weekend, exasperated even and looked as if the reality of the Premier League and the task at hand finally dawned on him. He has dealt with the press very poorly as of late, he’s been snappy and rude in interviews, all signs that he is really starting to feel the pressure.
How much of this is Pep’s fault? For starters, the idea that City can play a similar style of football to Bayern or Barcelona, with a less capable squad, in a much more competitive league is a complete mistake by Guardiola, or perhaps arrogance on his part.
He was at the centre of the unsavoury and unjust treatment of England number one Joe Hart, quickly making it clear he was not in his plans. A huge part of this was the fact that Joe Hart isn’t particularly good with his feet, and his distribution was not good enough for Guardiola’s high standards. Yet he is a solid goal keeper, albeit he has had a handful of high profile blunders in the past couple of seasons.
Hart got a loan move to Torino, and City brought in Barcelona keeper Claudio Bravo for £15m. It’s been a decision that seems to get worse as every week passes, as Bravo struggles to acclimatise to the English game. When compared to some of the Premier Leagues top keepers, David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois and Peter Cech, Claudio Bravo’s distribution accuracy is the best at 75%. So it seems he is good in the area he was brought in to improve on against Joe Hart, however that’s where it ends. He has the least amount of saves per goals conceded, the least amount of clean sheets, and has fewest catches per game compared to the other top keepers. A goal keeper’s primary role in a team is to save shots from going in, catch high balls and command the 18 yard box. It seems Pep has underestimated the importance of these key attributes in favour for a twinkle toed distributer which is needlessly bringing a lot of these bad results on themselves.
This leads to another key area Pep failed to address in the summer which was an aging and injury prone back line. We all knew around halfway through the 2015/16 season that Guardiola was going to replace Manuel Pellegrini. This was more than enough time for him to look at the City squad, to focus on where improvements need to be made. He responded by spending £50m on John Stones, one for the future perhaps but a rear guard accident waiting to happen in the meantime. John Stones has all the qualities to be a top centre back, but is still young and really needs to be playing with an experience, solid and capable centre back partner, and to be fair to him this isn’t happening.
Guardiola failed to address the full-back situation, and didn’t add at least one experienced top centre back. These are oversights that are the manager’s responsibility and something Pep needs to be held accountable for. The fact that the defence hasn’t been fully addressed, as well as a goal keeper low on confidence, is a toxic mix that will only add fuel to the fire. He has failed in his first act as manager, especially when you consider he spent a staggering £154m on transfers in the summer. The fact he failed to address this issue really shows a lack of understanding of how hard the Premier League is, every team you play will come and have a go, and a poor defence will get found out, and quickly.
Will Pep Guardiola change his tactical approach? The short answer is no. To do so would be to admit he was wrong, and like most top managers, his ego wouldn’t allow him to do that. Guardiola needs to get more out of his midfielders who haven’t been good enough this season in supporting Sergio Aguero who looked slightly jaded at the weekend. Raheem Sterling has scored 5 league goals this season, with Nolito and Kelechi Iheanacho each on 4. Yaya Touré has chipped in with 3 goals and Kevin De Bruyne has been struggling a bit this season, only contributing 2 goals. De Bryune and Sterling are the two regular starters from that group of players, with Touré becoming ever important for City. It means between them they have only contributed 7-10 goals. This isn’t enough for a midfield as talented as Man City and adds more pressure on Aguero to perform week in week out.
This issues are all combining to create a big headache for the City boss, and it’s hard to know how it will affect him. If he believed, the Premier League would be the same as Spain and Germany he has been very much mistaken. He also had complete squads, he just had to add 1 or 2 players to during his reign at Barcelona and Bayern so it’s not known how well he will do when a job involves gutting and rebuilding a side? Has Pep got the patience for this, already admitting this will probably be his last club role? Has his ego taking a beating this season and his reputation of football brilliance cast doubt in his own mind as to his ability to turn this around?
All of these questions of course remain unanswered as only time will tell. This could just be a momentary dip in form that he will look back at in 2 years’ time and attribute to an added mental toughness gained in England as he lifts the Premier League title, there’s nothing to suggest he won’t overcome this with time and more money of course.
The one thing he can’t afford to lose is the player’s belief that he is working towards something and building a new blueprint for the way City will play. But the Premier League doesn’t give you time, doesn’t allow you easy games to try new things, owners and fans expect instant success after a few months grace period.
Things don’t get any easier for Pep as his Man City side host rampant Tottenham on Saturday. A defeat here really will add to his woes and perhaps some January panic buys.
But as with many things in football, a win could get them back on track, seeing the belief coming back to players. The next month could be pivotal for the club, with Man United in great form City look the least likely to make a top 4 spot out of the 6 clubs in contention. If Man City were to finish outside the top 4, it would be disaster, Pep has already spoken about City needing to be a permanent fixture in the Champions League for at least 10 years to be considered a big European club.
All of this will come out in the wash as the season progresses and the only indicator to his success or failure will come once he leaves the club so let’s not all have the knives out for him already. But regardless of how his tenure will finish at the club, it has been a baptism of fire for him in England, leaving Pep with nowhere to hide.
By Michael Thatcher.