Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. Run before you fly.
It might be a (tired) cliche, but it still carries some significance. Not in the sense that change can’t be radical or that gradual evolution is the best kind. Rather, the mark of a good manager — not just in football — is knowing what to change, how to change it and when to change it. And, if your changes go too far, to have the humility to dial them back.
Pep Guardiola landed in the blue half of Manchester with the joint tag of messiah and revolutionary. Messiah because City had been dutifully preparing for his advent, laying the groundwork with former colleagues in the front office, upstairs and the youth ranks. Revolutionary because he interprets the game in a different way than most and his brand represents a radical departure from the status quo.
That tag, by the way, is part of the reason Guardiola is so polarizing. Elevating someone to near-deity status is the quickest way to guarantee armies of self-appointed iconoclasts ready to tear him down and point out his flaws.
It applies to him just as it applies — at the opposite end of the footballing spectrum — to Jose Mourinho. Hailing someone as a genius, either of the tactical or motivational kind, provokes in some the opposite, and often exaggerated, reaction.
Trying to maintain an even keel in these circumstances isn’t easy. But perhaps there is one over-arching conclusion to reach after City’s 3-1 victory over Barcelona, and it goes back to the top of this column.
Guardiola arrived to effect change because, more than most contemporary managers, he is in a state of constant flux. His brand of football, while generally based on certain steadfast principles, is a continual work in progress, a series of incessant tweaks.
It was like this way back when he was at Barcelona — compare his 2008-09 team with the 2011-12 side and it becomes obvious — and it certainly applied to his time at Bayern Munch, when he mixed up formations and roles, turning arguably the best full-back pairing around, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, into central midfielders.
At City we’ve seen full-backs like Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy in central midfield while in possession. We’ve seen Aleksandar Kolarov at center-back and Fernando at right-back. We’ve seen goalkeeper Claudio Bravo obsessively tasked with playing out from the back. We’ve seen a back three. And we’ve seen Guardiola drop his best goal scorer Sergio Aguero in the biggest game of the season to date.
Most of the above was outside-the-box thinking. Most were tweaks and tinkers that, in one way or another, blew up in Guardiola’s face. Most led to the simple accusation that he was some kind of Catalan Icarus, trying “to be too clever” or “re-invent the wheel.”
But you know what?
That’s what intelligent people do when they are trying to evolve: They experiment in an attempt to gain an edge. They don’t mind trial and error and, if they’re truly clever, they learn from their mistakes.
That is what Guardiola did on Tuesday. His 4-1-4-1 formation was as close to a base formation as City have had this season. With Aguero leading the line, his best players were all on the pitch, playing in their preferred positions. Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta did not bomb forward from full-back, daring Neymar and Lionel Messi to chase them, but instead hung around to help their center-backs.
And City did not obsessively play out from the back after regaining possession, instead varying the counter with direct, vertical passes. In goal, Willy Caballero didn’t give a tiki-taka clinic in the 6-yard box, the way he did when he started earlier this season and the way Bravo occasionally has done.
This was Guardiola saying to himself: “Right, this isn’t the time for gambling on flights of fancy. This is where we stick to what we’re most comfortable doing and focus on execution and prove to ourselves that we can do this.”
It was back to basics, if you will, but back to Guardiola basics. He didn’t refute his philosophy; he simply picked out those bits that have been most effective — starting with the asphyxiating press — and avoided those that may or may not yield dividends but sure-as-heck weren’t worth trying against Messi and Co.
That also takes humility and, if that helps explain what happened tactically, bucketloads of credit must go to City for the emotional and mental strength they displayed in the first half, when the match could have taken an entirely different turn.
Put yourself in their shoes. The home crowd, having booed the Champions League anthem with gusto, already seem convinced the deck is stacked against them because they’re playing Barcelona and because of their history with UEFA. Raheem Sterling has been denied what replays showed to be a fairly legitimate penalty. Barca have taken the lead and are repeatedly coming close to a second. The memory of the 4-0 Camp Nou defeat is fresh in everyone’s minds.
This is where you fold or you fight, and City had the strength to choose the second option. Which is not something to be taken for granted, by any stretch. That mental strength, coupled with Guardiola’s tactical humility in reverting to his version of convention and the prodigious work rate throughout the side, were the keys to the win.
As for Barcelona, they were poor. In fact, it’s an obvious point for the “Fraudiola” brigade to make. The Catalans were ineffective; there was no Andres Iniesta, no Gerard Pique and no Jordi Alba. Plus, they kept giving the ball away.
All of the above is true. But it also requires some context. The absence of Pique and Alba was not the reasons Barcelona lost. Iniesta was missed, but he might not have been missed quite so much if Ivan Rakitic had shown up to play or if Rafinha, the closest alternative to Iniesta at this time, had started. Or if Neymar and Messi had done a better job of tracking back and helping a midfield that was clearly disoriented by City’s pressing in the second half.
Equally, you can point to City’s goals coming from three individual errors rather than sparkling build-up play. That’s true, but other than Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s weak hand on Kevin De Bruyne’s free kick, both Samuel Umtiti and Sergi Roberto made what were very obviously forced errors as a result of City’s closing down.
That’s a coaching call as much as anything. Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back you wonder if Luis Enrique might not have been better off finding a different solution, such as another midfielder dropping into the back line, to break City’s high press.
All that said and, as good as City were, this game could well have gone in another direction. With Ter Stegen not screwing up De Bruyne’s free kick, better decision-making from Luis Suarez after the second goal and Andre Gomes’ shot that hit the bar being an inch or so lower, suddenly it’s a game Barca do not lose. In fact, if you’re an Expected Goals, believer, they just shaded it.
The message? Maybe it’s that, even on a night like Tuesday, when Barcelona are comprehensively outplayed for most of the game, when the MSN misfires and when there are three starters out, there was still enough there that, on a different day, could have brought about a better result for them.
Guardiola said City needed to be “perfect” to beat Barcelona. He was wrong. His side wasn’t perfect, though they weren’t far off, and they still outperformed their opponents. But he is right about Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. If they can be this poor and still come this close, it means they have a much higher ceiling than City. It’s just a question of whether Luis Enrique can get them there when it counts.
Support InfoStride News' Credible Journalism: Only credible journalism can guarantee a fair, accountable and transparent society, including democracy and government. It involves a lot of efforts and money. We need your support. Click here to Donate