Manchester City: Guardiola is the best but not for the reasons you think

Pep Guardiola is once again proving himself to be one of the best managers in world football, if not the best. But copycat coaches need to be careful.


(Photo credit: Thomas Rodenbücher)

Some doubted his ability to replicate the dominance Pep Guardiola achieved in Spain and Germany in England but that was all part of the challenge for the Spaniard.

“That is why I am here. I proved myself in Barcelona and, after I proved myself in Germany, I wanted to prove myself in England.

“In Barcelona and Munich they said I would not be able to do it so that is why I am here.

“When I arrived at Bayern Munich, I had an idea to move on from what I knew from the age of 13 years old.

“I learned that at the end, I have to adapt to the quality of my players. The quality was totally different to the ones I had at Barcelona.”

Pointless possession

This ongoing success, achieved playing attractive, stylish football, will only increase the desire for coaches, managers and owners to try to replicate it but the heavy focus on certain aspects the possession part of Guardiola’s style is misguided.

After Manchester City’s loss at home to FC Basel in the second leg of their last-sixteen Champions League tie, Guardiola’s team were still praised for breaking the competition record for the number of completed passes.

The Catalonian, however, criticised the very thing they were being praised for, rubbishing the idea it was something to be proud of.

“Even though the first half was quite good, in the second half we forgot to attack,” he said.

“We forgot to play, just to pass to pass the ball — you pass the ball to move the opponents to attack, just to pass to pass for itself is nothing.

“The best way is to create the passes or the build-up and make attacking runs in behind, but this didn’t happen. We just passed for itself and when that happens, that is not football.”

The idea that completing a large number of passes and therefore having a large amount of possession, is the main step on the way to success, or indeed entertainment, is wrong.

Possession without purpose is pointless and possession without progress can be one of the most tedious forms of football.

Play the long game

Playing out from the back is trending at the moment but teams and their coaches need to know the reason they are doing this in the first place and also need players with the technical ability to do so.

The worst sides don’t know why they’re playing out from the back and don’t have the players with the required quality to carry out this tactic. They can be trained to do so but some just aren’t technically capable and, in some situations, observing a side trying to play football ‘the right way’ can be a painful experience.

It’s easier for Guardiola as his teams are able to buy the best players in the world, train them at state-of-the-art facilities with coaches who have an end goal in mind as well as an idea of how they will get there.

But just as playing out from the back become the fashion, Guardiola had his new goalkeeper, Ederson, boot long passes to a striker. Because it works.

All groups of players, clubs, and football cultures will have their strengths and weaknesses but many attempts to play football ‘the right way’ only highlight weaknesses, while allowing the strengths to lie dormant.

Guardiola’s own biggest strength is getting the best from what he has and adapting to new scenarios. As defensive tactics evolve to shut down one type of attacking threat, a coach at the top of the game must always look to forge their own methods rather than copy others. Those who copy will always be several steps behind.  

Future-proofing

Guardiola has a strong philosophy influenced by several managers and coaches who he has worked with during his playing career. His football is influenced by the past, adapted for the present and always looking to the future.

For players to adapt to the methods of the future and to be tactically flexible, they need to be trained in the many skills required on the football pitch.

Limiting them to short passing on the deck is fine for some sessions but if this isn’t mixed with aspects of the game such as long passing, shooting from distance and long-range dead ball situations, then it could affect their range of passing and shooting.

If Ederson were limited to short passes to centre backs when training as a youngster, he wouldn’t be the attacking weapon he is now.

Why train players one part of the game but not the other? Long passing is not long ball, direct football isn’t boring. Getting the ball into the box, whether by dribbling, crossing, or passing to cause chaos, isn’t boring.

Play with purpose

Guardiola finished his press conference after that game against Basel by praising two young players of his own. One bought from Germany, one locally developed.

At 17 years and 283 days, Phil Foden had just become the youngest English player to appear in the Champions League knockout stages. This will be a record which pleases Guardiola more than any pass completion statistic.

“He was good. In the second half maybe him, with Leroy [Sane], was the only one who tried to be aggressive, tried to do something,” said the Catalan.

“Release the ball and go forward, Leroy was the same, it doesn’t matter if you lose the ball.”

It doesn’t matter if you lose the ball. What matters is that players learn how to play with purpose, play with a plan, and have the skills to execute it. Possession for possession’s sake isn’t entertaining for anyone.

What do you think about Pep Guardiola’s style of play? Let us know by commenting below.

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James Nalton

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James is a world football writer and sports journalist for the Morning Star newspaper. He is the founder of global football outlet World Football Index, and the South American football website the Botafogo Star.

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