Is Guardiola’s Man City ambition for beautiful football a realistic PL proposition?
Holly Thackeray | July 16, 2016
Is Guardiola’s style pie in the sky for City?
Operation Pep Guardiola: Implementation of Possession Football, is well under way at the Etihad Campus during the off-season, with the Catalan coach reportedly heard imploring players to: “Just play! Play, play, play!” in training sessions focused on passing and pressing.
Of course, this was to be expected from the Spanish plotter, known for his occasionally maverick formations but most of all his obsession with aesthetic possession play, or as it is more widely known: Tika-taka.
Critics have already honed in on the fact that such a style looked to have been found out at Euro 2016, when then reigning champions Spain crashed out to an astute counter-attacking Italy team in the last 16, while the likes of Croatia also saw themselves thwarted despite doing all the right things.
So, Coral consider whether Pep’s passing style and adherence to beautiful football while winning, is really a realistic proposition in the Premier League…
Keegan capitulation a cautionary tale
Of course, English football has long moved on from those days of kick and rush physical football, and all the tough tackling, smash and grab, lump it up the pitch cliches for so long attributed to it.
Many a club now on English shores, even teams from the tiers below the top, play entertaining attacking football and the league has long been inundated with the varied styles of players and coaches from around the globe.
Even only recently promoted sides such as Bournemouth are pushing pleasing-on-the-eye philosophies, while Stoke City, who were previously seen to epitomise all things dull and drab about the English game, now pass it around like Barcelona-lite.
So, it seems revisionist to believe Guardiola (9/4 from Coral to win the Premier League this season with City) will suddenly revolutionise the British game, as if Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger had never arrived in the 1990s.
Chelsea and Manchester United title-winning teams spanning the past few decades have played enthralling football too, but still more in the English tradition with devastating counter-attacks and sides full of ruthless finishers, pace and power – notably different to Guardiola’s tactics.
As the top-flight has become more and more competitive, beautiful football has sometimes taken a backseat in England to results and silverware, and there have been many an example where prioritising attractive play has seen some of the best come undone.
Kevin Keegan’s all-guns blazing Newcastle United team of the ’90s were dubbed ‘The Entertainers’, boasting the likes of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola, but ultimately let a 13-point league lead fall to a still attacking but more pragmatic and mentally strong Man Utd team.
“Everybody said at the time we couldn’t win the league playing like that,” ex-Magpies coach Keegan has since said.
“Unfortunately they were proved right. We should have won it, we just couldn’t get over the line. If you look at football now, Barcelona, Manchester United and Manchester City are playing like that.
“The centre backs and full backs bomb on now and I think if we’d won the league like that there would be teams playing like that before now,” continued the Tyneside legend.
“They seemed to be better going forward than defending. We looked at the players we had and decided that was the best way to go.” Can the same be said for City?
Arsenal vintage a style to aim for
As pundits can be quick to point out, Guardiola had the world at his feet in Catalonia, able to cherry pick from a combination of the world’s best players, many of whom were reared in the style Guardiola was himself a scholar of.
But such commitment to keeping the ball at all costs has not always worked well in England. Arsenal are perhaps both the best and worst example of this style when it comes to elite teams.
The Gunners were utterly brilliant at ball retention with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp just a sample of the flair talents helping to pass the ball into the back in the net with enviable panache during the early 2000’s, memorably going on their unbeaten Premier League ‘Invincibles’ run.
Yet, for all that Wenger’s philosophy aligns with Guardiola’s, that terrific team also enjoyed the tenacious service of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira marshalling midfield and the grit in defence of Sol Campbell.
Since those more defensive-minded Gunners called it quits at the Emirates, for all their endeavors in attractive, pass and move football, Arsenal have seen little league success, often looking devoid of alternative ideas when coming up against stubborn and mentally tough sides far from ready to roll over for the sake of art.
Which Arsenal edition will Man City’s Guardiola revolution remind of?
Liverpool are another more recent example under former boss Brendan Rodgers, of a side tearing up teams going forward, but guilty of ignoring their defensive responsibility – a problem which saw Jurgen Klopp parachuted in at the Northern Irishman’s expense.
Bayern Bundesliga battles a test
It’s not as though crafty coach Guardiola, a serial winner, is not aware of the differences between the Spanish and English games, and a stop off at Germany in the Bundesliga could have been the perfect preparation.
The Catalan tactician (1/6 to guide City to a top four finish) also had grand ideas of imposing his ideas on a Bayern Munich squad fresh from claiming a historic treble through direct and lethal football.
Although Guardiola’s time in Germany, including three successive league trophies but crucially no Champions League title, is met with mixed reviews, the 45-year-old did adapt his tactics to the players at his disposal – once it became clear he could not simply transport the Barca pattern of play.
The Premier League is much more similar to the Bundesliga in style than La Liga, so City fans will hope Guardiola can tinker his approach yet again for the English game – though he will have to get used to greater competition than he ever faced at in Germany, where Bayern were brilliantly dominant.
Though, to his credit, the coach appears perfectly aware of the task ahead, stating in his first press conference: “You have to win every day, I know how difficult it is here in England to win four of five games in a row, it’s not easy…maybe we won’t win everyday but we will try.
“What we want is simple, get the ball quickly and create as many choices as possible.
“I have to adapt to the quality of my players. It’s completely different to what I had in Barcelona, against Sunderland and Big Sam it will be completely different. That’s why I’m here, to see how it is,” he continued.
“I’m looking forward to playing on freezing, windy days with poor pitches.
“People say that Pep is not going to adapt in that way, so that is why I’m here, to try to do it.”
Do City have the players for possession football?
Looking at the Sky Blues’ current squad, many in the attack such as David Silva and Sergio Aguero have already played in Spain and should adapt most easily to Guardiola’s demands.
Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne was lethal on the counter last campaign with his pace and directness, but surely has the talent to acclimatise, with dribbler Raheem Sterling an attacker who could perhaps use some direction from his new coach.
It is defence and midfield which present the biggest problems, but extensive rebuilding is expected over summer. Neat and tidy twosome Ilkay Gundogan and Nolito are two technically sound transfers that should slot in seamlessly, but more will be needed.
John Stones seems to be the long-standing target at centre back to bring the ball out of defence, and a player in the Gerard Pique or Jerome Boateng mold is certainly required – but for that to work Vincent Kompany must stay fit or one of Eliaquim Mangal or Nicolas Otamendi prove they can cut the mustard as the strong partner next to the Englishman.
Is Guardiola’s attempt to implement attacking possession play in the Premier League realistically profitable? Perhaps it will take a while, and several suitable signings to start reaping silverware, or maybe the coach will have to come up with a ‘Plan B’. Either way, Pep is progressive and a winner, so it will certainly make for interesting viewing.
It takes much more to triumph in the Premier League than pretty passing triangles, but Guardiola is no Keegan or Rodgers, so it may prove perilous to underestimate his will to win…