Manchester City came out 3-1 winners in a hard-fought match at the Etihad last weekend. Despite the convincing score line, it was perhaps the Manchester team’s worst performance in the Premier League this season. Passes uncharacteristically went astray from the Blues as Arsenal’s pressing game constantly harried the City players.
The fact that Manchester City still managed to win the game is a testament to the philosophy of Pep Guardiola – a philosophy that many critics believed would not be able to stand up to the rigours of the Premier League.
Guardiola’s players are drilled in his concept of positional play, knowing exactly when and where to station themselves on the pitch, depending on the location of the ball in any given moment.
Conversely, in the final third, Guardiola leaves it up to the skill, intelligence and discretion of the talented players at his disposal to do what they have to do to put the ball in the back of the net.
It is this approach of well-defined and clear patterns of play, plus the discipline and fitness of the players on the pitch, that allows them to execute Guardiola’s plans successfully even on days when they are not playing particularly well.
This mix of simple, free flowing football is paradoxically based on very particular rules. By mastering these rules the players can rely on the system to get them through the game and not just their talent. It means that even under pressure the practice of the system takes over and replaces the confusion of what to do next in difficult situations.
Coaches like Arsene Wenger are more liberal towards their players, allowing them to play more freely and rely on their instincts and overall knowledge of the game.
This can work well at times when the opposition is inferior but in high pressure situations the correct, quick and automatic reactions are what players need. This is not to say that City’s players are simply automatons. However, the players know they can lean on their tactical training when there is little time for thinking and figuring things out.
Another factor that cannot be discounted is the fitness of this Manchester City team that comes with Guardiola’s style of play. The players are expected to run for the entire match to press the opposing team and recover the ball as quickly as possible. This obviously relies on players being in peak condition, at all times.
Arsenal put on a spirited display against City executing a strong pressing game. One might have expected that, coming off the back of City’s gruelling Champions League encounter with Napoli during the week, Guardiola’s team might have succumbed. However, City, just like in all their games this season, went the distance without dropping their energy levels.
Arsene Wenger’s team forced City into some erroneous passing and some of that may have been due to fatigue from the Champions League, but there was still enough energy to see the game through without looking like they were in serious danger of a defeat.
Here, again, the team’s philosophy, which demands peak fitness, was a factor behind their strength and endurance in this game.
Another important component of Pep Guardiola’s philosophy is the players themselves. The Spaniard has said time and time again that the quality of the players is what determines victory on the pitch and the success of any coach.
That quality refers to the talent and skill required to play according to the rules of his system of quick, accurate passing and possession, as well as the ability to use individual movement and positional awareness to create and score goals.
In what many considered a moment of magic from Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgian attacked the Arsenal defence at the edge of the box, playing a quick one-two with Fernandinho before firing into the net.
A characteristic dribble from Raheem Sterling drew a foul for a penalty, taken by Sergio Aguero, resulting in goal number two while Gabriel Jesus came off the bench and score the third goal of the afternoon, albeit from an offside position.
While the overall performance of the team was substandard compared to previous games this season, Guardiola was still able to see his players’ talent make the difference in three decisive plays.
De Bruyne, who has become key to unlocking defences, Sterling, whose dribbling has been a constant danger this season and Gabriel Jesus, who has been deadly right in front of goal, all came through in the key moments of a tough encounter.
While there are those who would argue that any coach can buy talent, it is important to realise that Guardiola also improves players significantly. John Stones is a better defender than he was last year, not just defensively, but also his ability to execute those pin-point passes – traits that are turning him into the typical Guardiola defender.
Aguero runs and presses more. Sane is a more dangerous player than when he arrived at the Etihad last year. Most of the players on the pitch are performing significantly better than before. Sterling is a good example and Fabian Delph, who has surprised the Premier League by slotting into an unfamiliar left-back position, is the best example.
Guardiola doesn’t just identify talented footballers. He looks for the ones whose talents fit his philosophy and then he hones that talent over time. Players from Bayern Munich have testified that Guardiola made them into better players.
Jerome Boateng is quoted in a CNN article from 2016 as saying “Since he came I think I’ve improved my game — especially technically”. He went on to say, “I think we’re all really thankful that he was here for three years and he made everybody better in the game and us as a team.”
Last year ex-Manchester City player Pablo Zabaletta said in a talkSPORT documentary, that Pep Guardiola was “always trying to improve the players and to improve the team”.
This is all part of Pep Guardiola’s football philosophy, which accounts for Manchester City’s victory over Arsenal, when, on the day, the Blues did not play particularly well.
It is a philosophy of sticking to a particular system of positional play until it becomes automatic for his players, a system that requires fitness to provide constant running and pressing and a philosophy that requires players to hone their skills to match the system’s demands.
It also accounts for their victory a few days before over the current Italian Serie A leaders, Napoli, who were outplaying them for most of the game in Naples.
After a year of the British press questioning Guardiola about his alleged failure to adapt, he is showing that his way of adapting is to keep improving and fine tuning what he and his team are doing.