One of the fascinating things about Pep Guardiola’s time in England is the sheer polarity of opinion he provokes. In one ideological camp, there are those whose esteem for Guardiola lies beyond the normal respect or admiration typically reserved for great managers; they are his disciples. They believe that the former Barcelona manager has a puppet-master like hold of events on the pitch, and that he arrives at each game with a bespoke tactical plan for the task at hand. The basis of their faith is the idea that Guardiola has been a revelatory force; that he is a real departure from what has been seen before. In the other camp, there are those who Oliver Kay of The Times aptly branded the ‘flat earth society’. They don’t have much time for tactics in general, and suspect those who attempt to theorise. For them, football’s a ‘simple game’ that has seen every tactical trick in the book and any ‘new’ ideas must surely be just a trick of language. They vaguely resent Guardiola’s success and the devotion he attracts, and are not so subtle in their desire to see him fail in ‘our football’.
The latter group of pundits, fans and commentators finally had their chance to bask in the warm glow of self-satisfaction following Man City’s 2-0 loss at Spurs on Sunday. City were tested at Swansea City when they were pressed high, and then were held to a helter-skelter 3-3 draw at Celtic when Brendan Rodgers pursued the same tactics. Mauricio Pochettino’s teams always set out to suffocate teams in their own half, so the world and his dog was prepared for Spurs to fly out of the traps and press City from the front. Despite the fact that able technicians Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne were not in the starting XI, Guardiola stuck steadfastly to his plan to play out from the back. Pochettino’s team swarmed all over them, and had the game more or less wrapped up by half time.
Guardiola is not going to deviate too much from his conception of how football should be played, so it is clear that he needs other personnel to implement his grand design. As Sky Sports Gary Neville rightly intimated during the game, Fernando’s presence as City’s deepest midfielder was especially problematic. He may well go on to play an important part in other games, but Guardiola will now know he can’t cope receiving the ball under intense opposition pressure in his own half. His teams are characterised by players who can receive the ball on the half turn and find a way of breaking out of trouble. When an opposition presses so high, space is left elsewhere so opportunities are there if you can beat the initial press. Guardiola likes to have plenty of bodies ahead of the ball to create the areas of ‘superiority’ he desires, but this demands that those in the back half of the team can handle the ball.
The Brazilian’s passing on first glance doesn’t seem too bad with a completion rate of 84%. However, Fernando completed only 16 passes during his 52 minutes on the pitch which is an incredibly low number for a midfielder in a Guardiola side. In City’s painful first 20 minutes, he completed just three passes and two of those were backwards. A fair proportion of his passes were played in Tottenham’s half, seemingly when failed City attacks broke down and he recycled the ball; very few of his passes were from a traditional ‘holding midfield’ area in front of the centre backs.
Fernando is simply not the type of defensive midfielder who wants to receive the ball in tight spaces; he is too, well, defensive. The former Porto man could justifiably be labelled a ‘water carrier’, as Eric Cantona once called Didier Deschamps. At the top level of European football, this type of player at the base of midfields has gone out of fashion, in part because of the success of Spain and Barcelona between 2008 and 2012. However, another factor (linked again to those two teams’ success) is the ubiquity of pressing as a tactic. Opposition pressing is increasingly well co-ordinated, and team have the fitness levels to keep this up for large chunks of the game.
Compare and contrast the holding midfielders who play for Europe’s best sides today compared with 10 years ago. Sergio Busquets, Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso are different players entirely from Gennaro Gattuso, Claude Makelele and Gilberto Silva. Those were highly intelligent footballers who would surely adapt today, but there is now a greater emphasis on construction rather than destruction in midfield. Teams cannot afford to carry players who bring purely defensive qualities; they will quickly be identified as weak links and hounded when they receive the ball. A further factor in this development is the increasingly stringent laws on tackling which mean the ‘destroyers’ of the past have more or less been outlawed. As Sir Alex Ferguson noted in his autobiography, there is now a need for players who can stay on their feet, intercept, and start counter attacks.
Ironically, the man of the match on Sunday was Spurs’ Victor Wanyama; a sturdy midfielder who certainly does most of his best work without the ball. However, with Spurs on the front foot for most of the game he was extremely effective at preventing City from getting out and helping his team sustain attacks. It will be interesting to see how he copes in a big away game, perhaps the return match at Man City, when he is asked to play off the back foot a as Fernando was asked to do.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Craig Ballantyne