Pep Guardiola is understandably viewed as a footballing purist. Anyone fortunate enough to witness his Barcelona side in full flow, with miniature maestros Xavi and Iniesta dizzying the opposition, softening them up for the slaloming brilliance of Messi, glimpsed a level of football closer to perfection than anything seen before or since.
Guadiola has always maintained, however, that he is against the type of football known as tiki-taka – passing for the sake of passing. The objective for Guardiola has always been to win and he’s been phenomenally successful. He won the first six trophies available to him at Barcelona – an unprecedented sextuple of La Liga, Copa Del Ray, Champions League, European Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and the Club World Cup – and didn’t do too badly at Bayern Munich either, winning three straight championships by comfortable margins.
Manchester City fans were understandably thrilled at Guardiola’s appointment in the summer. A manager who wins more than anyone else with greater style than anyone else – what’s not to like?
Others, however, predicted a rocky road for Guardiola in England. The phrase “can they do it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke” was used, albeit often with irony, to question how Messi, Xavi and other tiki-taka purists would cope in the hurly burly of the Premiership. For many, England posed the ultimate test to Guardiola’s style of play: could artistic football survive a close encounter with Ryan Shawcross and managers in the mould of Steve Bruce, who famously said “some would say it wasn’t even a red card” about the tackle from Martin Taylor that shattered Eduardo’s leg?
Those who stick their neck out as football pundits are used to having humble pie thrust towards them and Guadiola’s stellar start with Man City had many eating their words. City won their first ten games in all competitions under Guardiola, including a highly impressive win away at Old Trafford, and the players looked to be adapting to his unique style of play well.
The first blip in City’s season, a 3-3 draw at Celtic, appeared little to worry about, but was followed by a 2-0 defeat away to Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino’s men brought the full force and physicality of the Premier League to bear on Guardiola’s team that day and won comfortably.
City’s run since then hasn’t quite been disastrous but four wins in 15 games is not something Guadiola is used to. A few of the naysayers have raised their heads above the parapet again and wondered whether the physicality of the Premier League is belatedly getting the better of the Spaniard, but the biggest concerns have been raised by Guardiola himself.
“This is the first time in my life I don’t win for so long,” Guardiola admitted after the 4-2 away defeat to Leicester, before taking seriously a prospect even journalists who make a living heaping pressure on managers would consider far-fetched: that his job is in danger. “I have never been sacked, and I feel the people at the club trust me” Guardiola said, “but the reality is that you have to win games.”
So what has gone wrong for Pep in the past few months? With uncommon honesty the Spaniard has highlighted the issues he faces. “The main thing in English football is controlling the second ball,” he said. “In many other countries when one guy has the ball at his feet the people know what is going to happen. Here the football is more unpredictable because the ball is in the air more than on the floor.”
To his credit, Guardiola has emphasised that he “has to adapt.” Even if English referees complicate matters – “sometimes it’s a foul and sometimes no foul,” he observed of physical play in the Premier League – the Spaniard will have to find a way to impose his passing football on teams with little respect for reputation or nuance.
Struggles are all relative. Arsenal visit Manchester City on Sunday, the type of purist game Guardiola relishes, and a win would lift City above the Gunners into second place in the table. They’re currently priced at odds of 2.20 to beat the Gunners with Bet365, who have a £200 bonus for 2017 new customers. Had Kevin De Bruyne hit the back of the net rather than the bar when confronted with an open goal in City’s last blockbuster match, against Chelsea, they would likely be at the top in place of Antonio Conte’s men.
Guardiola’s record of success and his desire to control games probably explains why he’s taking City’s current run so hard, but there’s no need to panic. English football is testing Guardiola but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. City are hanging in there and if Guardiola finds a solution that allows them to control second balls – and he is an expert at finding solutions – City will be a force to be reckoned with.