Tag Archives: Pep Guardiola

Can you bottle what no one expected you to win in the first place?

Well, that was unexpected, said no one ever. Arsenal went into the Etihad desperately needing a win on the back of three consecutive draws against a side that hadn’t lost at home since Gutenberg invented the printing press and failed. Man City did what Man City does, namely, amassing enormous squad depth through entirely legiitimate methods and cake-walking past anyone who dares to stand in their path. Much the of the pre-match chatter focused on how Arsenal would bottle it, but, really, how can you bottle something that no one saw you having a chance at bottling in the first place?

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Guardiola admits his players are SCARED before Arsenal clash!

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s clash of TItans (well, at least one titan…), Pep Guardiola admitted that he and his players will be “a little bit nervous”​—his own words​—as they prepare to face Arsenal in what could very well coronate a champion. To be honest, Man City have an inside track on an inside track here; should they win or even draw, their chance at winning the Prem skyrocket. Should we achieve the impossible, we improve our chances modestly. Still, the idea that the likes of Haaland or Rodri or De Bruyne are nervous might give us an edge.

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Mikel’s master plan is beguiling Guardiola…

The current doom-and-gloom around the club is palpable, and why wouldn’t it be? We’ve now dropped four or six points depending on your maths, and it doesn’t look like Saliba will return to the fold anytime soon. What once looked like a worrying wobble has started to more closely resemble a full-on implosion. A draw away to Liverpool? Most of us take that​—except that followin​g it with two more draws to relegation fodder feels ex post facto like all three make for an unholy triumvirate. Still, maybe​—just maybe, this is all part of a game of 4D chess…

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Clearly, Arteta is merely COPYING Guardiola….

Since the day that Arteta was named Arsenal manager, he’s had to endure taunts such as being dubbed Pep’s coneman, as if all he ever did was follow orders, arrange cones, and run errands. However, almost since that same day, he’s gone off on his own path, a path that hews much closer to Wenger’s than to Guardiola’s. Despite this, there are some unhappy Citizen fans who have grown quite smug, sated, and complacent in the roughly 15 years since the club came into existence. This tweet, for one, accuses Arteta of copying Guardiola. We’re getting a glimpse of what it’s like to live rent-free in someone else’s head. It’s almost as if those smug, sated, complacent fans suffer a degree of entitlement and are growing more and more nervous as the end of the season approaches…

Let’s look at the chargers. Our manager is unoriginal. Okay, so there’s an element of truth to that. He and Guardiola are both Spanish midfielders who played for Barcelona’s youth squads. They both breathe oxygen and walk bipedally. They both have hair. Wait [checks notes]. Okay, so, at one point, they both had hair. Beyond that, though, the actual differences emerge. This is Arteta’s first managerial position. Guardiola has been a top-flight manager since 2008 and started his career with a side that included Valdés, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Eto’o, Messi, and Touré to name just a few off the top of my head. He’s never had to build a squad from scratch and has always had world-class players at every position, including on the bench. On the rare occasions when class was lacking, he simply asked for and got the players he desired. Since becoming City’s manager in 2016, Guardiola has bought more than one billion pounds worth of players to “improve” a squad that was already among the most-expensive in the world. 
By contrast, Arteta inherited a mess of a squad with perhaps one world-class if declining talent in it (Aubameyang). It was a squad in desperate need of an overhaul and a club in desperate need of a cultural revival, but Arteta had to wait a season and a half before getting the players he wanted. Our most-expensive transfer under Arteta is Thomas Partey, the only proven, world-class player we’d have for some time. We splashed some £45m on him. City have bought ten players for higher fees. We have to admit to spending £145m on fees under Arteta, but that’s spread across two and a half years. City have spent more than that in six of eight years. There’s just no comparison. Who among our current squad clearly qualifies as world class? Saka, Partey, and Jesus are. Ødegaard, Magalhães, Saliba, Zinchenko, and Martinelli are on the verge. Copying Guardiola? Hardly. If anything, Arteta is exposing Guardiola as a manager whose success is only possible with massive, massive spending. We’re five points clear of his squad and have been for all but an hour or so this season.
I’ll go a step further while returning to an original point. Wenger is famous for having said, “we don’t sign superstars; we make them.” As alluded to above, we have a very young squad, largely purchased on the cheap, and it is full of players only now plumbing the depths of their vast potentials. Saka. Martinelli. Ødegaard. Saliba. Magalhães. White. Smith-Rowe. None of these were household names at the time of their signings (well, maybe Ødegaard was). Each of them to varying degrees is on his way to becoming a household name. Several of them already intimidate opponents into irrelevance before the first kick of the ball, and they’re all getting better with each passing week.
I’ll go another step further. Arteta isn’t merely “copying” Guardiola. Just 26 months into his first managerial stint, he’s surpassing Guardiola, and I’m not just referring to the Prem table. He’s showing that Guardiola’s tactics and style of play, previously thought of as only possible with world-class players at every position, can be achieved with the youngest squad in the Prem. Do any of our best players waltz into City’s XI? That’s a tough one made even tougher by our own biases. Should we do the improbable and actually win the Prem, there will be tougher questions posed of Pep. What does it mean for your mentor to surpass you? What does it imply for him to have done so on a shoestring budget, duct tape, and baling wire? Does this suggest that your entire career has been little more than tactical lipstick applied to a profligate pig? Do drunken sailors resent you for replacing them as an idiom? And so on.
At a risk of letting Guardiola live rent-free in my own head, I’ll have to admit that I’ve always resented his success, built as it is on the kind of spending that Wenger always resisted to his own detriment. The idea then that Arteta would be critcised at any level for somehow “copying” Guardiola does get under my skin. I’ve said it before and it might be worth saying again: if we could give Wenger and Guardiola, or Arteta and Guardiola, the exact same squads to play against each other, I suspect that the Wenger/Arteta squads would win nine times out of ten. What would Guardiola do with a Guendouzi, Lacazette, or Mkhitaryan? Hell, what would he do with a Sanogo, Jenkinson, or Mustafi? He’d pull his hair—oh. Right.
At this point, 99% of me wants us to win the Prem because it’s glorious to win the Prem. However, 1% of me—maybe more?—wants to win the Prem to put pompous Pem in his place. Whatever the maths work out to be, I hope we get it done.

Arteta out-classed Guardiola. Sadly, our squad didn't out-class theirs…

For as much as the loss to Man City smarts, one thing became clear: Arteta had prepared his inferior squad more effectively than Guardiola had prepared his superior—or, at least deeper—squad. For the better part of an hour, in fact, Arteta had proven himself a better tactician than Guardiola, one of of the most successful managers of our generation. On multiple fronts and by most metrics, we outplayed our supposed betters…but we were undone by our own callowness and our own mistakes. On any other night, the scoreline could have and perhaps even should have gone the other way. Those who know me know I’m not prone to hyperbole, so take those measured words at face value.

For one, our pressing in that first hour was superb. A 3-2-4-1 man-marking press thoroughly discombobulated City to the point that Ederson was pinging long balls up toward midfield, a marked departure from their typical play-out-from-theback/tiki-taka hybrid. It got so bad at one point that Ederson even got booked for time-wasting…in the 36th minute. Saliba and Gabriel were strong enough in the air to win most of the aerial duels againstt Haaland. 

On those occasions when City were able to work their way up the pitch, we would retreat a bit into more of a 4-4-2 and were effective at stifling their attack in the final third. In fact, their only real chances of note came from our own misplaced passes (such as Tomiyasu’s ill-fated half-hit back-pass upon which de Bruyne pounced) or from set-pieces. That’s rather remarkable for an attacking side that included Haaland, de Bruyne, Mahrez, Gundogan, and Grealish.

From the other direction, Guardiola made the, um, unorthodox decision to ask Bernardo Silva to play as a left-back. I don’t know if I’ve ever, ever heard of a manager playing his best right winger as a makeshift left-back, but Guardiola is nothing if not innovative. Maybe Arteta will steal this idea to try with Saka someday. At any rate, the decision very nearly backfired, with Saka rinsing Silva just about every time he had the ball at this feet. If Anthony Taylor had booked Silva on the second or third foul rather than on the fifth, we might have had a very different match. Silva would have had to give Saka more space, play more tentatively, or risk getting sent off. In the meantime, our attack funnelled through Saka to exploit Silva’s clumsiness to near-lethal effect.

Speaking of that change as well as the broader tactical approach, Guardiola himself admitted that he “decided something new and it was horrible.” Going further, he added. “we put Bernardo in the middle, not stupid enough to keep him lef-back”.

On the other side, Martinelli’s willingness to keep his heels on the touchline stretched City’s defense and caused all sorts of problems for Kyle Walker, all the more so when Martinelli would move centrally to drag the defense out of shape and to create space for Zinchenko, forcing Walker to choose between Zinchenko on the ball out wide or Martinelli moving into the 18. All of this was to plan. Arteta’s plan.

If it hadn’t been for our own wayward passes, whether these were careless backpasses or overhit through-balls (how many times did Xhaka aim a howitzer at a teammate in a threatening position when a well-weighted ball could have led to a shot?), we might have gone into halftime defending a clean-sheet lead. In the end, though, we were undone by those unforced errors and not by anything Guardiola had planned or his players did. A savvier, more-experienced squad would have made good on Arteta’s tactical masterclass.

The good news is that they’ll get there…eventually. The better news is that it shows that we have a manager who’s ready to put a young, desperately thin squad, one shorn of one of its most vital members on short notice, in a position to battle with if not beat one of the world’s most-expensive, most-experienced squads. In the end, that’s a lot of pretty words that don’t earn any points. 

After all, the planning wasn’t enough to overcome our own shortcomings, and Arteta ran out of time. On the hour, Guardiola made the adjustments he needed to correct his own miscalculations and account for Arteta’s upper hand. He replaced Mahrez with Akanji and moved Aké to left-back to shore up the defense and restored Silva to his natural position, and it was within ten minutes that the tide turned and City found that second goal and ten minutes more that they found the third to put the match out of reach. Even that turning of the tide had just as much to do with us shooting ourselves in the foot as it did with them shooting the ball into the net.

We lick our wounds and we move on. It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. It’ll soon be water under a bridge. In other words,  don’t make a meal of it.

While this wasn’t quite a coming-of-age moment for the squad, it may yet represent a turning point. Many will point to it as a potential nadir or at least a tipping point when a season that felt filled with so much potential and so much success went sideways instead. At a risk of doing what I usually do—get overly optimistic, that is—I choose to see it differently, and I do so, I believe, for good reason. It’s less than ideal to drop points in three consecutive matches and to let an eight-point lead evaporate along the way, but those who are writing our post-mortem are doing so far, far too early. 

This is a galvanising moment. For the second time inside of three weeks, we’ve lost to Man City. We’ve now lost 11 straight Prem matches to them. On the other hand, we had the upper hand against this squad for almost an hour because our manager out-classed theirs. Give us back one of Jesus or Partey, take away one of Haaland or de Bruyne, and we’re six points clear with a game in hand instead of level on points with a game in hand. 

We have ten very winnable matches between now and when we face City again. Let’s see where things stand then rather than rue where they stand now. Something tells me we’ll be feeling quite a bit better…