Guardiola the man to beat this season

Pep Guardiola got yet another one over Jose Mourinho as his Man City side outplayed Man U to a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. I make no bones about my dislike for Mourinho; he’s an odious man who employs childish tactics both in his press conferences and on the pitch. So, it was with great joy that I got to see him and United picked apart by the superior football brain of Pep Guardiola.

In big matches, Mourinho’s “big idea” is to play Allardycian football. He gets away with this tactic because he buys glittering players, worth billions of dollars, and if you can motivate them to play defense first (which is a skill in itself, and I credit Mourinho for that) they can be an insanely effective counter-attacking unit. I mean, even Sam Allardyce, if he were given Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, and Diego Costa, could win the League. Or at least finish in the top four.

Mourinho plays this defense first because he hates losing to the other big clubs. Against the smaller clubs, his teams take an expansive approach, but in the big games the main tactic is “keep your shape, don’t make a mistake, and capitalize on their errors.” He’s gotten so rigid in this tactic over the years that it has grown into a neurosis and if his team fails to execute his brilliant “plan” he invariably blames the players.

Another strange side story to this game is the fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic hates Pep Guardiola. And this Zlatan-hates-Pep story is as ugly and nonsensical as you would expect.

Zlatan, it turns out, hates Guardiola because Guardiola had the temerity to once ask him to play team football. When Pep and Zlatan were at Barcelona, Messi demanded to be played through the middle. Pep, having the best player of almost any generation, had little choice: play Messi through the middle — and win 3 consecutive La Liga titles, 5 cups, and 2 Champions League trophies — or acquiesce to the bloated ego of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and probably get fired as the whole team unity of Barcelona collapsed.

Zlatan could have won the Champions League, he never has and with Mourinho never will, but he couldn’t get over his own ego. If he had simply integrated himself into the team, played football as part of a whole rather than as a hole, he could have been ranked as one of the best of all time.

So it was a most enjoyable 4:30am kickoff as Mourinho’s tactics were utterly exposed as the fraud tactics that they are. Michael Cox does a great job explaining the various formations used but the overall theme is that Mourinho either used two or three center mids (mostly to play as cover for the back four) and between two and four forwards (depending on gamestate) up front. Meanwhile, Pep’s side were dynamic and tireless both in possession and out of possession, making Mourinho’s Man U look like an expensively assembled Bolton Wanderers.

Michael Cox points out that Pogba was the main culprit for the early match capitulation because of his poor positioning but it was the whole team who seemed to struggle to understand where they were supposed to be in the Mourinho system. Mkhitaryan will also have to wonder what he’s signed up for, subbed at half-time, and along with Jesse Lindgaard tossed under the bus as Mourinho sped away in a huff:

Look, honestly, I have two or three players in the first half that ummm (he he) if the game is now and I know what is going to happen I don’t, obviously, I don’t play them. But this is football. Sometimes players they disappoint managers.

In fairness, Mourinho went on to say that it was all his fault, however, for selecting the players.

Pep’s system, on the other hand, was well balanced. His players pressed and harassed Man U when they had the ball, forcing turnovers, and attacked with speed and precision when they had the ball.

Guardiola’s plan was to control the game through fluid ball movement and by controlling space out of possession, Mourinho’s plan was to hope for an error. At half time, Mourinho “corrected” his oversight and subbed off Mkhitaryan and Lindgaard. He added Herrera, moved Pogba back, and let the cockatiel-haired Fellaini push forward to win long balls (his only discernable talent). This allowed Man U to press a bit and win back a few possessions. But Guardiola simply sacrificed Iheanacho for Fernando, regained possession, and closed the game out with the ball and with the better of the two team’s chances.

I remember wondering why Fernando was coming on, then after about two minutes it all made sense as he dropped deep, covered the center backs, allowed John Stones to drift up when needed, and played a great role in midfield controlling possession when they had the ball and space when they didn’t. As the match closed, Mourinho was reduced to playing long balls and crosses in to Fellaini and Zlata. As if the emperor was looking down from on high, the cameras even caught Sir Alex Ferguson shaking his head in disgust as the match burned out.

Pep Guardiola did something that I have always wanted Arsene Wenger to do: he bested Mourinho tactically. He left Mourinho exposed as a fraud. He made Mourinho throw his players under the bus after the match. And as an added bonus, he made Zlatan and his man bun go home in second place, yet again. It was the perfect start of the day for me.

And then I watched Arsenal. Maybe I shouldn’t watch Arsenal after watching a tactical masterclass like the one that Guardiola puts on.

In the first 20 minutes against Southampton, Arsenal looked like they couldn’t be arsed. It was as if that article about Arsenal not understanding how to play basic football was coming true. But it wasn’t that Coquelin, Özil, and Cazorla didn’t understand how to play football, they just had that lackadaisical approach to the game that whispers “we are here, we’ll take our three points now.”

So, the first 20 minutes were a replay of all the bad things Arsenal have shown us this season; huge spaces were vacated as Özil did his best Ramsey impression and just played as a fourth forward, Arsenal’s fullbacks weren’t able to get involved because they were pinned back having to cover both Southampton’s forwards and their fullbacks as Ox decided he was too good for defense, and Coquelin was doing his best playing as persona non-grata in the Arsenal midfield. Even Cazorla looked slow to the ball, jumped out of challenges, and didn’t seem to want to get involved.

When Arsenal gave up the goal there was an air of inevitability. Don’t get me wrong, it was a dive, a cold-blooded dive. Nathan Redmond, whose speed and dribbling I had warned about before the match, saw Monreal coming and knew he was going to try to tackle him. Both player’s minds were made up as to what was coming next and Redmond’s mind was made up to dive. The ref was fooled and gave the free kick.

What happened next, though, was a bit strange. Cech’s positioning looked as if he was too far to the right but not having played keeper or coached keeper I don’t actually know where he should be standing. When the kick came in, it turned out he was too far to the right and couldn’t get a full palm on the ball. Cech did get a finger on it, but shoved the ball into the bar which then ricocheted down off his back and into the goal. A well deserved own goal off a completely undeserved free kick. 

I sat there, as I do now every time Arsenal struggle in a game, and thought “this is the end for Wenger.” The camera zoomed in on him, his face was pained. And then he stood and he yelled at the players. And then something changed. Özil started to drop to help collect the ball from the defenders, Cazorla started to weave his magic, and even Coquelin presented himself to collect the ball.

Yay, Arsenal were back playing some football! Against Southampton! Arsenal got back into the match with an amazing bicycle kick from Koscielny (who had two good chances in the first half) but in the end it all felt a bit underwhelming. Arsenal toiled for 70 minutes, escaped a loss thanks to two big misses by Shane Long, and won in the end thanks to a sort of dubious penalty. I’m not even going to complain about the penalty call because the referee shouldn’t have awarded the free kick to Southampton in the first half.

The key player in this match was Santi Cazorla. It’s not saying anything new to point out that when Santi Cazorla was injured last season Arsenal looked like a kid wearing his father’s business suit. No one was able to replace Cazorla last season and I suspect no one will be able to replace him when he is injured this season.

In this match, Santi was the key for Arsenal moving the ball forward. His tireless efforts getting open, carrying the ball, beating his marker, and then getting into space, carried Arsenal’s offensive impetus. And at the end of the match he cut out a cross that probably would have cost Arsenal a goal. Then, at the death, with Southampton players destroying the penalty spot, and with every Southampton player trying to ice him, he just sent the keeper the wrong way and kicked the penalty down the middle. Santi put Arsenal on his tiny shoulders and carried us to three points. I’m not sure how many more times he can do that as his career is winding down.

But in the end, it was the contrast between Pep Guardiola’s City and Arsene’s Arsenal which most stuck in my craw. While Guardiola was putting on a coaching clinic, comprehensively besting the man I have most wanted to see beaten for 10 years, Arsene was putting on a one-man show carried almost entirely by Cazorla.


*Not jumping to conclusions, but they are top of the table and they did just comprehensively beat Mourinho at Old Trafford. It’s a big deal.

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