City v. Arsenal: two teams needing a win

I’m half way through Pep Confidential and I have a clear sense of Pep Guardiola’s managerial style. If you want to pluck a string that resonates negatively with the British, you call him a tinkerer. But since I have no such animosity toward Pep, nor some unhealthy desire to see great men fall, my take is that Guardiola is a manager like any other great manager. He wants to play football his way and has to change things until he can find the right combinations that unlock the opposition’s stubborn defenses.

Yeah, I know. I mean to say “he’s a tinkerer!”

It is true that reading Pep Confidential I found myself thinking that he tends to overcomplicate things. But ask yourself, how do you unlock a team playing two banks of four, who are both organized and (more importantly) disciplined, and who have practiced to play on the counter?

The answer isn’t simple. If it was, every team would do it and Leicester wouldn’t have won the League last year.

So, Guardiola’s team (and his mind) spends an extraordinary amount of time in practice and on the field trying to solve the riddles of football. A great example, and one that drives the conservative pundits mad, is his odd use of the fullbacks coming into midfield.

At Bayern, Guardiola set out vertical lanes he wanted his players to stay in and out of. So that, if the winger was in the furthest right lane, he wanted his fullback to move up and come in to the next lane over on the left. This creates overloads in midfield and attack. It also opens spaces behind, but the idea is that if the fullback is coming in to the middle of the park, his marker (the opposition winger) should be dragged with him. This should create an advantage in attack, while minimizing counters. That’s the idea.

The problem in England is that too many teams simply don’t do that. The wide player comes in a little but by and large, they stay in their two banks of four, safe in the knowledge that even if you overload the two center mids with an extra fullback, they are covered in the most crowded area of the pitch. With the fullbacks in the center of the pitch, the wide areas are open and since every team in the Premier League can and does play on the counter, City is violently exposed.

Another hallmark of Guardiola’s sides are that he insists on snuffing out the counter attack by pressing key players. He prepares his teams with massive dossiers on his opposition. Detailed looks at who the threats are from each type of play and how to stop them.

And finally, he hates tiquitaka, though he would love to have 100% of the ball. His attack and defense are predicated on taking 15 passes to get the ball into position in the opposition half. This seems like Tiquitaka but it’s not. The idea is to move the ball and the players up the pitch and into position so that they can “attack like hell”. If they lose the ball, they should have their entire team set up to quickly press the opposition and either win the ball back or at least make the opposition pause before launching the counter attack. Tiquitaka for Pep is that sterile possession that Arsenal practiced for so long – passing the ball in a U shape around the 18 yard box. He hates that! We all hate that. He wants his men to attack.

What’s fascinating is how many of Guardiola’s ideas Arsene Wenger has adopted this season and yet also how Wenger has abandoned certain ways of playing. Wenger’s teams have always been good at passing the ball and Wenger, like Pep, bought a ball-playing center back in Mustafi. Mustafi and Stones are both there to start their respective team’s attacks. If they are pressed by the opposition, they can deal with that threat.

Wenger also took a page out of Guardiola’s playbook when he moved Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, Coquelin, high up the pitch to play between the lines. Against Borussia Dortmund, Guardiola used Javi Martinez in this role to cover Nuri Sahin. Specifically, his job was to stop Sahin from springing counter attacks.

Guardiola is also credited for the resurgence of the False 9. Wenger has Alexis playing as that striker who can both play deep and can make runs behind the opposition. Guardiola used Goetze there for Bayern and Messi for Barcelona.

And finally, both managers love to play on the counter. Wenger has rekindled his romance with the Premier League’s love of the counter attack. This summer, Wenger tried to buy both Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City, the two best counter attacking players in the League last year. He failed to land either but he has managed to get the best out of Iwobi, Walcott, Özil, and Alexis and use them effectively on counters, earning a second-best 4 shots so far this season off counters, tied with City and two short of League leading Chelsea.

Counter attacks are Guardiola’s worst nightmare. Leicester scored their opening goal in the third minute against Man City and they did so with the following stats: 1 aerial duel won by Huth, 1 ball recovery by Slimani, 1 pass by Mahrez, 1 through ball by Slimani, 1 shot by Vardy. That, plus the one Vardy foul, was their entire stats line in the first 3 minutes of that game. Premier League teams all have the ability to get goals from nothing and counter at speed. It only takes a momentary lapse of concentration and the opposition will be ahead.

Sunday is being billed as one of the biggest games of the season and a must-win for both teams. Interestingly, for such a big game it’s not even sold-out yet – there are plenty of seats left if you’re in town and you want to go to the match:

Guardiola’s side will be well prepared for this match. They will have practiced pressing Wenger’s men, getting the ball into position, attacking, and above all rondos, rondos, rondos. Wenger’s side will be equally prepared for this match, their job will be to stay patient and hit City on the counter.

There is one last component of Guardiola’s football philosophy which is important; he believes that in order to challenge for the League title, you have to stay within 3-6 points of the leaders in December. Chelsea play Crystal Palace on Saturday. That means by kickoff on Sunday, Arsenal could be looking at a 9 point gap and City 10 points. Both teams will be desperate to close that gap.


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