Manchester City prove football is mind over matter
The sweeping tika-taka style of Barcelona and Spain during the mid-noughties baffled many of football's more agricultural thinkers. Lump it long to the big man was gone. Little men doing performance art were in.
Tiki-taka confused those unwilling to accept it. Size and athleticism were irrelevant. Pep Guardiola swapped the slick, fast Samuel Eto'o for big, strong Zalatan Ibrahimovic, then banished the Swede to the bench. Xavi Hernandez, who looked more like he had arrived to remove the virus from your computer was king. He stood just 1.68 metres from the ground. Andres Iniesta, his creative counterpart, was just three centimetres taller (but compensated with male-pattern baldness). Many of its other proponents, players like David Villa, Pedro, and, of course, Lionel Messi, were all noticeably under six feet tall.
Players had to be extremely sharp in their movement, explosively fast in short spaces, possess astonishing balance and the agility to turn from one direction to the other with incredible speed and unpredictability. In an unfamiliar manner, they were remarkably athletic. They were also technical masters. Many heralded from La Masia. Acute technicalities involved in what had previously been the simple task of kicking a ball were drilled into them. All had the ability to control a football, even when jostled by defenders or on the receiving end of a less than ideal pass. All could distribute with great accuracy, variety, precision and pace. All could shoot from both dead-ball and open-play situations.
But it was not technical prowess or crisp dynamism that elevated their play far and above what had previously been witnessed. No national team has ever been as successful as Spain were from 2008 to 2012, for instance. No, it was their mental capacity which separated them from the rest.
Their understanding of the game was unparalleled. From the tiny positional adjustments that ensured they were in precisely the correct place on the pitch to their all-encompassing vision that did not overlook one blade of grass, it often seemed they were playing a different game. The neat interplay between Iniesta and Xavi, which is perhaps the most indicative and emblematic example of this wonderful brand of football, was not based on a dominating power, an imposing brawn, or overawing speed. They understood each other perfectly and out-thought their opponents.
Football was not a game played by the feet; football was a game played between the ears. It was a chess match. The pieces simply had the freedom to make their own moves. Most amazing, every independent piece was making the correct move to become part of a cohesive, smooth, whirring machine that ran relentlessly without fault or flaw or hiccup. Football was, and still is, mind over matter.
Now Manchester City is playing that game. Of the current squad, there are only two midfielders who stand six feet or taller: Leroy Sane and Yaya Toure. The latter is a player renowned for his physical presence but, for the second time under Guardiola, is being eased out of the team. The former is exactly six feet but does not use his height. He tends to slouch somewhat when standing still, although it's less noticeable when he is blowing past defenders with his blistering speed.
City is not a big team. The squad that began the season was the only Premier League team to average less than six feet in height. Manchester United, in contrast, had the second tallest squad. We all know which approach has been more successful.
The Citizens represent something of an evolution in Guardiola's philosophy. He has made greater room for speed and strength in his tactics than he once did. It shouldn't be a surprise. While still at the Camp Nou he once had this to say:
[Johan] Cruyff built the cathedral. Our job is to maintain and renovate it.
Sane, along with Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker offer searing pace that Pep's former sides rarely possessed. Yet, even though it has been incorporated into City's style, pace is not the foundation of the side's success. City do not simply out-run teams. They are no quicker, faster, fitter or more dynamic than the next club. They continue to out-think their rivals.
The man at the heart of all this has certainly renovated the style Cruyff brought to Catalonia. When Pep took control and began sculpting his team, he reverted to Cruyff's pass-pass-pass mentality, which others had abandoned. He would tell his players, "I want every move to be smart."
That is how Guardiola thinks football is won. He might just be right.