Pep Guardiola keeping his enemies closer
Pep Guardiola has the annoying habit of praising opposing managers who attempt to play on the front foot against Manchester City and get waxed for their trouble.
Last season, City dusted off Arsenal 3-0 twice in the space of four days. In his post-match pressers, Pep couldn’t say enough about Arsene Wenger’s adherence to positive tactics. It was like sitting through the best man’s speech at your sister’s wedding when the best man is also known as Sammy the Bull.
This weekend, the Sky Blues condensed the six-goal shellacking into a mere 90 minutes against Chelsea. Afterwards, Guardiola played best man again, this time heartily endorsing Maurizio Sarri’s tactical obstinacy.
Meanwhile, the media seized on Antonio Conte’s quote from 2017/18 about “not being so stupid” as to lose 6-0 when retreating into a compact double block and conceding just one or two goals to a clearly superior side allowed him to maintain his dignity. This would be the dignity that goes out the window as he dashes madly about the ground and into the stands whenever his team scores an important goal.
Ignoring the former Chelsea strategist's opinion, Pep commended the Blues' new Italian manager for sending his side out to piss into not just any wind but one of hurricane force.
While propping up the peer on whom he’d just dropped a six-bedroom farmhouse, the Catalan urged patience from those with a vested interest in Chelsea FC. He reminded all and sundry how they’d labelled him a failure in his first season, how he stuck to his guns and hey, look at him now.
On the one hand, it could happen. Chelsea could back their new manager in the summer window, clear the deadwood from their roster, sign the players he identifies as crucial to his system, then watch him go out and win the Premier League.
On the other hand, unless you’re hopelessly naïve, it’s obvious that Pep is supremely confident that will never take place. And why not? He has every reason to be.
Even if he was willing, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich isn’t able to throw around the type of money City's benefactor, Sheikh Mansour does. With more wealth backing him than any other manager, it’s in Guardiola’s best interest to encourage everyone to play his brand of football. Everything else being equal, the club with the most resources will win. Pep’s the riverboat gambler at the poker table who knows the deck is stacked in his favour. Wenger, Sarri and managers who don’t acknowledge their disadvantage are the rubes.
Beyond the money, Guardiola is also much more pragmatic than he lets on.
Wenger was too stubborn to invest in defensive players despite his team playing like a medicated patient walking the hospital halls oblivious to the cool draft on his backside. Sarri takes the inanity a step further. His patient walks around with the gown on the wrong way around. Despite teams in the top and bottom halves of the table exposing his system, he insists on lining up his playmaker as a defensive mid while deploying the league’s best destroyer in the No.7 role. In the Chelsea boss' case, evidence increasingly suggests that the patient gone walkabout belongs in the psychiatric ward.
Pep may prattle on about positive football but the former Barcelona and Bayern tactician is also earnest about shutting down opponents. He describes the high press as defending far away from your goal where fewer bad things can happen.
That doesn’t mean he slots Fernandinho in behind Sergio Aguero or on the wing. The Brazilian stays where a defensive midfielder belongs: shielding the centre-halves. Everyone except Maurizio Sarri agrees that’s where N’Golo Kante should be. As a result, Chelsea fans must first fear that their team is running around the pitch in hospital gowns and second that irreparable damage is being done to the player who delivered their last Premier League title.
Every player develops their game through repetition, practising their technique and learning how to position themselves. Good habits are drilled into them on the training ground. Unfortunately, bad habits can also be taught. Playing out of position in a role that doesn’t suit his talents, Kante is picking up bad habits. He lunges into foolish challenges more than he used and gives away possession through poorer decision-making than we associate with a player who carried two clubs to consecutive league titles in the not-too-distant past
It’s clear Kante doesn’t fit Sarri’s system any better than Yaya Toure matched Guardiola’s even if the Chelsea man's humility prevents him from protesting at his misuse. At season’s end, it will be the French player or the Italian coach exiting Stamford Bridge. The club isn’t big enough for both. If it’s the player who departs, then buyer beware. While clubs will be hoping to sign a masterful holding midfielder, Kante will need time to rid himself of the bad habits Sarri’s tinkering imposed. If Sarri exits, the next Chelsea boss will need patience while his damaged midfielder affects repairs.
There is, of course, a third option. Sarri can swallow his pride and admit his system needs adapting to the Premier League. Without abandoning positive tactics, he can operate Kante and Jorginho in a double pivot similar to the way Antonio Conte deployed Cesc Fabregas and Kante or he can ask his playmaker to take a more advanced role while allowing his enforcer to do what he does best. His reluctance to do so gifted Malmo a goal in the Europa League Round of 32 when Kante entered for Jorginho but Mateo Kovacic slipped into the deeper position and failed to track his man on a counterattack.
Credit to Maurizio Sarri if he finally discovers the humility to make such an adjustment but everything he’s ever said or done as a manager indicates he’s never going to comprehend the problems inherent with wearing a hospital gown in the technical area.