Whatever happens in Pep Guardiola’s reign as Manchester City manager, whether he ends up as a prodigious success or an infamous failure, there will always be before and after Tottenham.
It may be difficult to remember now after a run of just seven wins in its last 15 league games, but City actually began the season very well. Guardiola’s “free eights” seemed to confound opponents and when pundits worried about a one-horse race, it was City rather than Chelsea they saw leading it. Then City lost at White Hart Lane and nothing has been quite the same since.
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Man City had won 10 out of 10 in all competitions. It had looked unbeatable, blitzing opponents with its attacking football–if, at times, looking a touch vulnerable at the back. It was Brendan Rodgers and Celtic who first hinted at the flaw, pressing City in a way few have ever dared to press a Guardiola side and forcing a 3-3 draw in the Champions League.
Mauricio Pochettino probably would have pressed anyway, given that is in his nature, but the Celtic example must have emboldened him. Spurs were excellent, had some good fortune and won 2-0. The scales fell away from the eyes of the rest of the league. City could be attacked.
Or that’s the simple narrative. An international break followed and Tottenham lost form in the month or so after that. For City, it took time for the decline to set in. City played extremely well against Everton at home, missed two penalties, conceded to Romelu Lukaku with what was just about the only chance the away side managed, and drew 1-1. A terrible John Stones back pass presented Nathan Redmond with a goal in another home 1-1 draw against Southampton. Confidence waned. There was a late equalizer conceded against Middlesbrough.
Teams knew that direct running could upset City. Leicester, the champion, is a team predicated in direct running, on drawing the opposition on and playing balls in behind it for Jamie Vardy to chase. For a year, almost nobody had played a high line against Leicester, knowing the strength of Claudio Ranieri’s side. City, mystifyingly, pushed high, leaked three goals in the first 20 minutes and lost 4-2.
And then there is Claudio Bravo. Guardiola’s logic in replacing Joe Hart with somebody more in tune with his desire to pass the ball out from the goalkeeper was sound, but Bravo is struggling. He looks utterly ill-equipped to deal with the physical tests of Premier League football, and that has affected other parts of his game, evidenced as his shot-stopping has deteriorated. Only two goalkeepers in the Premier League this season have saved a lower proportion of shots.
As City’s form has unraveled, so, too, has Guardiola. Even at the beginning of the season, he seemed a distant figure; recently he has been outright hostile. He talks about having to “learn” the English game, but there are times–as when protesting that Burnley’s goal in City’s 2-1 win would have been disallowed for a foul on the goalkeeper anywhere else in the world, or despairing at how important the “second ball” is in English football–when he has seemed distinctly disdainful. And the more irritable he has become, the more opponents have sought to exploit City’s obvious weaknesses and Guardiola has found himself facing a physical bombardment wholly alien to the sort of football he experienced in Spain and Germany.
At least Pochettino’s side plays a form of football with which Guardiola is familiar. The Argentine was at Espanyol when Guardiola was at Barcelona, and both have been significantly influenced by Marcelo Bielsa. Pochettino was signed at Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario by Bielsa and played in his great side that won two Argentine championships and in 1992 reached the final of the Copa Libertadores. He warmly acknowledges how significant Bielsa was in the development of his football philosophy.
Bielsa, meanwhile, was one of those Guardiola visited on the global tour he undertook before embarking upon his coaching career. They met at Bielsa’s house in Argentina, sharing an asado and talking long into the night about tactics and positioning. Guardiola’s football has always been more based on possession than pressing, while combining elements of both; Pochettino can be seen as the reverse.
The mutual respect between the managers, the regard for their respective styles, was obvious at that meeting at White Hart Lane, but Saturday the dynamic will be different. Pochettino’s side has emerged over the past month as the most likely challenger to Chelsea; City is now fifth, and the possibility that it will not qualify for next season’s Champions League is mounting by the week.