Premature Pep Talks

Premature Pep Talks

Ever since Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City he has been subjected to an unprecedented degree of inspection and expectation. Understanding the negative impact this could have, Pep has been the voice of reason. When City started the season with a run of ten wins, he spoke to closed ears when attempting to explain it wasn’t a true indication of the team’s current level. Now with a dip in form, he once again faces ignorance from a media determined to undermine Europe’s most successful manager.

Suddenly there is no shortage of experts offering advice to the Spaniard. Pundits that occupy seats in the safety of studios, or journalists who have to service the wants of fans from opposing clubs (the clickbait brigade), are suggesting that his proven methods will never work in the Premier League. That before we’ve even entered November, it’s time to admit the English way is unique and his crazy ideas have been shown up for what they are.

Not satisfied with telling a man – who was happy to point out in Friday’s press conference he’s won twenty-one titles with his ideals – his tactics are wrong, they are also attempting to forge wishful transfer rumours into facts. He was happy to point out where they are incorrect.

Beneath the obvious, are more subtle claims. These are just as easy to dispel. The most erroneous is that in principal he is no different to predecessor Manuel Pellegrini. For those that found that amusing (as any serious person should), take a second to let the giggles pass.

The notion comes from the half-baked view Pep and Pellers both shared a common denominator: They have one way and no Plan B.

This was clearly a case that could be mounted against Pellegrini. Like Roberto Martínez, it seemed they’d rather lose playing their way then adapt to opponents and unique situations. They refused to be proactive, instead soldiering on, expecting different outcomes with faltering systems.

Pep is different, and certainly not a one-plan man.

The ethos – his religious view on how the game should be played – will remain consistent, but within the framework changes are made. Whether it’s switching to three at the back or an extra man in midfield at the expense of a striker. There was always a rigidity with Pellegrini (even with formation changes) that isn’t evident with Pep. A tailored approach after examining the opposition has replaced blind optimism, or should that be: plain stubbornness.

When those able to acknowledge Pep has adaptability, they cover it by saying he should slowly implement his ideas and until then play to the strengths of the current squad. It can’t be argued that the best managers go in and work out where strengths are and chop the weaknesses. But isn’t that what he’s done already with the brutal treatment of players like Joe Hart and exclusion of Yaya Touré?

It’s only managers who are survival experts, like Sam Allardyce, that allow personnel to dictate shape and style. There’s a reason veterans of the managerial game have never featured in the Champions League while Pep has won it two times.

It is always a results based business – Roberto Martínez would have done well to remember this – but to take the silverware, become an all-time great, you need to have ideals that can be transposed across a spectrum of tactical problems.

He’ll accommodate players where possible but ultimately they bend to his will: his ethos can’t change for theirs.

Unlike Pellegrini, who it seemed sent players out with vague instruction, Pep makes it clear what he expects to see. When his system fails it’s obvious where individuals have been lacking. This accountability makes it easy to root out weaknesses and build the correct team. That process is now underway following the passing of the honeymoon period.

Players are beginning to show their true colours. Some are just unsuitable for the demands Pep is making. Others, through either poor work ethic, attitude, or time of life, cannot perform to the required standard. Pellegrini may have ignored their shortfalls, Pep will not.

Guardiola also knows football tactics are constantly evolving, it’s why he came to City. This opportunity is the continuation of his education. There’s no suggestion he’ll plough on with failing tactics but he’s confident the overriding ethos works.

People shouldn’t complain when José Mourinho parks the bus because it’s boring, they should question why he’s still rolling out tactics from yesteryear. Pep’s dynamic approach makes even the Portuguese United boss look like a tactical dinosaur.

But members of the “Red Press” would rather highlight Pep’s perceived failures, that are nothing more than growing pains, and ignore how the Special One has become the Stagnant One.

They also believe his tactics have been worked out. That Celtic somehow exposed the key to the conundrum when they only replicated what Swansea had attempted. Pep would rub his hands at the prospect of every team pressing City every game until the end of the season. If his system is implemented correctly, they’d be making the space for him in vital areas of the pitch.

But it’s easier to pretend after years of success, the brutal nature of the Premier League has cracked the Guardiola code. It’s as if he was the Illuminati and Brendan Rodgers formed some part of a Da Vinci Code, that the Tom Hanks looking Premier League managed to work out in time to prevent an embarrassing runaway success.

Thankfully people like Robbie Savage have sound advice. The man that only adorns the BBC because his dress sense brightens up the dreary looking Phil Neville, and his mindless enthusiasm on commentary offsets the drier tones of Mark Lawrenson, believes Pep isn’t a tactical genius after all. Robert Langdon – sorry, the Premier League – has seen to that.

Nor does Pep need to reinvent the wheel to conquer Europe with City, just fix its punctures.

And that’s the problem: Pellegrini didn’t leave Guardiola with a working wheel. It was a shiny cart with its components used for forward motion removed, instead sat upon shaky bricks and an instruction manual that had been left out in the rain. City didn’t need tweaking, they required revolutionary treatment.

There is no one better in the game to provide this than Pep Guardiola.

Like any revolution, it will take time. Those that have faith will be patient, those with hope it fails will fabricate stories and print insincere views to upset the steady progress.

Pep doesn’t need to change his ethos; he just needs to realise in the land of Premier League football, freedom of speech means the nonsensical have the loudest voices. But empty vessels do make the most noise…

How to Sweep up the Premier League Tactical Problem

How to Sweep up the Premier League Tactical Problem

It may be regarded as the most competitive top flight European league, but the Premier League has been going backwards tactically for some time now. This is evident by the declining performances, year after year, by English sides in the Champions League. It seems top sides here have suffered from acquiescence regarding their place in the pecking order. But there could be a way to stop them from faltering further.

On a weekly basis we see goals conceded that, while making the Premier League exciting and unpredictable, are a tactician’s nightmare. Some of the errors border on the schoolboy variety; others highlight how the pace of the English game makes defending a thankless task.

The solution could come from – quite ironically – an old European favourite: the sweeper system.

Before we go on, it needs to be pointed out, my personal level of football coaching begins on Championship Manager (the version before CM’93) and ends with Football Manager 2016. As a player, my greatest contribution was the post-match karaoke for the Sunday team I represented.

However, I did take England to two World Cup final victories and scored a screamer when hungover once (and just once, making me the least prolific striker in history). But you don’t have to be an all-time great to have valid observations. Indeed, the majority of top managers were, at best, average players.

The call for Premier League teams to adopt a sweeper system isn’t borne from some romantic notion. I’m not expecting John Stones to be the next Franco Baresi, although, it’s not too difficult to imagine. It comes from common sense.

The reasons that made European teams evolve away from the sweeper system are no longer valid in this country. Some factors apply across the board, including the Champions League.

Take the inability to apply a successful offside trap when employing a sweeper. When was the last time you saw an English side lockout Bayern Munich or Real Madrid because of their quick-thinking high defensive line?

Moreover, the offside trap requires linesman to never make a mistake. Okay, perhaps they can be afforded a few. And in days gone by the odd error would have been taken on the chin. But nowadays we have an overcomplicated offside rule. A defender can play a perfect “trap” and be caught out by the second or third phase of play. He can lose to the official’s interpretation.

A sweeper removes this area of potential ambiguity. He just clears up and prevents shock counters and breakaways.

Another argument against could be the modern defensive midfielder already does the role of sweeper but in a more advantageous position on the field.

To a certain degree, this is clearly true in some cases. The current Barcelona team never look like they need a sweeper. And Pep Guardiola’s conversion of Philipp Lahm to the defensive midfield role shows how versatile and effective it can be.

Under Guardiola, Lahm performed a similar role to the one Busquets had in Pep’s Barça side. Sometimes they slotted back, making a line of three centre backs, with the option for one to sweep. But it wasn’t an in-game reversion. The role of sweeper is too complex for players to cameo in the position. These instances were an example of a team responding to pressure and adapting for short bursts.

But aside from the very top sides, the role elsewhere is either performed by charlatans or capable players stuck in teams that don’t know how to support it. Take Manchester City, it can’t be argued they have the talent to play the modern defensive midfield role. They also have demonstrated how deadly it can be at times. But sides from Bournemouth to Middlesbrough to Juventus, have all shown how easy it is to bypass their midfield.

When that happens, you don’t have a sweeper sat in front of the defence – you have nothing but empty space protecting two centre backs.

This lack of cover combined with today’s blistering pace means even the best defenders will be made to look stupid. Eliaquim Mangala would have had an entirely different season if he’d have been given better protection in front of him. With a sweeper behind, he’d have excelled.

A sweeper would make teams more solid in the Premier League, the question then becomes: How would they fare in Europe.

This is harder to answer, mainly because it reduces some of the advantages English sides take into a game. The play goes slower still, the intelligence of the midfield to receive passes from a ball-playing sweeper needs to increase, and the best forwards in the world can try and camp out on your defensive line.

But the current weak imitation of how to play their style is sending Premier League teams backwards.

Perhaps a perceived disadvantage of the system would help English sides in Europe. The sweeper is seen as a waste of a defensive player when so many modern sides play with only one striker. This is an illusion at best.

A 4-3-2-1 soon becomes an out-and-out 4-3-3 when a good side is in possession.

The extra insurance at the back can deal with the morphing forward line.

Many will believe it’s outdated or impossible to try the system now. They’ll say defensive midfielders shore up a team. But ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a player properly anchor a side during a Premier League match?

Marcel Desailly? Nigel de Jong, at a stretch.

The sweeper system is a solution that keeps getting ignored. Someone needs to try it. Failure to do so ensures the European dominance stays with the German/Spanish power share and the domestic game will continue to suffer tactical devolution.