Pep Guardiola is about to enter the unknown.
The first wave is over. That much we can say with confidence following Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat to Tottenham,a result that left them eight points off the top of the Premier Leagueand with a points-per-game average that puts them on course for a final total of just 57.
But it was the performance and the manner of Saturday’s defeat that showed just how far City have fallen since they last lifted the title 18 months ago; a decline that appears to have been exacerbated by the unique challenges of pandemic football.
Fatigue and a lack of coaching time – both in pre-season and now during the week – has seen pressing intensity and tactical organisation drop, giving managers who favour defensive solidity and improvised attacking patterns an advantage.
Jose Mourinho’s masterclass on Saturday was the perfect example of how to play in the Covid-19 era.
By contrast, City cannot find their high-octane rhythms, and as their press drops the system is beginning to collapse.
First, without constant pressure being applied there is no compression between the lines, giving City’s opponents the time to look up and launch counterattacks through the heart of theirdefence.
Second, without progressive energy in their passing – without the movement or quick thinking to constantly push the other team back – City’s opponents can easily soak up pressure.
It is a two-fold problem best summarised by the performances of Rodri, a symbol of late-Guardiola City in more ways than one.
There is not enough speed to the Spain international’s play and too many of his passes are sideways, while his attempts at defensive actions lack the bullishness required to regularly win tackles or shut down counters.
In short, Rodri increasingly represents ‘tiki-taka’: blunt possession and passive defending, an aimless style of football and a label Guardiola has always rejected.
Plus Rodri stands out simply because he is not Fernandinho, the former lynchpin of Guardiola’s side and a midfielder with the defensive clout and purposeful passing needed to sew everything together.
Guardiola’s failure to replace Fernandinho gets to the core of the problem at City, and why his attempt to create a second spell of dominanceat the Etihad Stadium might not work out.
From Fernandinho to Vincent Kompany to David Silva to Leroy Sane, Guardiola has consistently allowed vital components of that 2017-18 Centurions team to leave (or wane) without finding an adequate replacement.
Silva’s work as the pre-assister, as the man responsible for endlessly cycling the ball with a dexterity and intelligence that allowed the rest of the team to swirl around him, is missed most of all.
Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden both lack the guile in tight spaces to mimic Silva’s influence, subtly slowing the tempo of City’s interchanges and consequently allowing the opposition to remain in a compact defensive shape.
Ruben Dias could perhaps replace Kompany with time, but certainly there is a Sane-shaped hole in the side, with Ferran Torres a completely different type of player to the Germany star. Here, again, is a poignant symbol of what hasgone wrong.
By signing Torres and Rodri to replace outgoing cogs, it seems as if Guardiola – having inherited a variety of different styles of player – cannot resist the poise and functionality of Spanish-style technicians.
After four years of this style of recruitment, City have gradually become homogenised; have been slowly Rodri-fied.
But Rodri is just a symbol, not the main problem.
City’s two defining tactical issues this season – an absence of creative variety and poor pressingbetween the lines – originate in the final third. Without Sane and Silva, and replaced by less athletic players, City lack a collective energy when engaging the first phase of the press.
In fact, this is beginning to look like a deliberate strategy from Guardiola. Perhaps adapting to the fitness concerns brought on by the congested fixture list,City increasingly sit off their opponents, allowing them to gain a foothold in the game rather than press relentlessly to box them in.
That, in theory, should not be a problem, but it becomes a concern when linked with the clumsy configurations in attack.
Too much pressure is heaped on Kevin De Bruyne to create chances, and with the Belgian oddly taking up right wing positions over the last 18 months – a zone far less dangerous than when he dovetailed with Silva in the number 10space –City’s ability to create chances drops significantly.
However, the main attacking issue is the absence of a direct winger willing to make penetrative runs in behind.
Sane’s role – either by receiving the through ball inside the penalty area or simply drawing players away from Silva – was often under-appreciated. Now, withCity’s wingers consistently dancing around in front of a low block, the now-Bayern Munich man’s importance is obvious.
And so City are left with a hesitant and half-hearted press, opening up large pockets of space between their own defence and midfield,and a jaded attack without the runners needed for Guardiola’s old automatisms to take shape.
When great managers begin to fade they turn in on themselves, doubling down on their most obsessive principles and becoming caricatures.
It is too early to suggest Guardiola is in permanent decline, but a tendency to favour the likes of Rodri – and a growing movement towards aimless ball retention – are worrying early signs.
In other words, the manager’s propensity to replace his key players for classic Guardiola disciples – swapping specialist skillsets for neat all-rounders – casts doubt on his suitability for the job at hand: a rebuild on a scale that Guardiola has never attempted before.
Source : goal.com