7 October 2017
Prior to Pep Guardiola’s move to the English Premier League, EPL, at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, a good number of the footballing world considered him a tactical genius. But was he?
He was great. Yes. He won it all. Yes. Was he a genius? No.
His greatness was in how well he understood and deployed the tiki-taka style. He understood it so well that the style became synonymous with him even though he didn’t invent the style.
You have to be great to make what you didn’t invent your own. But to be rightly considered a genius, you have to invent the style and the style has to earn you results. The latter is what the EPL has forced Guardiola to do.
The Spaniard came to the EPL and declared from the get go that the style in the league dubbed the most difficult and competitive in the world would not force him to change his style.
He didn’t change his style and we saw how well that turned out for him at the end of his first season in charge of Manchester City. It turned out so well that he created a new record in his very successful career; ending a season without a trophy for the first time. To beat that record, a Guardiola-tutored side would have to dig really deep, like literally dig themselves into a terrible run of form the entire season.
After a disappointing first season, Guardiola was forced to rethink his style. A couple of people might have thought he’d do an overhaul, but he didn’t, he simply tweaked his style like only a tactical genius could.
Guardiola’s second season started with a new look City side – in players, in style, in cohesion and in drive – that seat top of the EPL table having taken three points off every top teams they’ve played.
City rivals, Manchester United, who are level on points with the Cityzens haven’t come up against any team that finished in top 4 last season. City on the other hand have come up against Chelsea and Liverpool and have left with their heads held high with three points and with performances that any team in the world would be proud of. Liverpool in particular were made to look like a bottom three team with a 5 – 0 thrashing while Chelsea left their home front thanking their stars they lost by just one goal.
The match against Chelsea proved Guardiola’s genius. Since October last year, no team has made Conte’s Chelsea look that ordinary. Even though Chelsea players blamed their below-par performance on fatigue as they had only one day to rest prior to the match after a high intensity game at Atletico Madrid, they all still acknowledged the brilliance of their opponent. Fabregas said it best in his post match interview.
City went into the match with no natural left-back, and guess what, Guardiola played the entire match against a top top team with no left-back so to say. Fabian Delph was on paper drafted into the left back position but he was playing in midfield when the match bore on.
When City is without the ball, Delph covers ground on the left side of City’s defence, but when his team has the ball, he’s in midfield creating passing outlet for Fernandinho and Kevin de Bruyne, thereby outnumbering Chelsea’s packed midfield. With this, the energetic Kanye and powerful Bakayoko found themselves chasing the ball for most part. And when they have the ball, they have very little time and space to think of what to do with it, thereby making silly and wrong passes. This ensured Chelsea couldn’t play their possession football and sleek transition from defence to attack. This totally took the wind off their sails.
Delph became the revelation of the match with such a brilliant performance in such an ambiguous and unconventional tactical role. While Delph took all the tactical praises, de Bruyne took all the praises for his match winning performance.
Guardiola in his usual style pressed Chelsea high and left no space for Chelsea’s star man, Eden Hazard, to exploit behind City’s defence line. Hazard was so starved of space that it was almost impossible for Fabregas to get him on the ball in dangerous places. When the ball is at his feet deep in his own area, Hazard looked like a weakened Lion.
With this instruction perfectly executed, Chelsea posed no lethal threat in attack even though they stuck with the same strategy that got them two goals and earned them a well-deserved win at Atletico (a difficult team to beat at home) three days before.
So far this season, Guardiola has approached matches with specific strategies to deal with the threat posed by his respective opponents.
Thanks to his genius, City were unbeaten in the EPL in September, setting the Spaniard up as favourite for the manager of the month award.
Now that Guardiola seem to have risen to the challenge posed by the EPL, it’s time to see if he can keep innovating and stay on course for the remainder of the season. Staying on course is very important in the EPL considering we’ve seen the good fortunes of teams turn bad very quickly in recent time. Last season’s City under Guardiola is the latest example.
This is one of the many reasons why Antonio Conte is well respected because he kept Chelsea consistent since they hit the top gear in October.