COMMENT: Pep finally embraces pragmatism

Aditya Devavrat 00:31 29/04/2017
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The moment the two clubs’ new managers arrived in Manchester, the prospect of a Jose Mourinho versus Pep Guardiola Manchester derby at least twice a year was tantalizing.

Expectations often struggle to match reality, however, and while the two coaches were expected to battle for the Premier League title, they find themselves involved in a tight race for fourth spot after middling seasons.

When the two faced-off at the Etihad on Thursday, what stood out was the nature of Guardiola’s team selection in what ended as a drab 0-0.

This season, the Spaniard’s chosen goalkeepers based on their distribution, pushed full-backs into midfield, tried to convert central midfielders and wingers into full-backs, and at times thrust a three-man back-line on defenders not quite suited for it.

The team he put out for the derby was absurdly simple. He deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation with two solid centre-backs, two natural full-backs and regular defensive midfielders; every single player in their natural positions.

Marcus Rashford was effectively kicked out of the game by Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi, and Pablo Zabaleta, a surprisingly rudimentary ploy to negate United’s chief threat and one you wouldn’t expect from Guardiola although Mourinho often took similar measures to restrict Lionel Messi during the Spaniard’s time as Barcelona manager.

That’s also the most solid rearguard Guardiola could choose, and one he has rarely opted for even when all four players have been available to him.

City were of course the more attacking force, playing their derby rivals at home. But there’s no doubt that Guardiola’s team selection was partially reactive, designed to snuff out the threat of United’s attacks, and that in itself is a departure from the Spaniard’s usual philosophy.

There are those who will gleefully point out that this was the Premier League cutting Guardiola down to size, that they were right along, that he benefited from having Messi at Barcelona and then managing by far the best team in Germany.

But perhaps this was more about him evolving than conforming. Guardiola was able to tweak his philosophy, realising that he doesn’t have the tools in place to brush aside every opposition relying only on his ideal style of play – although he’ll certainly try to change that this summer.

In a season which will be his first in his managerial career without a trophy, Guardiola may have come to terms with the fact that in England’s top flight, arguably the most competitive league in Europe, winning will sometimes require relaxing his strict commitment to his philosophy.

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