Pep Guardiola is bound to cop a lot of criticism after suffering a 4-0 hammering against his former club with an error-ridden performance. And it’s certainly true that Manchester City were well and truly stuffed at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night, with the gulf in class between the teams amply reflected by the scoreline.
But the City boss should not be too harshly condemned just yet. As Guardiola said, his players are still getting to know each other, with four of last night’s starting XI new to the club this season.
More importantly, they are also still getting to know their manager and the way he expects them to play. Guardiola’s tactics last night of alternating between a three-man and four-man defence depending on who had possession of the ball is pretty revolutionary in England.
Similarly, his insistence that his players pushed high up the pitch to complicate Barca’s desire to control possession takes some getting used to, as does his stubborn demand that City build from the back.
In fact, though, Guardiola’s tactics worked well for the first 53 minutes, the only period of the game which can really be judged because the dismissal of Claudio Bravo threw all tactical plans out of the window.
Guardiola: No (not the worst defeat) that is against Real Madrid in Bayern Munich because there I didn’t make the right decisions.— SPORT English (@Sport_EN) October 19, 2016
Indeed, the first half saw City create just as many chances as Barca, with the movement of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne causing problems for the hosts, who couldn’t establish their usual rhythm in the face of City’s disciplined pressing.
But City were drastically undermined by a series of costly and entirely preventable individual errors, all of which were punished by Barca to the maximum.
The first was a mishap rather than a mistake, with Fernandinho losing his balance and slipping to give Messi a chance he almost couldn’t miss. Then De Bruyne dithered in midfield and Andres Iniesta pounced to give Messi half a chance which he converted in the way only Messi can.
The third came when Ilkay Gundogan got his wires crossed with Gael Clichy, allowing Luis Suarez to race away and tee up Messi for his hat-trick. And most damagingly, of course, Claudio Bravo reduced City to 10 men by making a poor decision with the ball at his feet and attempting to rectify the initial mistake by committing an even bigger one.
From that point, there was no return. Those were all individual errors which made a huge difference to the eventual outcome, and none of them can be attributed to Guardiola. Not directly, anyway – it could be argued that City’s process of coming to terms with how their manager wants them to play creates an environment where mistakes are more likely.
If the players are still feeling their way into his system, miscommunications and fluffed lines are inevitable, and we should not be surprised when City’s flowing passing football is accompanied by occasional costly howlers. In due course, clearly, those mistakes have to be cut out as players become more familiar with the demands of their manager’s tactics.
But just two months into the season, there is still plenty of time, and room, for improvement. Guardiola may be down, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s out.
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