Are Manchester City so Drilled They Cannot Think Enough on Their Feet?

Are Manchester City so Drilled They Cannot Think Enough on Their Feet?

Saturday, 22 September, 2018 - 06:15
Manchester City’s David Silva and Aymeric Laporte reflect on Lyon’s second goal in the Premier League club’s 2-1 defeat in the Champions League. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters
London - Jonathan Wilson
It is one game, at the beginning of the group stage. There is plenty of time to recover. For Manchester City, a 2-1 home defeat by Lyon is likely to be no more than a blip. Even in an underwhelming display, they had more than twice as many shots as their opponents and, more often than not, would probably have won. There is no reason to panic but that is not to say there are no reasons for concern.

What will be most worrying are recurring problems. Pep Guardiola, we are told, has worked on new patterns of play for this season’s Champions League, different ways of breaking down obdurate teams. City had begun each of the five league games this season in a different shape. The aim appears to be even more flexibility, a greater range of options for matches against the elite. Perhaps it is natural that it will take time for those to be assimilated and given that Guardiola teams have had a tendency to peak early and blow themselves out by March, it is not necessarily the worst sign if they are not quite yet at their best.

Two aspects in particular raise concerns. The first is the sense this City are susceptible to being pressed by quick opponents. Both Lyon goals on Wednesday stemmed from rapid turnovers after possession had been lost. It was not a repeat of the quarter-final against Liverpool last season in the sense that the assault was nowhere near so sustained, but it did show City, who at their best can seem almost irresistibly slick, can be unsettled by aggressive and coordinated opposition.

That is true, though, of most sides; nobody enjoys being pressed. And it is a high-risk strategy: press hard and if City can retain possession, they have the pace to exploit the space behind a high line – as Huddersfield have already found this season. Even if the new patterns Guardiola is working on do not produce that, the return of Kevin De Bruyne in a couple of months probably will.

Of more concern, perhaps, is something less tangible, one of those traits beloved of the old-school football men: leadership. Guardiola is one of the more active managers on the touchline, forever standing at the edge of his technical area pointing and cajoling, constantly tweaking and adjusting. He remains the tactical brain of the side, even from off the pitch. He does not have at City a player to do for him what he did for Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, or what Xavi did for him.

That is fine so long as he is there to convey his instructions, and so long as he can get the message across. Against Lyon, because of the suspension resulting from his dismissal in the quarter-final last season, he was confined to the stand, unable to guide his charges, unable to engage in the micromanagement in which he specialises.

That is exacerbated by the way his philosophy demands players must sublimate themselves to the system. There is no room for individuality. A player going off and doing his own thing breaks the structure and renders them vulnerable. That’s not to suggest that City need a solipsistic figure like Neymar to drift around and ignore defensive responsibility, but they can at times lack a little personality – particularly if Vincent Kompany is absent.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography memorably described Guardiola’s Barcelona as a group of obedient schoolboys. They need their teacher for direction. That can produce interplay of incredible complexity, 11 individuals functioning as one, but it also means that when things begin to go wrong, there is nobody there to grab a game and yank it back on course.

This was not a meltdown such as Guardiola sides have suffered in the past, it was not a case of three goals being conceded in a 20-minute flurry but there was a strange lack of drive in the final minutes, an absence of the sort of ferocious surge that might have been expected; after all, part of the point of City’s constant passing is to grind down opponents, to wear them out to soften them up for a late assault.

But this is the paradox of post-Cruyffianism. There are – rare – occasions when it can feel a little mannered, where the very purity of the style seems to make it vulnerable, just as pedigree dogs are more susceptible to disease. That is why Cruyff brought in Hristo Stoichkov at Barcelona, to add the “mala leche” – literally “bad milk” but more idiomatically, toughness, ruthlessness, capacity for improvisation – he felt the side were lacking.

To pick faults in a side who won the league with a record points tally last season can feel a little absurd but there are times when you wonder whether City may benefit from a few more rough edges, a greater capacity to think on their feet.

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