Saturday, August 20, 2016

COME THE REVOLUTION

Pep Guardiola's tactical revolution at City walked out into its biggest test so far: the noise, the wind and the energy of Stoke and emerged smelling of roses.

Although Mark Hughes has developed Stoke's play from the thrash and flail of olden times to a more sophisticated counter-attacking game, the Britannia it is still the kind of place that gives you a raw, bear-pit atmosphere that can - and often does - unsettle the so-called Rolls Royce sides of the Premier League.

This time, however, the home side had some puzzles of their own to work out. With the home crowd inexplicably booing Raheem Sterling ("One Greedy Bastard" the most ironic of the chants coming from the locals in a Premier League full of them) and a strong wind blowing, it was a decent test for City.

What we have witnessed so far from Guardiola is nothing short of a tactical revolution in England. The shape of City's side against Sunderland was something new, even after all these years of nip and tuck. The last time City possessed a manager who could be called a tactical guru was Malcolm Allison in the late 60s. His tactical thinking had been formed largely from watching how the Hungarians skillfully dismantled a tactically blinkered England at Wembley. Innovation since then at City has amounted to playing a six foot four goalkeeper upfront to try to gain entry to the UEFA Cup. Take a bow, Staurt Pearce.

The fascinating movements of the two full-backs, drifting inwards and forwards to become central midfielders - Sagna and Clichy even overlapped at one stage against Sunderland leaving the right back in left midfield and vice versa - was just part of an afternoon of first level tinkering from the Catalan. At one point at Stoke, Kolarov, pushed forward high in midfield, chose to veer into the middle of the park and passed forward...to Pablo Zabaleta, even more advanced in the central areas. It was this kind of bewildering positioning that had done for Sunderland on the opening day and Steaua in midweek.

This change alone had dragged Sunderland's nominal forward midfielders into a congested midfield, where they found their own confused full backs trying to do their usual job of tracking City's flank defenders, who had drifted inside.

This in turn allowed City's wide attackers, Nolito and Sterling to move into largely unoccupied spaces where Sunderland's fullbacks should have been, had they not got stuck in no-man's land between sticking to their guns and wandering around after Sagna and Clichy. With Fernandinho dropping back to aid John Stones and new centre back Aleksandar Kolarov - another startling innovation - City's changing shape must have been a nightmare to track.

That Sunderland not only held on but actually gained a foothold at 1-1 could be put down to City's players getting used to a totally alien set-up. The pace of the game was slow and, despite massive advantage in possession, it was evident that City's players were still unfamiliar with the runs that they needed to make. For a first go, it was impressive, however.

Kolarov's reinvention as a left sided centre back was a revelation, with the Serb - infamous for a legendary lack of positional awareness - suddenly impressing in a Beckenbauer-esque strutting performance.

Fernandinho, impressive for large chunks of a moribund season under Pellegrini, found himself as an unusual pivot, moving in between the back two to make a three, then holding the line when Stones or Kolarov ambled forward to launch attacks.

Upfront, Aguero was quiet, but this was about to change radically in Romania, where Steaua, a decent side, were made to look like a shambling arrangement of strangers. Here City's movement and speed of thought had been notched up a level or two from the opening game in the Premier League. Players' movement was more fluid and triangles of sharp passing between Nolito and Silva, Silva and De Bruyne and Sterling and Aguero became a mesmeric nightmare for Steaua's poorly arranged defence.

Some have attempted to play down this performance on the grounds that the home side were so poor, but nothing should be taken away from the fact that City had travelled far to play a European away game in a hostile sttadium at an early stage of development and had absolutely wiped the floor with a side that has a European Cup win of their own under their belts. 5-0 amounted not only to City's biggest ever away win in European competition, but also an early marker to what this side is going to be capable of.

The movement, the passing, the quick-thinking all bode well for what might come next. Guardiola has never been one to rest on his laurels and there are sure to be more examples of his fascinating innovations in the weeks to come, but already he was providing ample evidence that City's squad is one of the best, and - when in harness with a coach of this calibre - it looks difficult to stifle.

Stoke and Mark Hughes could not work it all out during a punishing first half, as City's shape morphed from a starting point of 4-1-4-1 through a three-man defence with five in midfield to something approaching 2-1-3-2-2 when the screw was being turned.

With Otamendi's agricultural contribution an eye-opener alongside the smooth as silk passing of John Stones, it was left to Sterling and Silva to pull Stoke out of shape. With Aguero and De Bruyne prowling in the holes left free, the Stoke defence were chasing shadows up to half time and in the last ten minutes. The speed and persistence of Navas, then Nolito, brought more dividends, as City's
John Stones was imperious bringing the ball out of defence
incessant pass and move gradually wore Stoke and their braying supporters down.

Sterling, despite one or two poor touches, played a lively part on both flanks. Criticised later on Match of the Day by Phil Neville for "not providing a good enough final ball" and then for "not being selfish, going for goal, that's what all the good wingers do" (selfish wingers, even Guardiola hasn't experimented with that one), he was again the bizarre focus of the crowd's vitriol. This of course has nothing to do with his performances in Euro 2016 and hopefully nothing to do with racism, but can only be the weird overspill from the press coverage of his transfer from Liverpool more than a year ago. It is not clear whether Phil Neville has an opinion on that.

We have come a fair way from the salt and pepper pots of Malcolm Allison's tactics morning in Cassettari's café outside Upton Park, that spawned a generation of innovative coaches, including Manchester United-bound Dave Sexton. Guardiola is the modern day reincarantion of this genre and we can only guess what comes next. For now an invigorating start has been made.

Player ratings for ESPN.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Simon. Pep's tactics are so good they might even help solve the problems of third world poverty! See my new blog here: http://www.effective-states.org/pep-guardiola-and-his-lessons-for-the-politics-of-development/

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