Monday, September 12, 2016

LESSONS IN LOVE

It has taken Pep Guardiola exactly six games to banish the doubts of even the most narrow-minded members of England’s football fraternity: it is now quite clear that Manchester City are playing a different brand of football to the rest of the Premier League.
I'm watching other football teams play and it's like switching from F1 to trap racing. -MikeNumber5 on Twitter

Before Saturday’s smooth dismantling of neighbours Manchester United, certain voices in the press began to express doubts about Guardiola’s ability to overcome the likes of Jose Mourinho in the tough world of mind games and blocking tactics. There was a palpable sense of anticipation for that first defeat to allow the “told-you-so” brigade out of their boxes to start carping and whooping.

What the world saw at the weekend was a team sweeping its supposedly dangerous opponent away on its own pitch with a brand of passing and moving that currently makes the rest of the contenders look like they are playing with cement bags strapped to their backs.

It is not just the scintillating passing, the movement on and off the ball, but the way that each player makes himself available to his team mate to receive the ball. There was hardly a single moment in the first 40 minutes at Old Trafford, where a City player found himself blocked in and without a safe pass to play.

Options presented themselves in every space, however hemmed in the City players seemed to be. 

That this has been achieved so quickly with predominantly members of Manuel Pellegrini’s squad is eye catching to say the least. Those eager voices waiting gleefully for Guardiola’s first fall will have to wait a little longer and -- one suspects -- it could be quite a wait.

Jose Mourinho in contrast looked like a man chewing on a wasp as his team was given a complete run around in that first half. That they recovered was partly down to Claudio Bravo’s ultimate risk taking and the knowledge that United had to press the spaces in front of the goalkeeper to have any joy.

Having weathered an aerial storm that lacked all subtlety but might have been effective in the circumstances, Guardiola calmly changed things around and retook the tactical high ground. Fernando’s introduction to deep midfield closed the gaps that United’s bolstered midfield had begun to find and allowed Fernandinho to charge forward and spread panic. Ander Herrera's introduction had given United a foothold in the middle but influence was soon back in City's hands.

United were out of options, resorting to Wayne Rooney walloping high balls towards the towering figures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. The same player took on his now familiar mantle of "judge, jury and whistle blower" as he continually harangued Clattenburg for any morsels that could feed his side. United were gradually being starved.

Kevin De Bruyne has been showing this quality since his move from Wolfsburg a year ago, but Guardiola’s tactics, leaving the Belgian and David Silva as free running “half-number eights” is benefiting him richly. Silva too has regained his status as midfield catalyst after a tricky last season under Pellegrini. Linking with Nolito and Sterling/Sane, plus the advancing Fernandinho/Kolarov/Otamendi/Stones, the two master passers weaved their tight triangles of magic time and again.

The Chilean’s third and final season at City, highlighted by ponderous football and weak spirit among the players, feels like the middle of the night to Guardiola’s mid day sunshine. Players all over the park are rejuvenated, running, supporting and passing as if they are different people.

Nowhere is the contrast greater than with Aleksandar Kolrarov. The left back had gained a deserved
reputation for falling asleep on the job and for having the positional sense and speed of reaction of one of Manchester United’s official tractors. He is now an integral part of a team playing wonderfully fluid football, confidently stroking the ball around the back four, up the left side or in midfield, depending where the Catalan’s flexible tactics take him. Happy to play it long when the occasion requires, his punt forward led directly to City’s opener.

With confidence high in the outfield, Guardiola and his staff have little space to get to work on new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who enjoyed a torrid introduction to English football at Old Trafford. The coach’s liking for a sweeper keeper who can play out centrally to feet in midfield is well reported, but kamikaze football across the back four will eventually be punished by side’s reacting more quickly than Manchester United were able to.

Bravo must adapt quickly and learn the important lesson that he will be closed down rapidly by teams hoping they have found the possibility of an Achilles heel in City’s impressive early season armoury.
With Champions League and League Cup matches to be added to the busy fixture list, there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead. City in this mood, however, have the look of a special team. Seldom has a coach had such a dramatic impact on English football and seldom can so many City fans agree that this is already shaping to be a season that promises high rewards if the start can be maintained.

The next test comes against continental opposition, in Borussia Monchengladbach, but it is already patently clear that the players are learning fast and that the man they are learning from really does know precisely what he is doing. City in this form really look like they will be the team to beat this season.

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