Pep Guardiola and the underrated art of defending with the ball
"I am not a coach for the tackles so I don't train the tackles. What I want is to try and play good and score goals... What’s tackles?" - Pep Guardiola, December 2016
Any seasoned fan can imagine what happened next.
Former Premier League players-turned-"pundits" scoffed at the Manchester City manager's comments and shook their heads. Subtle references were made on foreign influences either struggling in England or simply ruining the game.
Restless fans were up in arms, questioning the 'bald fraud' and his ethos - especially after the Citizens had been thrashed 4-2 by a struggling Leicester City. It was a second consecutive loss (after defeat to Chelsea) - part of a string of results that had seen City relinquish top spot to settle for a top four finish by the end of what was to be a trophy-less season.
Guardiola is often underrated as a 'tactical genius'
A number of managers come to mind when the words 'defensive tactical masterclass' are mentioned. Their ability to get their teams to defend as a unit is what they excel at and it is the foundation upon which titles are won.
Antonio Conte was praised for switching Chelsea to a back-three to eventually win the Premier League title in his debut season. Jose Mourinho occasionally gets talked up when he gets a result against a top side (despite parking the bus with the luxury of talent in his squad).
However, the first thing that is associated with Guardiola is his brand of tiki-taka that was perfected with that all-conquering Barcelona side; a philosophy that also laid the foundation for the Spanish national team that dominated the international arena at the time.
But mention that to the Catalan manager and he is quick to dismiss it outright.
"I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention. I hate tiki-taka." - Guardiola
Although Guardiola was venerated in Spain, the same cannot be said of his stints in Germany and his first season in England. But he has contributed so much to the game.
If not for him, Lionel Messi would not have been converted into a destroyer overnight and made the False-Nine role his own. He even once managed to beat a very good Bayer Leverkusen side without a centre-back in his starting XI.
And now, his latest triumph is changing the concept of defending in football. While the rest of England may love a crunching tackle that decks the opponent to win the ball back "fair and square", Guardiola thinks otherwise.
Defending with the ball is an underrated artform
Many were quick to dismiss Guardiola's penchant for possession football - a concept alien to English football clubs that were serious about winning league titles. Arsene Wenger tried his hand at it but, at their peak, the Gunners just didn't have the personnel to mount a title challenge (and less said about Wenger's defensive nous the better).
The only issue with possession football was that in most cases the possession was sterile with no end product. Teams could sit back, absorb pressure, and hit them on the break by capitalising on one single mistake - a trend that is seen around the grounds in England when teams are up against a superior, well-drilled side.
"What Mourinho did with Chelsea with his 4-3-3 was something never seen before: a dynamic structure, aggressive, with aggressive transitions. And then there is Barca’s 4-3-3, which wouldn’t work in England, because of the higher risk of losing the ball." - Andre Villas-Boas in 2011
Last season saw Guardiola suffer due to similar reasons. He did not have the right personnel in positions across the pitch - especially at the back. The problem was identified and corrected over an expensive summer and this campaign has been all about proving such people wrong.
A cursory look back at the last few league champions suggests possession was never their strong suit. Chelsea never looked to dominate the ball when Mourinho and Conte were in charge. Neither did Sir Alex Ferguson at United. And Leicester City swore by their counter-attacking style with one of the lowest possession stats in the league.
However, Guardiola's side are currently top of the table with an 11-point lead thanks to an average possession of 66.3%! This is what Guardiola has been striving to perfect since the 2016/17 season.
His debut season in England saw him make an observation about how football in the Premier League was different to Spain and Germany because teams in those countries did not resort to hoofing the ball up-field to bypass the midfield and defence.
"The ball spends more time in the air than the floor, and in the air the ball is not controlled, always I tried to control the game through the ball, away from your goal, and here it is more difficult to do that. I have to adapt that." - Guardiola
So how did Guardiola adapt? Simple. There was no way he was going to debase his philosophy by copying the philistines who refused to evolve. So he did the next best thing.
He denied his opponents a chance to use the ball by ensuring his team kept it to themselves - hence the unusually high possession stats.
Denying opponents the ball is defending redefined
Attack is the best form of defence; it sounds cliched but it rings true in Manchester City's case. Despite injuries to key players such as Benjamin Mendy and Ilkay Gundogan - who are both pivotal to his style of play - Guardiola has still managed to get his team to dominate possession and attack with purpose and intent.
There are no hopeful punts forward (they are 19th in long balls). High crosses into the box account for only 3% of their total passes. 91% of their passes are short passes which has resulted in 73% of their goals coming from open play.
City's direction of attack is also evenly spread out on the pitch. Mendy's absence has seen Leroy Sane back in the starting lineup to provide width while Raheem Sterling's new False-Nine 'Messi role' has allowed City to win the midfield battle.
All of this is desgined around a possession-based game where the players are constantly on the move. The 4-3-3 is his go-to formation now but the floating roles of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva is what pegs his opponents back, forcing them to play safe - effectively putting the majority of his opponents on a leash.
Misplaced passes are very rare - especially in dangerous positions. And when City do lose the ball, they stop their opponents with subtle 'tactical fouls'.
How many times have we seen City's attacking midfielders go unpunished for such fouls? And they aren't running away from the referee to avoid getting booked - they're simply getting back in position to deny their opponents any space whatsoever before they reinitiate a press and win the ball back.
Time-wasting antics to kill momentum are also the norm. How often do we see them simply hold on to the ball near the corner flag (remember those moments in the dying minutes at Old Trafford)?
These are all tactics designed to see the game out and simultaneously frustrate their opponent into making a mistake.
Most managers would shut shop with a narrow lead. Managers such as Conte expect his teams to keep their shape and discipline. Mourinho demands blood, sweat, and sacrifice for the collective.
To each his own. But Guardiola expects his teams to still keep possession and deny their opponents the ball.
Guardiola only demands a certain level of intelligence to exploit an opponent's weakness. The rest is up to his players to improvise and get the desired outcome based on ever-changing situations on the pitch. They don't play for him - they play for each other.
"There are a lot of good teams, but we are the first one to win 15 games in a row. Of course, that will not make sense if we do not win the title - it will be just a record then." - Guardiola
City look destined for the title and a place in the record books. But knowing Guardiola, he will be focused on elevating his team to a whole new level and changing the football landscape in the country (and possibly Europe) with a paradigm shift that has already left fans and players spellbound.
All stats via WhoScored