Pep mixes things up at the Etihad
Guardiola defeated Messi for the first time in his career
On Tuesday, Pep Guardiola achieved something he had never done in his career to date. He defeated his star pupil, his protégé, the greatest who ever lived, in Lionel Messi.
Shipwrecked without Sergio Busquets, who was lost in defensive transition, and lamenting a team starved of the creativity of Andrés Iniesta, Messi looked on helplessly as the Barcelona build-up from the back succumbed without Gerard Piqué at the top of the hierarchy holding it all together.
It took all of that and more from Guardiola to defeat a dangerous and unforgiving Luis Enrique side. The Catalan club’s opening 35 to 40 minutes were their best and most demanding of the current campaign. Despite that, the Blaugrana have perhaps lost their way in the past month, a spew of injuries no excuse for the poor collective play at this stage of Luis Enrique’s tenure.
Barça: Seeking to trade in possession for more space
In many ways, the performance was a reminder of the welcomed chaos from the first year of Luis Enrique’s sporting project. Seeking to trade in possession for more space so the front three could be unpredictable and run free is the very approach that has always required Piqué to allow the team to defend deep in the first place so those spaces would open up while selflessly offering defensive help and making corrective tackles. With Piqué out injured, the Asturian was left with no tricks up his (or Pique’s) sleeve, no way to regain control of the frantic back and forth affair he’d usually welcome. Piqué sustains the entire defensive system, exercising play that can already be considered presidential.
Conceding a goal like so many others during his Bayern era, a stubborn Guardiola was given a choice after looking vulnerable on the break. Exposed as usual and ever unwilling to sacrifice the good play and initiative, this would later lead to such a comprehensive win. From a man who once played a back-three that individually marked the MSN with Bayern, it looked as though Guardiola was once more refusing to evolve, again taking too much of a risk after Messi did as he pleased.
Right after Messi’s goal, Pep demanded an increase in tempo, not the expected ‘calm reset’ to get back into the game. The risk was clear and frankly, enormous. He gave MSN in general, and his own particular kryptonite in Messi more specifically, the very thing they want the most: space to express themselves.
In today’s game, that is the most coveted good of all and here was the world’s supposedly top coach relinquishing it to them, almost unearned. As he has said numerous times before, ‘the quicker you attack, the quicker they counter’.
With great risk came great reward
The manic press was forcing more turnovers in possession than opposing counter-attacks, adding to the overall excitement. The coordinated nature of their traps, and a coach who correctly interpreted the urgency of the moment, gave the Etihad what they’d been seeking so desperately: excitement surrounding a big European night.
The roars were deafening, the very essence the artistic Guardiola dreams about when hoping to create a new club culture. If pre-match the feeling was one of still-unconvinced, murky, hazy, nostalgia, with Oasis’s Liam Gallagher choosing the tunes, by the second half, the thoughts were without a doubt of the future, the team and crowd more in tune to Pep’s song.
Guardiola read between the lines, his in-match adjustments swaying the game in the direction he intended, and his 4-1-4-1 was able to dominate between the lines as well during the entire second half with very little possession, a historic low for the coach in fact. Even with Gundogan’s brace and performance, Guardiola was the protagonist, the victory the one he had envisioned, in stark contrast to the 4-0 defeat at the Camp Nou where he controlled absolutely nothing.
A turning point?
After the six-match run without a win, the longest of his career, quite fittingly came the most defining accomplishment at his new club. It was as if the precise moment were necessary to justify the process. The how became just as important as the what. A turning point. Without the 4-0 drubbing a short while ago, City would not have won against Barcelona at home.
Simply put, there would be no metamorphosis, no learning, no growth, or no maturing taking place. For the change in mentality is even greater than refining the tactical side of the game, more intangible and infinitely more difficult. To consider the possibility of failure, one must accept that mistakes will be made by everybody involved, from Stones at the back to Aguero up front. Paradoxically, our teams are obsessed with success even though most of the learning takes place when failing.
An idealistic clash of philosophies or simply lots of errors?
At the Etihad, there were more mistakes than the idealistic clash of philosophies of this nature was supposed have in the first place. There were lots of errors on both sides of the ball from both teams for such an elite match-up.
And yet the Etihad didn’t care. A shift is starting to occur. It is an acceptance that errors will be made along the way, whether building out from the back, a disinterested or fatigued press, misplaced passes, or poor positioning.
It’s an inevitable part of the game- and of the process.
Guardiola’s former club would do well to bear that in mind too.
Anything wrong? Send your correction.
WRITTEN BY: Aldo Sainati
Aldo Sainati is a trilingual football writer and experienced coach based in Barcelona.