Manchester City came out 3-1 winners in a hard-fought match at the Etihad against Arsenal before the international break.
Despite the convincing score line it was perhaps one of the Manchester team’s least impressive performances in the Premier League this season.
The fact that Manchester City still managed to win the game is a testament to the philosophy of Pep Guardiola – a philosophy that many critics believed would not be able to stand up to the rigours of the Premier League.
Guardiola’s players are drilled in his concept of positional play, knowing exactly when and where to position themselves on the pitch depending on the location of the ball in any given moment.
Conversely, in the final third, Guardiola leaves it up to the skills, intelligence and discretion of the talented players at his disposal to do what they have to do to put the ball in the back of the net.
It is this approach of well-defined and clear patterns of play plus the discipline and fitness of the players on the pitch that allows them to execute Guardiola’s plans successfully even on days when they are not playing well.
This mix of simple, free flowing football is paradoxically based on very particular rules. And by mastering these rules the players can rely on the system to get them through the game and not just their talent.
It means that even under pressure the practice of the system takes over and replaces the confusion of what to do next in difficult situations.
In contrast, coaches like Arsene Wenger are more liberal towards their players allowing them to play more freely and rely on their instincts and overall knowledge of the game.
This can work well at times when the opposition is inferior, but in high pressure situations the correct, quick and automatic reactions are what players need. This is not to say that City’s players are simply automatons.
But the players know they can lean on their tactical training when there is little time for thinking and figuring things out.
An example of where the difference between the two team’s approaches was very clear has to do with their pressing games. Manchester City’s press is very organised with the team setting themselves up to not just pressure the opponent and win back the ball, but to transition from defence to attack as quickly and effectively as possible.
In a recent article from the Mirror Alan Shearer points out that Arsenal
went in to try and press them (City) high – which I admire them trying – but at times, the Arsenal players weren’t all on the same page.
He went on to explain that Arsenal were pressing in “twos and threes” and not as a team and that at one point Alexis Sanchez found himself working alone to try and close down City’s defence.
This is the difference between a team that is based on systems that are practiced to the point where the players execute them automatically and a team that has a more laissez-faire approach from the coach.
In an important, top of the table, high pressure clash the team that is more well-drilled should fare better. Arsenal does not always play a high press but in the game against City they chose to rely on that strategy which clearly they had not mastered.
Another factor that cannot be discounted as a factor in Manchester City’s victory is the fitness of the team. Again, this is a feature directly related to Guardiola’s style of play. The players are expected to run for an entire match to press opposing teams and to recover the ball as quickly as possible. This tactic obviously relies on players being in peak condition at all times.
Arsenal put on a spirited display against Manchester City trying to execute an effective pressing game.
One might have expected that with City coming off the back of a grueling Champions League encounter with Napoli earlier that week, Guardiola’s team might have succumbed to sustained Arsenal pressure.
But City, just like in all their games this season, managed to go the distance without a significant drop in their energy level. Here again, the team’s philosophy which demands peak fitness to execute pressing and positional play was a key component behind the players’ strength and endurance in this game.
In looking at the difference that Guardiola’s playing philosophy made against Arsenal one cannot ignore the individual quality of the Manchester City players themselves.
Guardiola has said time and time again that the quality of the players is what determines victory on the pitch. The players that a coach has at his disposal determine his success.
In the context of the Guardiola’s philosophy quality refers to the talent and skills required to play according his system of quick, accurate passing and possession as well as the ability to use individual dribbling skills and positional awareness to set up and score goals.
In what many considered a moment of magic from Kevin De Bruyne the Belgian attacked the Arsenal defence at the edge of the box playing a quick one-two with Fernandinho before firing into the net. He was able to find the only little pocket of space from which to do so in a packed Arsenal defence.
Later on, a characteristic dribble from Raheem Sterling drew a foul for a penalty which was taken by Sergio Agüero for goal number two.
Gabriel Jesus came off the bench to do what he normally does and score the third goal, albeit from an offside position that was difficult for the officials to catch.
While the overall performance of the team was substandard compared to previous games this season, Guardiola was still able to see his players’ talents create three decisive plays resulting in goals.
De Bruyne found space in the crowd. Sterling’s dribbling created the desired chaos and Gabriel Jesus positioned himself as usual to poach successfully.
There are those who argue that any coach can buy talent but it is important to realize that Guardiola also improves talent significantly.
John Stones is a better defender than he was last year not just defensively but in his ability to execute those pin-point passes which are turning him into a typical Guardiola defender.
Agüero runs and presses more. Sane is a more dangerous player than when he arrived at the Etihad last year. Most of the players on the pitch are performing significantly better than before.
Sterling, who is scoring goals almost at will, is a good example but Fabian Delph who has surprised the Premier League by slotting into an unfamiliar left back position and bossing it is the best example.
Players from Bayern Munich have testified that Guardiola made them into better players. Jerome Boateng is quoted in a CNN article from 2016 as saying “Since he came I think I’ve improved my game — especially technically”. He went on to say
I think we’re all really thankful that he was here for three years and he made everybody better in the game and us as a team.
Last year ex-Manchester City player Pablo Zabaletta said in a Talksport documentary that Pep Guardiola was “always trying to improve the players and to improve the team”.
Guardiola doesn’t just identify talented footballers. He looks for the ones whose talents fit his philosophy and then he hones that talent over time. Other so called big teams like Arsenal have great talent in their squad as well but City’s talent is chosen to fit and enhance their specific systems of play.
Agüero was brought to Manchester City years ago as a fantastic talent for the position of striker. Guardiola has further honed his talent to contribute to City’s pressing game and to run more as part of their passing and positional system.
Many coaches would have seen John Stones as a talented player for the central defender position. Guardiola has developed him as a defender and as a key player in beginning attacks from the back which is an integral part of City’s tactics.
This is all part of Pep Guardiola’s football philosophy. It is that philosophy and its systems as opposed to a less clear Arsenal philosophy lacking in such systems that accounts for Manchester City’s victory over Arsenal on a day in which the Blues did not play particularly well.
It is a philosophy of sticking to the rules of positional play and pressing until they becomes automatic for the players, a philosophy that requires fitness to provide constant running and a philosophy that requires players to hone their skills in the direction of what the system demands of each of them.
After a year of the British press questioning Guardiola about his alleged failure to adapt he is showing that his way of adapting is to keep improving and fine tuning what he and his team are doing.
This is his way of meeting the challenges of the Premier League and navigating to victory, even on days when the team might not be playing well.