Guardiola can stay positive while developing a Plan B
Background photo: Cleria de Souza, CC BY 2.0
The Premier League enters the 2018/19 lightning round. Only ten games remain for most teams. Preoccupied with FA Cup action, Chelsea and Brighton each have 11. Rumour has it they will play each other to fall back in line with everyone else. This is the period where champions are determined, where contenders leave behind the pretenders and the Kepas are separated from the De Geas.
It's already playing out with Tottenham falling nine points off Liverpool's pace. The title belongs to either the Reds or Manchester City now. Pep Guardiola's squad is just a point behind.
Even so, it's been tough sledging for the Sky Blues recently. They couldn't find a goal in 120 minutes against Chelsea in the EFL Cup final and it took a Sergio Aguero penalty to eke out three points in a 1-0 contest against West Ham in their next match. Did I mention that came at the Etihad?
Teams have caught onto Pep's strategy. Play the ball out wide, race to the endline, square balls across the goalmouth hoping that defenders are napping while someone sneaks onto the rear post for a tap-in. Opposing managers are making sure their players have enough sleep before matches against City not to switch off.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager needn't compromise his attacking philosophy. He just needs to map out some new routes to goal. Going into the last phase while still contesting the FA Cup and Champions League, Guardiola can only expect to encounter tactically disciplined sides. The Catalonian must up City's game.
At Wembley, Maurizio Sarri demonstrated that even the most stubborn tacticians will adjust to counter his strategies. Guardiola's attacking ploy is for Raheem Sterling and either David or Bernando Silva cut and dribble in, setting up Sergio Aguero for an easy finish. It's beautiful artistry but opponents have seen it too often. They know what's coming.
Guardiola has tried to adjust by changing personnel. Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Gundogan and/or Gabriel Jesus come onto the pitch but, tactically, it's second verse same as the first. The manager needs to change the tune.
Against Newport County in the FA Cup, Guardiola gave young Phil Foden some minutes. Twice in that match, the teenager abandoned the pretty passing, running at defenders and firing in two goals. The Rodney Parade's notoriously topographical turf likely forced the manager into giving Foden the green light to make a few kamikaze runs.
Admittedly, the Exiles are a League 2 outfit, much easier to break down than Premier League opposition, not to mention elite European clubs, but even if Pep doesn't trust the youngster against tougher teams, he has other players who can do similar damage if he takes the one-and-two-touch only shackles off. Raheem Sterling made a thrilling run along the end line against Chelsea. His sneaky low shot failed to catch Kepa napping but it's a trick to pull out of the bag more often. Then, if you've got a minute, pull out some old Atletico Madrid Youtube clips with Sergio Aguero playing one-v-eleven and winning. Ask yourself why he doesn't do that for City now and again. Pep won a Champions League or two when Lionel Messi had license to take the stick. And what about Leroy Sane. Haven't seen much of the German this season, have we?
City expect to qualify for the CL quarterfinals after a hard-fought 3-2 win at Schalke 04 but going forward in the tournament means facing tougher, better opponents. Guardiola must be less predictable. His obsession with controlling his side's every movement hurt him when he left Barca. He had Arjen Robben at the Allianz Arena and Franck Ribery but was loathe to give them the same freedom he gave Messi. Consequently, he couldn't defeat his former club, nor Real Madrid, nor Atletico. At City, Monaco and Liverpool joined the fun.
The good news for the 48-year-old is he has weapons at his disposal who can make a difference. The bad news for City fans is his reluctance to use them.