Premature Pep Talks

Premature Pep Talks

Ever since Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City he has been subjected to an unprecedented degree of inspection and expectation. Understanding the negative impact this could have, Pep has been the voice of reason. When City started the season with a run of ten wins, he spoke to closed ears when attempting to explain it wasn’t a true indication of the team’s current level. Now with a dip in form, he once again faces ignorance from a media determined to undermine Europe’s most successful manager.

Suddenly there is no shortage of experts offering advice to the Spaniard. Pundits that occupy seats in the safety of studios, or journalists who have to service the wants of fans from opposing clubs (the clickbait brigade), are suggesting that his proven methods will never work in the Premier League. That before we’ve even entered November, it’s time to admit the English way is unique and his crazy ideas have been shown up for what they are.

Not satisfied with telling a man – who was happy to point out in Friday’s press conference he’s won twenty-one titles with his ideals – his tactics are wrong, they are also attempting to forge wishful transfer rumours into facts. He was happy to point out where they are incorrect.

Beneath the obvious, are more subtle claims. These are just as easy to dispel. The most erroneous is that in principal he is no different to predecessor Manuel Pellegrini. For those that found that amusing (as any serious person should), take a second to let the giggles pass.

The notion comes from the half-baked view Pep and Pellers both shared a common denominator: They have one way and no Plan B.

This was clearly a case that could be mounted against Pellegrini. Like Roberto Martínez, it seemed they’d rather lose playing their way then adapt to opponents and unique situations. They refused to be proactive, instead soldiering on, expecting different outcomes with faltering systems.

Pep is different, and certainly not a one-plan man.

The ethos – his religious view on how the game should be played – will remain consistent, but within the framework changes are made. Whether it’s switching to three at the back or an extra man in midfield at the expense of a striker. There was always a rigidity with Pellegrini (even with formation changes) that isn’t evident with Pep. A tailored approach after examining the opposition has replaced blind optimism, or should that be: plain stubbornness.

When those able to acknowledge Pep has adaptability, they cover it by saying he should slowly implement his ideas and until then play to the strengths of the current squad. It can’t be argued that the best managers go in and work out where strengths are and chop the weaknesses. But isn’t that what he’s done already with the brutal treatment of players like Joe Hart and exclusion of Yaya Touré?

It’s only managers who are survival experts, like Sam Allardyce, that allow personnel to dictate shape and style. There’s a reason veterans of the managerial game have never featured in the Champions League while Pep has won it two times.

It is always a results based business – Roberto Martínez would have done well to remember this – but to take the silverware, become an all-time great, you need to have ideals that can be transposed across a spectrum of tactical problems.

He’ll accommodate players where possible but ultimately they bend to his will: his ethos can’t change for theirs.

Unlike Pellegrini, who it seemed sent players out with vague instruction, Pep makes it clear what he expects to see. When his system fails it’s obvious where individuals have been lacking. This accountability makes it easy to root out weaknesses and build the correct team. That process is now underway following the passing of the honeymoon period.

Players are beginning to show their true colours. Some are just unsuitable for the demands Pep is making. Others, through either poor work ethic, attitude, or time of life, cannot perform to the required standard. Pellegrini may have ignored their shortfalls, Pep will not.

Guardiola also knows football tactics are constantly evolving, it’s why he came to City. This opportunity is the continuation of his education. There’s no suggestion he’ll plough on with failing tactics but he’s confident the overriding ethos works.

People shouldn’t complain when José Mourinho parks the bus because it’s boring, they should question why he’s still rolling out tactics from yesteryear. Pep’s dynamic approach makes even the Portuguese United boss look like a tactical dinosaur.

But members of the “Red Press” would rather highlight Pep’s perceived failures, that are nothing more than growing pains, and ignore how the Special One has become the Stagnant One.

They also believe his tactics have been worked out. That Celtic somehow exposed the key to the conundrum when they only replicated what Swansea had attempted. Pep would rub his hands at the prospect of every team pressing City every game until the end of the season. If his system is implemented correctly, they’d be making the space for him in vital areas of the pitch.

But it’s easier to pretend after years of success, the brutal nature of the Premier League has cracked the Guardiola code. It’s as if he was the Illuminati and Brendan Rodgers formed some part of a Da Vinci Code, that the Tom Hanks looking Premier League managed to work out in time to prevent an embarrassing runaway success.

Thankfully people like Robbie Savage have sound advice. The man that only adorns the BBC because his dress sense brightens up the dreary looking Phil Neville, and his mindless enthusiasm on commentary offsets the drier tones of Mark Lawrenson, believes Pep isn’t a tactical genius after all. Robert Langdon – sorry, the Premier League – has seen to that.

Nor does Pep need to reinvent the wheel to conquer Europe with City, just fix its punctures.

And that’s the problem: Pellegrini didn’t leave Guardiola with a working wheel. It was a shiny cart with its components used for forward motion removed, instead sat upon shaky bricks and an instruction manual that had been left out in the rain. City didn’t need tweaking, they required revolutionary treatment.

There is no one better in the game to provide this than Pep Guardiola.

Like any revolution, it will take time. Those that have faith will be patient, those with hope it fails will fabricate stories and print insincere views to upset the steady progress.

Pep doesn’t need to change his ethos; he just needs to realise in the land of Premier League football, freedom of speech means the nonsensical have the loudest voices. But empty vessels do make the most noise…

Heart to Hart

Heart to Hart

If history is truly written by the winners, no party involved with the Joe Hart saga will be able to place anything on record. There are only losers as the situation plays out, drawing to an uncomfortable conclusion for the main protagonists.

The questions and doubt continue to reign. Is Pep Guardiola justified or making a mistake? Hearts break watching Hart face an uncertain future, Claudio Bravo arrives facing a lukewarm reception, and fans cry to the club’s better nature at the treatment of a true legend. Amidst the confusion, some answers are already obvious.

The first, and clearest, is that months before Pep pitched up in Manchester, Joe’s cards had been marked. A poor showing in the Euros acted as a catalyst to enact the bold step of removing England’s number one from the club. Most fans never expected to see Willy Caballero play for City again, all along Pep was plotting this exact fate for Hart.

Wednesday’s Champions League tie was the managers farewell gift, not a glimmer of hope that if Hart stayed he could fight for his place. This act made the manager contradict his former statement on Hart about being prepared to work with the ‘keeper to improve his game, if he stayed.

However, Guardiola shouldn’t be made into the bad guy here. He made a judgement call. All managers have to; the best ones aren’t scared to make the big ones. If he has politicked a little, it was to keep an air of professionalism when facing the sensationalist tabloid press.

If City fans harbour some dislike, it’s because of what Joe Hart represents rather than a judgement on his ability. He belongs to an elite group (Zabaleta, Kompany and Agüero) that appear to love the club. They get City. Pulling on the shirt for players like Hart has been about more than collecting a pay cheque or doing a job. It’s been a love affair.

And that love is reciprocated in the stands, as proven on Wednesday. In singing for Joe, the fans always brought to attention one uncomfortable truth. Maybe he wasn’t good enough? The reworking of the Billy Ray Cyrus song, “Achy Breaky Heart”, to “Don’t Sell Joe Hart” is now a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its existence a case for Pep’s defence when he’s accused of making a kneejerk reaction.

If Hart was beyond reproach as a top class ‘keeper, why did the fans feel the need to create this song for the benefit of a former manager? The doubts about Hart’s pedigree have been around for some time. He’s weathered storms in the past but a fresh manager had zero attachment to any member of the squad. Pep agreed with the doubters and acted immediately.

Bravo’s arrival is the nail in Joe’s coffin that had been halfway in for some time. City may well have upgraded – at a bargain price – and now make the step forward in Europe. But the Chilean can’t afford a less than stellar start to his City career.

Fans know he isn’t here for City. He’d play for Leicester City if Pep was manager at the King Power. That’s fine, but it says more about the future of the club and its detachment from core players, its fundamentals and values.

Aside from an attitude problem, an existing player at a top club, that has contributed heavily to championships and aided the growth of the whole organisation, should be given a fair chance.

Any areas of Hart’s ability that haven’t improved at an acceptable rate are down to coaching rather than his lack of potential or professionalism. Gaps in his game – like playing sweeper-keeper – can be blamed on the management, or lack of, from previous regimes. Do you really think Manuel Pellegrini ever tried to enhance Joe’s overall game? He didn’t even send his outfield players out with clear instruction.

Pep is in the unique position of being almost untouchable. He could finish outside of the top six and the hierarchy would continue to believe in his project. With such a period of grace he can afford to take six months to develop the players already in Manchester. Surely the club expect a manager on a contract that exceeds £12m-a-year to hone existing talent.

Not everyone that stood up for Joe Hart Wednesday night has always been an advocate of his ability. This doesn’t make them hypocrites. He has made mistakes and his distribution has been a poor aspect of his game that many have criticised over the years.

But he holds the record for number of Premier League golden gloves and any sense that Hart hasn’t improved over the years is ill-founded. It’s heart-breaking that the world will never find out what a bit of Pep polish could have done for a legendary City goalkeeper.

Instead of deciding to work things through, Guardiola has called time on matters.

It’s now like a relationship that doesn’t feel over but the other party declares is unsalvageable. The only thing the rejected person can see is how much there is left to fight for, how much can be saved. They picture a future with many more moments, rivalling the best from the past before going on to exceed those highs. Begging and frustration vie with confusion, clouding logic and analytical thinking.

The party cutting the strings is completely emotionally detached, to the point they lose sight of pure logic which leads to reinforced stubbornness.

You have to move on because there is no alternative but it leaves a void that never finds closure.

That painful gap in City’s heart will be Hart shaped. The fans and player parted ways emotionally, both powerless to stop the wheels that had been put in motion by others, but it wasn’t a comfortable farewell. It was awkward and the demands for reconciliation fruitless.

No future success will ever remove the memory of losing a legend before his time.

Loyalty Pays

Loyalty Pays

Sunday saw Manchester City lift the Capital One Cup after a penalty shoot-out with Liverpool. It adds a second League Cup to Manuel Pellegrini’s CV but he won much more than silverware. He silenced critics and demonstrated that being a gentleman often pays dividends.

After Willy Caballero’s FA Cup performance against Chelsea, the only two men in the world that wanted to see him play in Sunday’s final were himself and Pellegrini. His showing a week before was so poor, he had made himself very droppable. The idea he is the domestic cup ‘keeper goes out of the window if form is so terrible.

Unless it’s Pellegrini’s window. He decided to take – what he presumably saw as a little – gamble. He explained that his word was more important than football. Keeping his promises surpassed any significance winning a trophy holds.

It is the sort of bold and open statement only a manager relieved of his duties can publically declare. As stated in Capital Gains, winning the League Cup offers a fresh surge of momentum.

Willy turning into a hero demonstrates how the cliché, a week’s a long time in football, couldn’t be more true. Such is the soap opera nature of the sport, when it went to penalties, it was almost inevitable Caballero was going to find redemption. From hero to villain, enabling him to sign off his City career in style (if it’s to be believed he will form part of a summer exodus).

His teary eyed interview on the field showed that top pros do care about the clubs they turn out for. It was touching to see a good guy get a reward for persevering.

Which brings us to Manuel Pellegrini. He placed himself in the firing line with his selection of Caballero. Victory – and its manor – justifies yet another decision is a week where his every action has been scrutinised.

It also brings a greater bonus. Any dissident voices in the dressing room will now be silenced for the remainder of the season. The players can look at City’s Charming Man and know they have a manager on their side. A gaffer that will stand by them and keep his word.

Honesty is an underrated trait and Pellegrini has it in abundance. Any wavering respect some players may have had, will be stamped out. Instead of working hard to impress Pep Guardiola, everyone has been given a reminder they still have work to do for the current boss.

With renewed unity they could be heading toward another domestic double. Even if they fall short, Pellegrini has given them a greater prize – proof that loyalty pays.