MANCHESTER, England – It was an occasion whose build-up rather outstripped the reality, and in that sense the Manchester derby was an accurate symbol of what has happened to City and United this season.
There had been an expectation of fireworks, of a re-ignition of the Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho rivalry with the two Manchester rivals grappling for title amid an atmosphere of fury and rancor. As it turns out, Guardiola and Mourinho have been generally civil, and a drab goalless draw merely kept City a point clear of United in the battle for fourth.
Until Marouane Fellaini was sent off for headbutting Sergio Aguero with six minutes remaining, this had been a largely forgettable game of dogged United defense and uninspired City attack. There were plenty of shots, but most of them were from long range and, aside from an Aguero effort that hit the post in the ninth minute, few of them troubled the goal.
Yet it was a paradoxical result. While the draw probably helps City more than United in terms of that battle for the final Champions League slot, particularly given their respective run-ins, it also extended United’s unbeaten league run to 24 games and enhanced the sense that the momentum in Manchester is shifting in Mourinho’s direction. With the League Cup already won and the possibility of the Europa League title to come, Mourinho has probably had a better season than Guardiola.
Fortunately, English football seems to have been struck by an unexpected outbreak of good sense. There has been grumbling, and the deluge of knee-jerk half-wittery from the usual sources, but nobody is seriously suggesting that Guardiola–or Mourinho, for that matter–should be sacked. There is recognition that there is a need for patience, that Barcelona wasn’t built in a day.
And that, without question, is what City is trying to build at the Etihad–which offers Guardiola some protection. By appointing the former Barcelona CEO Ferran Soriano and former Barcelona sporting director Txiki Begiristain, City made clear what its model was. Having pursued Guardiola, the coach who effectively created the modern Barcelona, since 2012, City is not going to get rid of him after a season.
But that process of creating Barcelona in Beswick has not been easy. It may be that Guardiola underestimated the size of the challenge. In part, that’s simply the nature of the Premier League. There are, uniquely among Europe’s elite leagues, six major clubs. The gulf between top of the table and the bottom is not as wide as it is in either Spain or Germany. There have been eight games this season in the Premier League in which one team has scored more than four goals. There have been 20 in La Liga and 12 in the Bundesliga; there are, in other words, far fewer games in the Premier League in which the elite can relax. Because of the League Cup, there are simply more fixtures.
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The impact of that is not merely fatigue, but a lack of time on the training pitch. If a club plays one game a week, its schedule will go: game, recover, train, train, train, train, prepare. If a club plays two games a week, it will go: game, recover, train, prepare, game, recover, prepare. Two games a week, in other words, means there's four times fewer opportunity for training, for the rigorous organizational work that is necessary to implement Guardiola’s juego de posición.
For positional work, Guardiola divides the pitch into 20 sections. Put simply, his philosophy dictates that there should be no more than three players in a line horizontally and no more than two vertically: if a player moves into a zone that unbalances that, another player has to move. In theory, that ensures that the man on the ball always has two or three passing options. That means possession should be retained and the endless rondos in training improve the capacity to retain the ball in tight spaces.
But for the players to put the theory into practice, it requires them to assimilate a way of thinking about the game that may not come naturally. At Barcelona, where players are brought up with juego de posición, that is less of an issue. Bayern Munich had been introduced to the concept under Louis van Gaal; there were at least some foundations on which Guardiola could build. At City he was starting from scratch–and without the time to instill his ideas. It’s no coincidence that City won its first 10 matches under Guardiola; it was when the Champions League began in earnest that things began to unravel.
That’s not to say that Guardiola is blameless. He failed to deal with the obvious shortfall at fullback in the summer. His faith in Claudio Bravo, shaky again here before damaging a calf in claiming a corner and having to go off with 15 minutes remaining, has been misguided. Playing a high line away at Leicester was mystifying. There have been times when he has seemed to overcomplicate matters needlessly. But equally, there have been glimmers of something very exciting indeed: the home win over Barcelona, most notably, or the first half of the derby victory at Old Trafford.
Guardiola himself has spoken often of his team struggling in both boxes: that is, playing well in a structural sense, but failing to take its chances and failing to make decisive goal-preventing interventions. The wider concern on Thursday, though, was that City didn’t look much like a Guardiola side. Yes, it had more possession than United and completed more than twice as many passes, but there was no real fluency, none of the characteristic rapid interchanges that usually denote a Guardiola side playing well.
There will be more signings in the summer and, with another year of work, City could yet blossom next season. But it can hardly be denied that Guardiola’s first season in England, the first in his career in which he hasn’t won a trophy, has been a disappointment.
How acute a disappointment depends on whether City takes fourth.