For only the second time since his departure in 2012, Pep Guardiola returns to the Camp Nou tomorrow as an opposition manager, as his Manchester City side visit Catalunya in what could arguably be considered the tie of the UEFA Champions League group stage. For FC Barcelona, while there are sure to be some emotional scenes prior to kick-off as they welcome back their most successful manager and former captain, this is all about maintaining momentum.
With a win tomorrow evening, Barça would tighten their grip on top spot in Group C and extend their 100% record in this season’s competition. Of course, this is without a doubt the toughest fixture we have faced in the group stage to date, but given the Blaugrana’s status as favourites to lift the trophy in Cardiff next May, this is also a fixture that we should be winning. With four wins from four in official meetings between the two clubs, this is a fixture that Barcelona typically dominate.
Does Pep Guardiola’s arrival really provide us with reason to believe that this may change?
As Culés, we know perhaps better than anyone else of Guardiola’s managerial skills. He inherited a side that had lost all momentum and was on the cusp of freefall. Detractors keenly point out that the squad was stacked with talent – but anyone who was truly close to Barcelona during that period will reiterate that Guardiola was the driving force behind our resurgence.
From the tough decisions he made behind the scenes to refresh the squad, to the intensity of the training sessions and the level of detail explored in preparation for each match – not to mention his overall philosophy – Guardiola revolutionised FC Barcelona in every way imaginable. This isn’t just the sentiment of some nostalgic Barça blogger; this is the testimony of countless members of the Barcelona squad from across the period.
While he was unable to quite inspire Bayern Munich to similar levels of success during his tenure in Bavaria, there are a number of current Bayern players who still eulogise about Pep, his methods and his skills as a manager. It’s taken little time for Guardiola to begin a similar revolution in Manchester; training sessions are a little different from how they used to be over at MCFC’s Sportcity complex, and of course, it’s the little details that are both making the headlines, and making the difference for his side.
The most notorious example in the infancy of his reign has been the story that Guardiola has turned off the WiFi in the training complex, and also blocked his players from connecting via 3G or 4G. The intent is clear and logical: while they are training, Guardiola would like total focus from his squad, and he’d like to promote a similar level of unity to which he saw in Barcelona and at Bayern.
It sounds cliché, but these are the small touches that can create a championship winning side. For Manchester City, the proof and the validation has been in their early results. Through eight matches, Guardiola and City sit atop the Premier League on goal difference and they have achieved that by playing some of the finest football ever witnessed at the Eithad Stadium and in the Premier League in general.
That’s not to say that they haven’t faltered; they are without a win in their last three fixtures and they haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last five, but overall the outlook looks bright for City. The question is: are they ready for this kind of test – and perhaps more pertinently, will they ever be ready with Guardiola at the helm?
In the build-up to this match, much has been made of the Guardiola factor – and in particular, how his experience with Barcelona may hand City a unique edge headed into tomorrow. Leaving aside the obvious comments about how the Blaugrana have evolved since his departure, I would question whether this is even relevant for the occasion.
Guardiola does focus on pre-match preparation and places a lot of emphasis on scouting and analysing match films for weaknesses, but at both Bayern and certainly at Barcelona, he was able to do so because of the strength of the team. The inherent faith he places in his own philosophy and in his squad is unmatched, but is it always prudent?
There is no doubt that Guardiola will be able to identify weaknesses in the Barcelona system; but has he spent any time focusing on addressing the weaknesses in his side? What about nullifying the Barcelona strengths? Generally speaking, it is not in Guardiola’s philosophy to dramatically change his style of play based on the opposition – and if he starts at the Camp Nou tomorrow, instructing his players to play the same expansive, attacking football as usual then recent history might not be on his side.
A year and a half ago, Pep went up against Barcelona for the first time since his departure in a UEFA Champions League semi-final and his Bayern Munich side were considered favourites to progress onwards to Berlin. Considering this fixture came just two years after a Jupp Heynckes-led Bayern handed Barcelona a 7-0 drubbing, few could have expected the dramatic role reversal that played out over the two legs.
The first leg was not only the quintessential example of Barcelona's progression under Luis Enrique, it also served as a relatively damning indictment of Guardiola's unflinching faith in his own system. The decision to play so expansively, actively encouraging his defenders to match up one-on-one against Messi, Suarez and Neymar was bold – but it was also naïve. The football on show was exquisite and the spectacle served up by these two titans of world football was nonpareil; but when all was said and done there could only be one (clear) winner, and that was FC Barcelona.
Consider the strength of that Bayern squad on the night and juxtapose this against Guardiola's current hand. Away from home, again, playing on arguably the largest playing surface in European football, again, and with what would probably be described as a lesser squad, at least from a defensive standpoint; if City are as open as Bayern were two seasons ago, or as open as they were against Celtic in the last matchday...
And so, as the prodigal son prepares to return for the second time – the question is not whether he has lost his magic touch, or even whether he has improved Manchester City. It's whether he has matured, evolved and is able to demonstrate that he has learned from his prior mistakes. Has he acknowledged the shortcomings of his own system, and is he prepared to compromise in order to improve his chances of securing a result.
In lieu of our usual format given the relative lack of team news to report, here’s a brief tactical look at the game.
The Territorial Battle
For Luis Enrique, tomorrow’s match couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only was he able to welcome Lionel Messi back from injury at the weekend, but both his starting full-backs have also returned to training and could be in line to make their returns tomorrow. Broadly speaking, Enrique doesn’t have any major injury concerns, leaving him free to select what we believes will be the best team for the task at hand tomorrow evening.
Without delving too much into a Guardiola vs Enrique debate, having Lucho as coach suits this current version of Barcelona much better. Yes, it’s because the squad was assembled by Enrique, or at least based on his instructions – but it’s also because Enrique is willing to compromise, adjust and adapt where it is absolutely necessary. It is this level of pragmatism that has ensured Barcelona remain atop in Spanish football, and indeed amongst the elite in the European game.
Would Guardiola have abandoned the false nine system for example? Luis Enrique wasn’t bound by any overarching philosophies or principles; he assessed it objectively and realised that it’s time had passed and that Barcelona would be more effective if they returned to a system with a pure striker, shifting Lionel Messi further away from the goal in the process. Pep on the other hand remained adamant that Messi should be utilised closer to the goal, even if it was becoming detrimental to the team.
It’s a hypothetical scenario, so why mention it? Well, tomorrow we are likely to see one coach make some adjustments in recognition of the opposition, and another who might not, even if he should.
We are all aware that the Barça style necessitates a goalkeeper who is comfortable in possession; Marc-Andre ter Stegen is amongst the best to ever grace the game in that respect – and Barcelona will be keen to utilise that tomorrow if they can. However, as the weekend’s win against Deportivo La Coruna helped to demonstrate, we shouldn’t aspire for our goalkeeper to have more touches than the opposition players, nor should we aspire to involve them in our play outright.
Against Athletic Bilbao earlier in the season, ter Stegen was praised, and rightly so, for his performance, but while his individual stats were lauded across Twitter, no-one thought to really critically assess the stats they were RT’ing. I mean, why were we celebrating back in August when ter Stegen had more touches in a match than Lionel Messi, and attempted more passes than Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic?
At the weekend, ter Stegen displayed the same characteristics like composure under pressure, and quality of distribution, but he was involved far less – and that’s just the way we want it to be. Barcelona should control the territorial battle and their possession should be in the opposing half. When these things happen, we tend to get better results – even if it means that no-one tweets a graphic about ter Stegen’s passing stats.
Again, what’s the point of this? The point is that Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are in a similar situation. The very public demotion of Joe Hart was fueled by Guardiola’s desire to recruit a goalkeeper who was more comfortable in possession and who could enable him to more closely emulate the style he employed at Barcelona and at Bayern Munich. Claudio Bravo was brought in for that reason, and as we know, the Chilean is perfectly adept with the ball at his feet.
The backlash from the English media and pundits smattered across British television has been resounding; Bravo made a single mistake and in the sensationalist world of the English Premier League, that means that he is bad and that Guardiola’s system is broken. Of course, Guardiola’s system is not broken – the issue is with the rest of the City squad, and how comfortable they are with their football, particularly against stronger opposition.
So, against what is likely to be Enrique’s “Gala XI”, how will they cope if they are not able to dominate possession as they have in the Premier League? How will they cope if they are forced to play the majority of the game in their own half? How will they cope if the pressure from the Barcelona frontline forces them to play the ball to Claudio Bravo more often than they can to Kevin de Bruyne, or to Sergio Aguero?
Luis Enrique knows the most effective way to stop Manchester City will be to defend from the front; expect the front six to press high up the field and attempt to force City to play at a frenetic tempo. That might mean a start in midfield for the in-form Rafinha Alcantara, who may challenge Ivan Rakitic for his starting berth, and it is likely to mean a return for both Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, both of whom are more familiar with their roles in this system.
Likewise, I expect to see Javier Mascherano start ahead of Samuel Umtiti in the heart of defense. Umtiti may be a better option in terms of athleticism and power, but as a holding midfielder at heart, Javier Mascherano is used to occupying, and owning, the space ahead of his position – and that should be Enrique’s instructions to the entire team. Play one position ahead of your own, constrict the field of play and naturally, the result should follow.
The Battle for Space
On his return to the Camp Nou in May 2015, Pep Guardiola deployed his team in an ambitious 3-3-2-2 formation; nothing quite as adventurous is predicted to be on the cards tomorrow, but Pep is likely to keep faith with the 4-1-4-1 system that has served City well so far this campaign. Much like the 3-3-2-2 we saw back on that incredible night, the 4-1-4-1 system places an inordinate amount of pressure on the “defensive” players in the scheme.
The full-backs are expected to move into central positions when the team has possession – the false full-back concept was pioneered by Guardiola at Bayern and he continues to use it to good effect at City. However, instead of Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, he is now trying to replicate that with an ageing Pablo Zabaleta, and with the attack-minded Aleksandar Kolarov. It works against the Bournemouth’s of this world, but time will tell whether it is as effective against Barcelona.
As a world-class pivote himself, Guardiola has been blessed with some talented holding midfielders in his managerial career; Sergio Busquets is a genius and Xabi Alonso might be one of the most consistent performers of his generation. Fernandinho is good, and has been improved under Guardiola, but if he doesn’t receive enough support from the five players stationed ahead of him, he stands absolutely no chance against the Barça midfield.
And while Guardiola demands a certain level of effort from his players, can he convince the likes of Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne to track back as often as they will need to tomorrow?
Contrary to popular belief, tomorrow’s match will not be won and lost based on the possession battle; the key to victory tomorrow is utilising and neutralising space. As mentioned above, the territorial battle is paramount, but of equal importance will be each team’s ability to retreat and clog the passing the lanes, because if Lionel Messi is afforded time and space to operate between the midfield and the defense; well, Pep knows better than anyone what will happen.
Manchester City: WWWDLD
FC Barcelona 1-0 Manchester City – 18th March 2015 – UEFA Champions League
A first-half goal from Ivan Rakitic confirmed Barcelona’s place in the next round, as the Blaugrana turned in another dominant performance to send City packing.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Bravo; Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov; Fernandinho; Sterling, Silva, de Bruyne, Nolito; Aguero
Sorry Pep, I’ve got total faith in Barça and can see another humiliating night on the cards. 3-0 to the hosts.