FC Barcelona will be hoping to secure their place in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages tomorrow, when they travel to the north of England to take on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. For Manchester City and for Pep Guardiola, this match represents something close to a must-win encounter; Guardiola’s coaching methods and philosophy are under intense scrutiny given City’s recent struggles, and another heavy defeat could have far-reaching consequences for the former Blaugrana coach.
Whatever your opinion on Pep might be since he left the club, I think that we as Culés can sympathise with him as a person, and as a coach. Having raised the bar so spectacularly high by inspiring Barça to a period of unprecedented dominance, it’s perhaps unfair for the media and fans alike to expect him to mastermind similar achievements everywhere he goes and then lambast him for failing to surpass their expectations.
In that sense, there are many parallels between Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi; in Catalunya, both are revered as footballing deities – and rightly so – for their era-defining contributions to FC Barcelona. Outside of Catalunya, both are highly respected and often held in just as high a regard by the general public – but they are both dogged by a group of vocal dissidents, critics who will never be satisfied with their accomplishments and seem to celebrate even their most minor shortcomings.
I’ve explored this topic in a bit more detail before, but when Lionel Messi failed to secure the Copa America title this summer, he was immediately found to be personally accountable – even though he had produced some of the most superlative performances of his career to inspire Argentina to the final. He might have been involved in nine goals in 253 minutes of play prior to that final, but because he didn’t single-handedly deliver the title on the night – he had failed.
The vocal minority considered this to be validation – that Messi guy, yeah he’s quite good but I don’t really see what all the fuss is about considering how many times he’s failed to win with Argentina. How can he be the best player of all time if he can’t score penalties?
I’ve mentioned it before, but in this modern world the greatest tragedy is that the fans and media who surround the beautiful game are all too indisposed to acknowledge context and the role that it should have in our armchair analysis. Perhaps I’m being too kind with that assessment, maybe the greatest tragedy is that, in general, the average fan or typical member of the media is simply too ignorant to acknowledge context.
Therein lies the greatest similarity between Messi and Guardiola; with the average layperson unwilling or unable to provide context, they are both bound by the outside world to the standards that only they have previously achieved.
And with this in mind, let’s shift our attentions back to Pep Guardiola. Fortunately enough, his City side were able to halt their run of six matches without a win this past weekend by decimating Tony Pulis and West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon – but the 4-0 win did little to turn the tide of public opinion back in his favour. While Manchester City might be sitting pretty atop the Premier League, the general consensus remains that Guardiola has not delivered the revolution that was promised.
This in turn has only lead to some reductive comments, some of which were made by intelligent football minds who should know better. We’ve all heard the generic and baseless comments about the downturn in form being attributable to the unrelenting and unforgiving quality of the Premier League; essentially, we’re one step away from people deducing that this is all because Guardiola couldn’t hack it on a cold night in Stoke – that’s the real reason why he was successful in Barcelona, right?
Never mind that he is just 17 matches into a three-year contract; because the past and the future be damned, football apparently is all about the here and now. You can count on one hand the number of times that Manchester City have topped the table through the first ten matches of the season, but as Guardiola hasn’t accomplished that with, what, a 100% record, the criticism comes rolling in from all angles.
A six-game streak without a win is concerning, of course – but there was no reason to suggest that some reactionary overhaul was required. Just as the next six games will not prove to be the be all and end all of Guardiola’s reign, neither will those six. Even within that streak, City’s emphatic defeat to Barcelona has been robbed of context. Not only were City equal to Barcelona for much of that match, but they were never expected to win in the first place.
Few teams visit the Camp Nou and secure favourable results – sometimes, the very best teams in the world leave not only empty-handed, but on the wrong end of a thrashing. In the context of City’s history, never mind that their mere presence at the Camp Nou represents an incredible upgrade from plying their trade in the third tier of English football less than 20 years ago, losing to Barcelona has been a relatively normal occurrence for them.
Five played, five defeats – and so just as Manchester City end one six match winless streak, another threatens to replace it. I can sympathise with Guardiola and his general plight, but tomorrow he’s not a former Barcelona coach, nor is he a neutral coach that I admire – he is the enemy, the opposition, and while another defeat would hurt his credibility, that isn’t any of our concern. We have our own critics to silence, and plus, you don’t want me to travel all the way up to Manchester tomorrow to be disappointed, right?
Last time this fixture rolled around, there wasn’t really any team news to discuss and so I delved into a few of the concepts that I thought would prove decisive on the night. As suspected, the battle for possession was nothing but a distraction – the key to the game was space, and how Barcelona exploited it when Manchester City made a mistake.
Even though City pressed high up the field and stopped the Blaugrana from dictating the tempo, they couldn’t take advantage. Even though Marc-Andre ter Stegen had more touches of the ball than Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta, City found ways to gift Barcelona the chances they were otherwise unable to create. We’ve talked about it at great length before; you can analyse a game to death, and pick out however many “keys to victory” as you like – but if Lionel Messi decides to transcend the tactics and transcend those battles, it doesn’t matter what happens in the rest of the game.
On the night, Messi himself only had one more touch than ter Stegen, which is far from ideal from Luis Enrique’s perspective – but it’s what he did with those touches that counts. When Fernandinho slipped, Messi rounded Claudio Bravo to score the game’s opening goal. When John Stones and the rest of the City defense afforded him a couple of feet of space on the edge of the area, he rifled home the game’s second goal.
When Ilkay Gundogan’s errant pass found Luis Suarez, Messi burst into space to ensure he was on hand to tap in the game’s third goal – he subsequently won a penalty and can also be credited with an assist for Neymar’s goal, the final goal of the evening. This was another masterclass and by the end of the evening it would have been naïve to state that Guardiola cost City the match. It would even be naïve to state that Barcelona outclassed Manchester City, because truthfully, they didn’t.
The most succinct summary we could provide of that match would simply be: Lionel Messi – and it’s those two words alone that provide us with all we really need to know.
Of course, the benefit for Luis Enrique coaching FC Barcelona is that he has Lionel Messi at his disposal for pretty much every match – and so, while he will still create a gameplan and analyse the opposition ahead of each match, he also has that get out of jail free card. Tomorrow evening at the Etihad, there’s a very distinct possibility that we could lose every single one of the battles that we should ideally win.
City could have more possession. City will almost certainly press as high up the field as they did last time out – and as such, they could win the territorial battle too. They could stop us from playing our usual style and all of this could prove disastrous; or Messi might render it all irrelevant. Maybe it won’t be him; maybe it will be Luis Suarez or Neymar this time – that’s Luis Enrique’s Barcelona in a nutshell.
We’ve admitted that we cannot dominate every match in the way that we often did under Guardiola. We don’t have the same personnel to play that way – nor do players like them exist in the realm of the footballing world anymore – and while we try our best to continue with that same ethos, we’ve tweaked our style to account for the times when we can’t quite scale those heights.
If I were Enrique, I would have spent the last few training sessions preaching the importance of movement and the idea of providing support to the man in possession. At the Camp Nou, we were all too willing to pass the ball back to ter Stegen in a bid to avoid the pressure – and then we promptly conceded it when the pressure continued and ter Stegen was left with no choice but to boot the ball out of play, or fire the ball forwards to an aerial challenge we would invariably lose.
The pressure from City will remain constant – and with Sergio Aguero likely to lead the line, it will become all the more dangerous. We can’t immediately teach our players to be more composed and not to err, not to hesitate in the face of pressure – but we can teach our players to move and remember that they can create options for the player in possession. This might mean dropping a little deeper at times, but if we can work around the pressure instead of concede to it, then we will stand a better chance of creating chances and securing victory.
Conceptually, this might sound difficult to grasp, but in essence we should be treating the match like a rondo. In the face of pressure in a rondo, there is no option to go outside of the circle and play the ball to a goalkeeper – instead, the players in the circle have to move, create angles and passing lanes – and at that stage, the pressure ceases to impact your game.
At the Camp Nou, our players were a little too static for my liking when the ball was in our half, and improving that would certainly make me a little happier.
This will of course be difficult without Andres Iniesta, without Jordi Alba and without Gerard Pique. These are three players that embody the Barça style, and their replacements will not be able to provide in the same way that they provide – but I have faith in our squad to deliver without them.
To briefly summarise the team news, Jeremy Mathieu also misses out with a double whammy of an injury and a suspension – but otherwise we don’t have much else to worry about. Expect the “Gala XI”, with Rafinha in place of Iniesta, and the French connection of Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne in place of Pique and Alba respectively.
With Guardiola’s every comment and decision under fierce scrutiny in the English press, it perhaps isn’t being reported enough that tomorrow’s hosts are dealing with a few injury issues of their own. Pablo Zabaleta and Bakary Sagna have been fighting it out for the right-back slot all season long, and while neither have been particularly outstanding, it comes as a huge loss for City that they could be without them both for tomorrow’s match.
Unless Guardiola is feeling adventurous and would like to try his hand at a back three, it means that he will be forced to either hand a Champions League group stage debut to the inexperienced Pablo Maffeo, or play another player out of position. The likely candidate would be Fernando, who filled in at the weekend – but neither option seems like a good idea up against Neymar.
As a Catalan kid who grew up in the Espanyol youth system, Maffeo would like nothing more than to start against the Blaugrana, but I suspect Pep might have an ace up his sleeve – Jesus Navas, who perhaps provides the pace and experience that Guardiola is likely to value against a player like Neymar.
Of course Pablo Zabaleta may still recover in time to start – but it’s one to keep an eye on ahead of kick-off.
Elsewhere, one suspects that Pep will opt for a similar line-up to the Camp Nou – with the only change likely to come as Kevin de Bruyne drops into his usual midfield role, while Sergio Aguero moves into attack at the expense of Nolito or Ilkay Gundogan who drop to the bench. With Claudio Bravo suspended, Willy Caballero will start in goal and Barcelona fans will know what to expect from him given his successful stint with Malaga.
His shot-stopping ability is not in question, but the combination of an inexperienced or unfit right-back, coupled with a goalkeeper who isn’t as comfortable in possession – we should try to replicate City’s approach from a fortnight ago, as chances are that it will pay dividends.
Manchester City: LDLDLW
FC Barcelona 4-0 Manchester City – 19th October 2016 – UEFA Champions League
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Mascherano, Umtiti, Digne; Busquets, Rakitic, Rafinha; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Caballero; Zabaleta, Otamendi, Stones, Kolarov; Fernandinho; Sterling, Gundogan, Silva, de Bruyne; Aguero
This will be another close game, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near top gear at the moment. However, I don’t doubt the MSN, and the first part especially. 3-1 Barcelona.