LONDON: “Pragmatism against purity” is how a Premier League TV commentator framed the contest between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola some 50 seconds into Sunday’s Manchester derby.
Manchester City are a spellbinding team. They pass better than any of their domestic opponents, they play higher up the field, are more focused on the opposition’s box. Statistics bear witness to their strengths in these areas, strengths their Catalan coach has worked with characteristic intensity to amplify.
An eleven-point advantage banked courtesy of their 2-1 away win means only a collapse of unprecedented scale can prevent City from becoming champions. Guardiola’s men could embellish their title with a cascade of records added to the current sequence of 15 straight victories. We can all look forward to watching hours of beautifully technical football in the process.
Purity, however, is not one of City’s many virtues. Less than two minutes after that commentator talked up Guardiola’s methods, Kyle Walker threw both legs into a high-velocity challenge on Ander Herrera. His right leg took none of the ball, his left leg took a lot of the Spaniard.
It was one of a litany of tactical fouls, designed by City’s coach to cut counter-attacks off at source. When well executed these are both precise and thrilling. They are also the weapons that most concern him.
“I want the ball,” said Guardiola. “That is my main principle. And after that, when you don’t have the ball, to be well organized to recover as much as possible, knowing that the opponents want to punish you to use their magnificent counter-attack.
“The teams from Jose Mourinho … Chelsea, Madrid and here, they are a master of that. They are so good at running and runs in behind. And when you lose the ball in the position you attack they punish you with one action. And they win the game.”
This game was decided by three “disgraceful goals,” Mourinho’s description as appropriate to the not unexpected errors of Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph as to the uncharacteristic defending before and during City’s set-piece strikes. “We won because we were better in every department,” claimed Guardiola. He could certainly be satisfied by how his forward stopped counters.
Watch the match again and you’ll see Raheem Sterling thrice take out opponents in their own half as they seek to start attacks. On 68 minutes, Ashley Young steals a pass from Sterling and feeds Anthony Martial. Sterling chases back, throwing his body into the Frenchman near the area. His fourth cynical foul of the game; no booking.
By half-time Gabriel Jesus has tripped Martial and gone through the back of Herrera to halt transitions. The Brazilian is accused of throwing himself to the ground in the area in an incident that some argue would be a better test of England’s new “Simulations Panel” than the penalty which cost Oumar Niasse a two-match ban. Like Delph — who appeared to deceive to win a free kick from which City equalized the previous weekend — Jesus cannot be punished.
In a 19-minute spell, David Silva defends City’s lead by kicking the ball away as Herrera makes to play a free kick into space vacated by a protesting Delph, scissor tackling his international team-mate, making another tactical foul on Nemanja Matic, then barrelling through Jesse Lingard. His punishment is one yellow; the same as Marcus Rashford receives for dissent over an Eliaquim Mangala challenge.
Every one of these fouls allows City to get every man behind the ball and in proper defensive shape. It mitigates the risk involved in their attacking overloads and helps them apply another of their key offensive weapons, their press. Go through City’s campaign and count the number of chances created from the free kicks awarded after such tactical fouls — you’ll come up with a tiny number.
It is as Mourinho points out “a strategy that they have.” Other Premier League coaches agree. Guardiola, who is philosophically and emotionally wedded to the idea that possession football is the correct way to play, deployed it at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Some think he has amplified its application in England where referees tolerate more fouls.
As obsessed with winning trophies as Mourinho, the Catalan applies other tactics that enable him to do so. On Sunday, he swapped striker Jesus for center back Mangala as soon as City were ahead, moved Silva to a defensive false nine role, and had his team time waste and play keep ball in the corners.
Credit to the manager who can convince an individual of Silva’s qualities to foul like Sergio Busquets. It is not, though, purity.
Asked if there should have been a late penalty when Otamendi blocked off Herrera, taking none of the ball, Guardiola attacked Mourinho (pictured). “Last season it was the same — we won here and it was the referee. Yesterday he spoke about the referee. We are an honest team. We have on average 60, 65, 70, 80 percent of the ball possession, that means we want to try to play and we did it.”
Asked if his players go to ground too easily, Guardiola shrugged. “That is not true. That is not true. We want to play. Normally when you have the ball the others have a defender, but that is not true. Sometimes they are quicker, they are faster, but that is not true. That is not an argument I believe.”
In Guardiola’s world possession appears to be nine-tenths of the law. His football can be great to watch, but it’s not the only football that can entertain. And it certainly is not pure.