Aleksandar Kolarov's fist cut the cool Manchester eve with passionate verve as Viktor Kassai's final whistle evoked an eruption of joyous City fans, cementing the end of not just the game against Barcelona, but the poor run of six that has drawn criticism from far and wide. Beating Luis Enrique's all-conquering Barcelona may very well be the highest peak of Guardiola's burgeoning tenure, but the elevation at which this moment stands might not have been so high had it not been for the folly of criticism the team and manager endured over the past few weeks.
From accusations about Guardiola's personal relationships with squad members to suggestions that the supposed 'rough and tumble' style of the Premier League had exposed his system, the bevy of harsh judgments have come from almost every avenue one could imagine. However, despite the bullish tenacity by those in the media to find the cause of the team's underperformance somewhere off the pitch, few seemed ever to bother to look at the intricate workings on the pitch as a solution for their inquest.
A False Start
City's red-hot start to the season may not have been what the majority of Sky Blues fans were expecting, but, as it turns out, the ten consecutive wins may have done more harm than good regarding the perception surrounding the former Barcelona manager at his newest club. While no one was expecting a horrible start, the consensus was that Guardiola would need a considerable amount of time to be able to implement his complex and rigid playing philosophy. However, men make plans, and God laughs. Guardiola's high-flying City hit ten in a row with demolitions at Bucharest, Monchengladbach, and West Ham, but what people failed to realize, however, was that Guardiola's early success wasn't the fruit of his more easily recognizable philosophy.
Part of what made City so successful early on was the counter-press; 1/3 of Guardiola's overarching philosophy. The Sky Blues were winning the ball back in extremely advantageous positions high up the field and enjoying the high fidelity chance creation that aligned well with the players' more recent counter-football style. The creation of shots on target through the nuances of Guardiola's positional philosophy didn't start to come until the West Ham game, and even then without any consistency (at least against top sides). Various advantages of the former Barcelona manager's philosophy had aided the play during some games, but we were yet to see an entire match of 'Guardiola football.'
The bad run of results uncoincidentally came in tandem with their dropoff in counter-pressing success. In the second leg against Barcelona, the execution of this critical tactic that affects much more than simple chance creation was comparable to the kind we saw at the beginning of the season. The act of an immediate press once possession is lost not only seeks to win the ball in positions high up the field but also attempts to eliminate any chance of counter attack by forcing the first pass backward. However, despite the obvious tactical importance and recent absence of the double sided tactic, many pundits and commentators alike decided to hone in on Guardiola's implementation of playing the ball out of the back.
For Guardiola, the Problem is the Solution
Although many popular faces that grace the precipice of 'analysis' covering the Premier League may see it as an unnecessary risk that only allows for the danger of a high fidelity defensive error, attempting to pass out of any and all situations does have its purpose. In essence, since Guardiola requires his players to maintain a certain positional rigidity, intelligent movement and precise passing around overloads created by the other teams often creates advantageous situations farther up the pitch. If Guardiola's teams can beat an aggressive physical or positional press, there is a palpable amount of space left to expose behind pressing players. The most efficient way to overcome and ultimately nullify a press is to play through it.
Guardiola's Bayern and Barcelona teams of the past have enjoyed the success of playing through a press in the past, but it's high-risk high-reward. Possessing the ball so close to goal is a trap that seeks to pull opposing teams all the way up the field in order to create space that can be exposed, but it offers avenues in which other teams can exploit. Some say the solution is to simply send it long when in trouble, but Guardiola's insistence is telling. The more this team learns to play out of every situation without the need to clear the ball, the better the players will become. Through force or failure, Pep Guardiola is trying to perfect his system. Getting to the point where the spacing and passing decisions are consistently correct may take some time, ultimately costing the team goals, games, and points, but the outcome will, in Guardiola's mind, outweigh the cost.
It's also worth mentioning that the three core constructs of Pep's philosophy aren't interchangeable. Simply removing the passing at the back will not stop City from conceding, even if a large portion of the goals opposing teams have scored against the Blues this season have been caused by either defensive errors or by being caught in possession. The buildup is essential to Guardiola's system because it creates space that wasn't originally there, but the perception that it foments is often misunderstood. Playing the long ball isn't out of the question, as long as the situation calls for it. "But the change doesn't mean you do not use long balls; you have to use long balls...Of course, he has to play long balls. It depends on if the opponents come or doesn't come", says Pep.
Sleight of Space
The match against West Brom saw the boys in garnet and black return to scoring ways, but, as we all know too well, City had some trouble finding the net in that run of six without a win. Though the lack of chance creation against Tottenham and in the first leg at Barcelona are due to the lack of sufficient possession and the team's poor counter-attacking efforts, the lack of goals against Everton, Manchester United, and Southampton, or, in other words, teams that they are holding sufficient amounts of possession against, may cause for some concern. Understanding the inner-workings of the attacking MO may help to illuminate that shadow of doubt.
Much like a magician's sleight of hand, Guardiola's attacking philosophy draws the eyes away from one area while doing the hard work in another. The two zones to focus on here are the wide and central areas of the opposition's half. While some teams seek to emphasize chance creation in one of the two, Guardiola wants both. Chance creation from the flanks by isolating wingers is as much of a target as creating 1-2's in zone 14, but the attacking pattern synonymously held with Guardiola's systems is that original chance creation in central areas aided by a consistent usage of the entire width of the field.
The issue that City were running into during their barren stretch was the lack of consistent threat from wide areas. More recently we've seen Guardiola move players like Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling central while Zabaleta and Kolarov alternate in an overlapping push that sees one of the two defenders push forward and overlap, requiring the other to stay back and ensure defensive solidity. The overlap maintains the consistent width while bringing more recognizably dangerous players into central areas.
The performance against Barcelona was less about the actual efficacy of either team's more frequented possession system, rather, it was a battle of the more tactically apt manager on the night. While Luis Enrique may have won the first bout, Guardiola riposted in the second. The Catalans may have enjoyed some success with their more successfully implemented positional play, but both teams only scored in counter-attacking situations with City seeing more success in that defining department.
Some may say that the way in which the new City boss overcame his old club is justification that Guardiola cannot and doesn't hold complete faith in his system, but, in more ways than one, they're wrong. The various tactical nuances mentioned above all helped City in their most testing hour because they all encompass aspects of the overarching philosophy. The success of the counter press, use of width in attacking situations, and ability to pass out of positional pressing all connect.
Then, like a lightbulb suddenly filled with the ability to illuminate the unknown darkness, it clicks.
The gears grind, the cogs whir, and the blood rushes to the pink sponge inside our cranial cavity, and it dawns upon us that Guardiola isn't mired in an idealistic sense of how football should or shouldn't be played. He simply believes that the way in which he chooses to think about and understand the game has led them to one infallible solution; his footballing philosophy. Something that he said himself when asked about whether he'd change his style after the first loss to Barca clarifies that: "Yeah you know what happened, yeah, I think about that, yeah. But after that, the solution is not better than what I believe."