Last season there were many in the media and fans alike who took gratification from the fact that Pep Guardiola’s Man City side were ‘found out’. After an electric start to his first season in England Guardiola’s team started to struggle, performances and results became inconsistent and the aura of Guardiola was being questioned. It seemed that many who prophesised his downfall in England were being proven correct. This year however it seems that the excellent start shows little sign of capitulation. City are dominating the league and seem unstoppable.
So what has happened? Was it simply the additions of wing backs to the squad which provided the speed and physicality which City’s full backs lacked last season? They’ve helped without question. Has it been the addition of a new keeper, a goalkeeper who looks like a big, dominant keeper yet one who also has the passing quality of a deep lying playmaker? Yes that has helped also. But above all, and with the additions of these players, City’s players have learnt what Guardiola wants of them. They are beginning to master his philosophy. They are now making great decisions. And decision making is the key for Guardiola.
Super Sunday saw Everton travel to Liverpool and United host City. In these two fixtures you saw a clash of styles between wanting to play a possession game and wanting to go direct and long. While the scorelines would reflect ‘close’ games the truth is both Liverpool and Man City looked miles ahead of their respective opponents. Liverpool were wasteful with a few good chances to increase their lead and allowed a cheap penalty to level the game. City on the otherhand required two poor defensive mistakes from United to score their goals. However the result was deserved because City came to Old Trafford wanting to play their game, wanting to dominate and taking the initiative. Same as Liverpool.
United and Everton however sought to stifle, defend and play long to overcome their opponents. They embraced the ‘percentages’ approach of which English football has embraced for decades. Kick it long into the opposition’s half, look for knock downs and seek to create a chance in as few passes as possible. United did this at Old Trafford! Was this how frightened Mourinho was of Guardiola’s City or how fearful he was of trusting his players to ‘play’.
The worry is, and we know this is Mourinho’s modus operandi for over a decade now, is that he embraces these ‘big games’ as the underdog and seeks to defend and limit the opposition rather than look to attack them and seek the initiative. It’s the classic battle of possession vs counter attack (all out defending). Except it reduced Man United to a long ball team, offering little quality and composure with the ball, and even with this style failing to really offer any real threat. It was fearful, negative football, which ultimately was outplayed by a more superior, intelligent and braver team. And it is this element of bravery which I want to touch on more. Because for me, this lack of bravery in coaching is limiting the decision making of players to what we saw United and Everton play this past weekend and this is leading to a level of mediocrity in the development of players at all ages.
Intelligence is key
Football is often discussed in technical and tactical terms, physical traits help too, the game has become faster, players stronger and quicker, it is a much more demanding environment athletically. Yet often the key to positive performance is the mental side. Possessing the grit, resilience, commitment or mindset to overcome challenges and perform under pressure is a key part of any sport or lift in general. In this mental area the element of decision making becomes a key facet for successful performance. Being able to make good decisions under pressure is often where the best excel and where the average fall away. Being able to make the best choice at the right time after seeing the options available is often what the distinguishes the greats. Look at Messi or Tom Brady – their decision making is often flawless.
Has the development and progression of players changed in recent years to make sure there are better decision makers on the pitch? When looking at the success of Barca and Spain this past decade one cannot help but see that the 'type' of player has changed. The rise of smaller players has perhaps been the most significant outcome of the past decade. Barcelona have led the way by trusting ‘small’ players and their success has ended the era of the ‘giants’. Technical football talent and intelligence has trumped players who were over reliant on physicality. It is perhaps here where the dichotomy between Guardiola and Mourinho can be best seen.
Many nations are starting to see that size has nothing to do with it. The key attribute which has become essential for players in the modern game is possessing intelligence. A football brain is important because the speed of the game requires players who have the ability to read the game and anticipate. They need to be excellent decision makers as well being great learners. Coaches like Pep Guardiola have embraced the intelligent footballer more than any other coach in the senior game and he has reaped the rewards of it. He has valued players like Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Lahm because of their intelligence as well as their technical skills.
And we are now seeing at City players like De Bruyne and Silva working his style and system to perfection. Why is intelligence important for a coach like Guardiola? Well it’s simple, his system requires a high level of understanding to master in order to dominate possession and play through the thirds effectively, to move the opposition to create gaps and openings and to be in a position to counter-press effectively to prevent the opposition making a successful transition if possession is lost. It requires a lot of intelligence.
It’s not been easy, it has taken Guardiola a year to get these ideas fully embedded into his squad, and required new additions to improve the balance, speed and intelligence of his team. But it’s not just because of the additions of players like Walker and Mendy which has made City better. Ederson has certainly offered more both with his feet and as a keeper than Claudio Bravo did last year - and the role of the keeper cannot be under-valued for a Guardiola system. It’s the improvement of the players who have been with Guardiola for over a year now. We are seeing genuine enhancement of their talent; Sterling is the standout example for what he is now providing on the pitch. Sane is improving every game. Silva has got even better playing in this system. De Bruyne has moved to world class levels. Even Aguero has improved his all-round game. And John Stones has become one of the best ball playing centre backs in world football. It is a team improving and evolving under the guidance of Guardiola. And why? Two reasons, coaching and improving decision making.
Being brave with decision making
Guardiola is a top quality coach, a man who seeks to make his players and ultimately the team better. He embraces the idea of ‘team’ more than other coaches, he wants everyone involved in the attack and everyone involved in the defending (particularly defensive transitions). He wants the individuals to give themselves over to the team and make decisions for the team. It is this element which makes City appear one whole organism working together in sync and which is why it so beautiful to watch.
What is most impressive about what Guardiola has done is that he has coached this team from almost scratch in terms of his style and philosophy. People critique him for what he ‘inherited’ at Barca and Bayern, not seeing what he actually did to enhance those squads in his time there. But City was a new start. It was a team needing to be improved, one which had become old and stagnant, with new young players bought yet needing to be moulded and shaped.
Sterling’s time at City is evidence of what Guardiola has done. And this is where the coaching of decision making has been clear. Sterling was electric at Liverpool playing a counter attack system which relied on his speed and ability to attack space effectively. He excelled under this style while playing with Suarez and Sturridge and Coutinho who brought out the best in him. Questions were then asked after he moved to City if he could offer the same level while playing a more patient possession style. And it took a while.
My belief on Sterling initially at City was that it would be his decision making which would mean he would struggle under Guardiola. You see Guardiola seeks to play a simple game, yes his strategies to educate his players is complex, a lot of lines and positions on the pitch, yet ultimately it’s a limited touch passing team who makes simple decisions with their passes. The cliché of ‘play the way your facing’ comes to mind when watching City. Guardiola plays football how he played it, simple and beautifully. And his teams have embraced this approach.
Sterling is a player who sought to make something happen whenever he had possession, like a winger who decides to attack his man all the time, with the belief that eventually he will get past. This isn’t what Guardiola wanted, he wanted a player who could assess the pictures and make a quality decision each time. If 1v1 was available and the chance of success high then make that choice, but if not recycle, move the ball and create/exploit space somewhere else. Don’t lose possession easily. And initially that’s what Sterling seemed to be doing.
We now see a different Sterling. He has now improved on his ability to assess the game significantly in his time under Guardiola, meaning he is now making better decisions, meaning City are keeping possession in the opposition’s half with more success and the team (and him) are creating more chances and scoring more goals because of it.
This element of coaching quality decision making is what is making City – as a team – so effective. And this ties in with the element of being brave. City don’t look fazed to play out and find solutions to get out of their half with good, secure possession. They show patience and composure and constantly have options. Players make the pitch big – they use as much space as the pitch provides, they don’t panic or rush and importantly they trust each other. Passes are simple in terms of angles and distances and we’ve seen them dominate the ball all over the pitch with overloads and composure with the ball. This can only be achieved with the trust of the coach instilling this belief that is ok and ‘safe’ to do so.
Unfortunately so many coaches are fearful and lack the bravery to play out simply, which leads to what we saw from Everton and United Sunday. The difference between what City seek to do and what coaches like Allardyce and Mourinho opt for is tragic when we consider the level these teams are playing at. These are Premier League teams, some of the best in the world, being reduced to play Sunday league level football.
The Allardyce blueprint
Sam Allardyce arrived at Everton last week with a mission to keep Everton in the league and push the club forward. In the space of a week, two wins, two clean sheets and 6 goals scored it’s fair to say Sam steadied a shaky ship. It was a boat which had lost it’s way with poor management and a lack of leadership at the top. Enter Allardyce to provide the stability and management this team needed. The ship was secured and set on a reliable course. Typical of Allarydce and why he is seemingly the go-to man in these situations.
But in the game against Liverpool, one in which he got a draw and could feel they achieved a positive result at Anfield, what Everton produced in the game was rather embarrasing. It was ‘safety first’ football, don’t play in your own half, kick it as high and far as you can and look for scraps. There was a lot of working hard and energy, but no bravery with the ball.
Allardyce is a forward thinking manger who is open to new ideas and innovations which will aid the progress of his team. He uses statistics and sports science to help gain an edge over his competitors. He’s not as ‘old school’ as people believe. Have a look at his ‘blueprint’.
It goes like this;
1. Keep clean sheets
2. Don’t lose possession in your own half
3. Play the first pass forward
4. Win knock downs and transitions
5. Set pieces
6. Exploit oppositions weaknesses
7. Quality in the final third
Now there’s nothing there which is of a surprise or shocking. It is a clear guide as to what brings ‘success’ (don’t get relegated) in this league and others. If you do all of those things you’ll give yourself a good chance.
Allardyce is pushing for is the ability for his players to make ‘good decisions’ on the pitch. Like Guardiola? Well, no. And this is where ‘decision making’ and ‘making good decisions’ become contextual and subjective.
Allardyce doesn’t see the need or benefit in trying to play out from the back with secure possession. He prefers to play a more direct style, close the gaps and win 1st and 2nd balls. Then in the opposition half look to ‘play’. His football has always been regarded as defensive and negative but that’s not necessarily true and he has been manager of some good sides who played some good football. Importantly though to do this in the ‘right areas’.
In terms of the decision making process they ask their players to adopt it is very much a ‘safety first’ approach, meaning 1 touch hooks into the air and out of the ‘danger zone’, either as high up the field as possible, into the channels or into the stands. The message is clear, don’t take unnecessary risks and lose possession in your own half. Instead kick it out, get rid, don’t risk it. Look, it works, it gets them doing what their remit asks, don’t get relegated.
The Premier League is a very lucrative business and staying in it is a lot more financially beneficial than being relegated out. The reason coaches like Allardyce and Pulis keep getting jobs is because they know how to get results. Know how to pick up points to keep their teams in the league and competitive around mid-table. It is consistent. Yet consistent mediocrity. Out go ideas of long term planning and progressive football and in comes safety first football which requires limited decision making. The safer the better.
When you listen to people talk about football there are things you’ve heard said from the terraces, to the grassroots pitches to academies which relate to the idea of ‘risk and reward’. The idea of ‘playing’ in certain areas of the pitch which are considered dangerous and risky is a problem when educating and coaching players, because they become accustomed to what their told. If playing to the keeper is a ‘risk’ that becomes seen as a negative action. If playing out in your defensive third is ‘dangerous’ then what do players think. And this is a big reason why we are struggling to produce more players like John Stones.
This approach has been a consistent element of English football culture for decades and it’s not a surprise that coaches like Allardyce and Hodgson succeed in this way. They were brought up on it, embraced it as players and young coaches/managers. They know it can ‘work’. Why don’t these men get the ‘top jobs’ or if they do fail? Because the decision making asked of the players at that level is too limited and functional, for both the players and the fans. Look at what Hodgson did at Liverpool. Allardyce at Newcastle was booed out for his style of football. Fans at bigger clubs demand more than just long ball football. Top clubs require an element of quality and not just safety first football. And these coaches appear unable to deliver on that next level. Settling for the job of being rescuers or underdogs and embracing that approach. Teams may survive in the league, but they don’t get any better and the players struggle to get past being average too.
Had John Stones being under Allardyce or Pulis and not Martinez at Everton would he be at City now and be a £50m player on the road to being world class. I doubt it. Yet fortunately for him he had a coach who wanted Stones to play out from the back and improve his ability to break lines effectively with passing and driving with the ball. A requirement not asked of central defenders for those fighting relegation, but a requirement from the teams and coaches at the top.
Ultimately Martinez couldn’t make it work at Everton, in terms of breaking the top four, and his possession game became predictable in the end. But he asked more of his players in terms of bravery with the ball and this in turn helped progress a player like Stones into the player we see now. His time at Everton, which consisted of both good and bad experiences, helped shape him to deal with the next level at the elite table. Stones was asked to take responsibility with the ball and make good decisions in these ‘dangerous’ areas of the pitch. Something the Allardyce ‘blueprint’ finds unnecessarily risky. But for a coach like Guardiola, at a top club, he wants players who can do this. And if we want to produce top quality players do we not need to ask for more from our players, and not less?
This is where the subjective belief on what a ‘good decision maker’ matters. Do we want ‘safe’ and ‘steady’ or ‘risky’ and ‘brave’?
Mourinho has a principle which says “whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake”. Effectively justifying his decision for his teams to not seek possession, but to limit how often they have the ball and to therefore limit the errors which may occur. His philosophy is built from fear, the fear of making a mistake and costing a goal. No wonder he embraces the ‘big games’ in the way he does, he is scared of making a mistake, scared to trust his players to embrace their talent and play. He doesn’t trust them. He reduces what they can do out of fear. And what happens? They play with fear. Oh the irony!
Mourinho constantly embraces these games lacking bravery and belief in his team and we are seeing this approach becoming a serious problem for him and his side. The defensive masterclasses which were once lauded have become embarrassing performances lacking any real attacking intent. And we know United have very talented players who can perform. But they have a manager afraid of trusting them to have possession when they face a side on their level. They embrace football more like Allardyce and rely on tactics akin to Sunday league rather than the top echelons of football. Mourinho is limiting his very good players, compared to Guardiola who is asking for more, being braver, wanting to show the balls to play wherever he goes and whoever he plays. The problem is clubs like United and Madrid cannot be or act the underdog – the culture and history doesn’t allow it – and this is why Mourinho is not able to make it work. Mourinho is ultimately making a mockery of himself and his team.
Before people think that of course it’s fine for Guardiola and his vast wealth to buy the best players, I can agree to an extent. He does have some very talented players. But what he is doing with them is what makes him so good. Other coaches could we take this group of players and still not get out of them what he is.
Bravery to make it work
The question, which was asked when Guardiola was announced as coming to England, was if this style could work in the Premier League? We have seen a more direct style has been seen to bring more success (relative) than a measured, progressive possession style.
This mentality applies across all age groups and leagues in England, it’s not a Premier League only discussion. Different coaches, managers and players seek a certain style of football and what works is what brings results. Even at younger age groups across grassroots to Academy the result and win can often dictate the style of football, and the decisions made within the game. A safety first, up and at them approach, playing direct football, is often the approach people fall back on when in ‘tough’ situations.
Culturally this appears to be the situation in England due to the direct nature of the game in the 70’s and 80’s and which has been imbedded in the cultural beliefs of many people. And look I’m not saying it doesn’t work. It does. Perhaps a little too well at times. Meaning that people settle with this approach without looking to add more. Add more composure, confidence, skill and expression in their players. A hook down field aimlessly is a preferred to a player looking to control and pass the ball out. That seems wrong. But that’s what fear does. It frightens people into not taking ‘risks’.
We have also seen many coaches lose their jobs because they don’t embrace the type of principles in Allardyce’s ‘blueprint’, coaches who were inspired by Guardiola’s Barca who look for a possession based approach, yet often without penetration or purpose; eg Villas-Boas, Martinez, Rodgers and even Mowbray at West Brom. These are the romantics, the purists who want to see ‘beautiful football’ but at times struggle to implement this style on to a game without being exploited because of the progressive positions taken up and the lack of chances created playing a possession brand of football. For me their biggest neglect is defensively, they want to play like Barca yet don’t get their players working hard enough to defend, to press, to transition. They fixate on what happens with the ball and forget that what Barca and Spain so effective was their defensive work rate. Getting the balance between attack and defence is a key part of succeeding in football.
Development clubs, developing quality players
What is a ‘risk’? Surely kicking the ball aimlessly is more of a risk in losing possession than seeking to find a way to retain possession. But listen to kids and they see passing it back to the GK in a game is a ‘risky pass’. Where have they learnt this? Their culture. Passing it back, seeking to playing in your defensive third of the pitch is an ‘unnecessary risk’ which leads to for many coaches and ‘fans’ causes problems rather than solutions. That’s what many believe and educate their kids and players in that belief. Meaning when you have the ball in your half, or in your area, you’re in a dangerous position.
Unfortunately this belief is a reason we don’t produce more ball playing defenders or midfielders for that matter. It’s pleasing to see Academies are producing better players and the football there is more in line with a possession based approach, demanding the players seek ways to play out and we’ve seen with England youth sides this year that we have a better quality of footballer coming through, with a more progressive, braver style of football – which can win!
But what happens when they get to senior level? Senior mangers simply don’t trust our players enough to play out. Now I would say this is all well and fine because results matter and that’s what’s important ultimately. A style which can be pleasing doesn’t necessarily mean a win and this has been seen to cost many coaches their jobs. But a lot of clubs should see themselves as ‘development’ clubs, meaning to improve their players to sell on.
It’s clear that playing out effectively it is an approach which makes players worth more and reach the top level. At a recent presentation we saw a video of David Luiz and we discussed if his style was good, bad, dangerous or positive. Luiz divides opinion more than most because of the way he plays and the almost anti-thesis to what English culture regards as a central defender. But he’s a world class centre half who has accumulated over £100m in transfer fees in his career.
Some just couldn’t believe what he does in games, seemingly thinking that driving out, playing 1-2’s and being a positive attacking option as well as a defender is simply not allowed in the game when you’re a central defender. It was seem as foolish, unnecessary and pointless by some in the room. I was left disappointed by what I heard and yet not surprised. A player like Luiz scares coaches rather than inspires them. His talent could be a huge benefit to teams to improve their ability to build out, to help dominate the play. But for some he is just a risk not worth having in your team. I personally think Luiz is an amazing player who offers his team a lot of positives. I just wish more coaches sought to allow their players to play like Luiz, at both youth and senior level. Perhaps we would have more defenders worth £100m+.
Ultimately it’s our culture, this safety first, functional British approach which has served the nation so well across times of war yet which doesn’t wish to see people excel above the levels of mediocre. We seek to put down our high achievers, belittle them or ridicule them. We don’t seek to push for ‘greatness’ but are content with ‘average’.
Pep Guardiola is doing what we hoped he would and could, show that his style can work in the Premier League. And it’s not just working, it’s dominating. I mean it’s not even close right now. And he is improving his players, taking ‘good to great’. Not limiting but enhancing. Improving their intelligence and understanding of the game.
The hope is that more coaches see the value in what he as a coach is providing and learn from that. I wrote in an article in 2013 regarding Guardiola and his then Bayern side that “we should be taking notes and learning, analysing and dissecting his team and players”. His approach is an education.
My fear is that many will be ignorant to what he is doing and make the case that is about money and having the best players. Justifying their own decision to accept mediocrity because that’s the reality of where they are and who they work with. If we had more coaches who were braver and asked for more from their players, instead of reducing their players to average, imagine what we could achieve.
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