Time Has Come for Pep Guardiola to Show He Can Cut It in a Competitive League

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2016

Pep Guardiola will begin his Premier League quest against Sunderland.
Pep Guardiola will begin his Premier League quest against Sunderland.Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

There is no manager in modern football so constantly engaged in the game as Pep Guardiola. To watch him during a game is to see a brain constantly at work as he fizzes around his technical area, forever making changes, shouting instructions, looking for every possible advantage.

He probably covers more ground per game than Yaya Toure did in certain matches last season. He is intense and demanding, and—like new Manchester United boss Jose Mourinhoit may be that his intensity wears players down eventually, but his method is hugely successful. Or, at least, it has been up till now.

Manchester City is his biggest challenge yet and, while the difficulties he will face are many and various, it will be his ability to adapt his tactical thinking that will be key.

To start with, there is the workload. Bayern Munich last season played 53 games, while Manchester City played 59, but that only tells part of the story.

Trying to come up with a metric of the competitiveness of the league is all but impossible, but even the staunchest fan of the Bundesliga must acknowledge that City will face more challengers to win the Premier League this season than Bayern faced to win the Bundesliga in any of Guardiola’s three seasons there.

There will be no respite—and the additional games means there is less time to prepare for each individual match, something that is all the more pertinent given Guardiola’s preference for tailoring his approach to each opponent.

Then there is the style of football. English football is harder and more percussive than football in Spain or Germany. Statistics from WhoScored.com show that there are a little over seven percent more tackles attempted per game in the Premier League than in the Bundesliga. Physically, that takes a toll.

It may be that Guardiola needs to be slightly less demanding in his approach, that he cannot insist upon the ferocious pressing game that was his trademark at Barcelona.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

To an extent, that process has already begun. At Bayern he was far more flexible tactically than he was at Barca. There were times against Borussia Dortmund, for instance, when he essentially played long-ball football to bypass the pressing game of his opponent.

His Bayern were not as relentless as his Barca. Perhaps that was simply because the circumstance was different: There was no gilded generation from La Masia, all brought up playing the same philosophy, to base the side around, and so the style was inevitably less "pure." Or perhaps it was Guardiola recognising that a greater flexibility was advisable.

What is clear, already, is that there will be a variety of shapes used, with players perhaps used in unexpected positions. There has been talk from City of the midfielder Fabian Delph perhaps being used as a left-back, while the 1-1 draw against Dortmund on the pre-season tour of China saw Jesus Navas used as a right wing-back.

In that game, although they were fielding nothing approaching a full-strength side, it was revealing that City played with a back three. That was something Guardiola had often done against Dortmund in Germany, presumably to get an extra man into midfield to help combat the high press.

But it’s not something City are used to. In fact, they haven’t started a league game with a back three since Roberto Mancini set them up like that for the 2-2 draw against Liverpool in the second game of the 2012-13 season. But this wasn’t a back three as English football understands it. It wasn’t three centre-backs: it was Nicolas Otamendi flanked by 18-year-old central defender Tosin Adarabioyo and full-back Aleksandr Kolarov.

It was just a pre-season game, and there’s no sense that that is the template Guardiola will use once the season gets underway, but it did give an indication of how imaginative he can be in his use of players, matching their attributes to specific jobs rather than dropping them into pre-determined positions.

Aside from time, the biggest problem with that method is Guardiola himself. It requires his plans to be well-conceived at all times. He is not infallible—nobody is—but by and large he has excelled at that up till now. The question is whether he can keep doing that amid the constant pressure of the Premier League, when City will have perhaps a dozen big games as opposed to the four he has faced in Spain and Germany. It is a test of his mental stamina.

And this will be a hostile environment for Guardiola. It’s not just the presence of Mourinho across Manchester that will make this testing. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp may also feel he has scores to settle after their time in Germany. The old-school British managersWest Bromwich Albion's Tony Pulis, Mark Hughes of Stoke City and Sunderland's David Moyeswould all relish putting the vaunted foreigner in his place (the prospect of Sam Allardyce facing Guardiola on the opening day of the season was delicious until the English job lured Allardyce from Sunderland).

Furthermore, given the scepticism that exists in certain quarters about Guardiola—the sense that winning his six league titles was almost a formality given the clubs he was managing—the English media won’t be slow to criticise if City have any problems.

Leroy Sane's pace will aid Manchester City in attack.
Leroy Sane's pace will aid Manchester City in attack.Michael Sohn/Associated Press

But they shouldn’t have any problems. Nolito, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus have added pace and thrust to a forward line that could seem predictable last season, relieving the burden on Sergio Aguero.

Ilkay Gundogan, when he is fit, is the sort of deep-lying fulcrum City have lacked for years, somebody who can protect the back four while at the same time distributing intelligently. His presence should liberate Fernandinho, who was a far more attacking player when he was signed from Shakhtar Donetsk but has been forced to drop deeper to protect Toure (who, surprisingly, has not yet been sold; if he stays, though, his ageing legs mean he surely has only a bit-part role to play). Fernandinho’s deployment wide on the right on occasions last season demonstrated his flexibility.

The truth is these are only the most general notions. Perhaps if the game against United scheduled for Beijing had gone ahead we’d have had a clearer idea of what Guardiola may do in major games, but even then, he is such an original and imaginative thinker that it wouldn’t have been more than a hint.

After winning the league in 2015, Mourinho scoffed at managers who went to leagues where even the kitman could win the title, the jibe fairly clearly directed at Guardiola. It was an accusation that, while exaggerated, had enough truth to sting. This is Guardiola’s chance to prove that his approach, tactical and psychological, can still be successful in a genuinely competitive league.