Pep’s footballing philosophy is worth the risk

Perhaps one of the more subtle elements to Manchester City’s play that Pep Guardiola has changed since his arrival at the club this season is how the team deals with the ball at the feet of their defenders and goalkeepers. For many, it’s slipped completely under the radar that the Blues now try their damnedest to keep it on the ground and pass out from the back even when being pressurised by attackers.

It’s definitely not something that every single bloody commentator, fan, journalist, oddball on Twitter, and pundit or ex-pro has an opinion on. And it’s definitely not something that every sodding one of them won’t shut up about at all times whenever City are passing the ball out from the back.

Sorry, I pledged I wouldn’t be too sarcastic at the start of this season and I’ve gone and had to chuck a few quid in the broken promises jar in the kitchen.

Hello and welcome to another episode of ‘David Mooney Gets Mad About Something That Really Doesn’t Matter In The Slightest’ (DMGMASTRDMITS). On the agenda this week is people saying, “I know it’s Pep Guardiola’s footballing philosophy, but I’m not a big fan of it”.

I’d like to get one thing straight from the off. Watching Willy Caballero pass the ball straight to a Swansea forward and regularly chip it over his defenders’ heads and into touch isn’t my idea of watching great attacking football. The next few hundred words are in no way a defence of a goalkeeper spooning the ball out of play, shanking it into dangerous areas or presenting chances to the opposition.

What they are, though, is a defence of the principle of keeping the ball on the ground and not going long at the first sign of trouble.

Watching Manchester City defend this season will not be comfortable for the fans and for the majority of those paid to comment on performances. The Blues will take risks while in possession. Defenders will put each other under pressure. Mistakes will happen because of it.

It all comes round to an alteration of the norm. New coaches have tried playing from the back in the Premier League before, all with varying degrees of risk-taking, but it’s never been done on such a grand scale as Guardiola insists his club do it now.

In the past, others have knocked it around beautifully when they’ve had all the time in the world and cleared their lines when they see an opposition attacker just considering putting someone under pressure. Some have taken that pressure and moved the ball on, before hoofing it clear a couple of passes later if there’s still a centre-forward lurking.

City are now wilfully passing the ball to marked players at the back, knowing full well that a mistake could lead to a goalscoring opportunity. It’s all about risk-reward, and the reward is so great for the Blues at the moment.

It’s why Guardiola was so set on a ball-playing goalkeeper – it gives him extra options in possession.

“You know what,” says nearly everybody ever as they relentlessly give their uninvited two pence-worth on how the Blues are knocking the ball around. “I don’t like it. I like my defenders to defend. I want them to tackle and get rid of the danger, first and foremost – that’s what they’re there for.

“After that, I don’t care if they can pass a bit, but their job is to stop the ball going in the net. I know this is how Guardiola likes it and he’s a great manager, but I’m not a fan of this fancy passing in your own defensive third lark.”

For years in the English league, many have classed the best defenders as the no-nonsense sort. The ones that would clean out the attacker in front of them, win the ball and stop any hint of danger towards their own goal. They’re the ones that have been hailed the heroes and the sort that any manager would want in their team because they’re good at keeping things at arm’s length.

It’s based on a footballing system where the opposition present a threat that needs to be nullified and that’s the main objective. They have dangerous attackers, so they must be stopped by hacking the ball away from them and getting it into a safe place. If it’s in a safe place, they can’t score.

This season, City are going against that accepted system and saying that stopping their opponents from attacking comes second, behind enhancing what they themselves can do in possession. That’s why it’s difficult to watch. Every sinew in every onlooker’s body wants Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones or Claudio Bravo to go long and put the ball in that safe place because it’s a safe place.

Instead, Guardiola wants them to keep it and potentially create a chance for his team. If they’re canny enough – and so far, they’re proving to be more often than not – they can make their opponents knacker themselves out by chasing it all over the back line, open up a little bit of space for the midfield and, with a few decisive passes, the Blues can set off on a devastating counter attack.

City are by no means a counter-attack team this season, yet they’re scoring some of the best breakaways the division has seen.

In Guardiola’s mind, the ball is safe at his defenders’ feet, even when they’re being closed down. With intelligence and a new-era positional sense, the Blues can knock the ball around without actually creating many problems for themselves. Defenders don’t look to be in natural positions because they’re an option for a pass, not someone to block the opposition attack.

It can cause hairy moments and near-misses. Sometimes it can go a whole six minutes before City’s new style is mentioned when that happens. However, City aren’t “getting away with” those incidents if they’re able to keep possession of the ball under pressure again and again, as the evidence is beginning to suggest they can.

It goes without saying that there will be teething problems, especially as new players and fringe members of the squad are given playing time. However, the principle is stupendously simple: why hoof the ball long to clear a danger that can be dealt with in a manner that’s much more calm and controlled when it works and is likely to be much more profitable than giving away a throw-in or having to win a 50-50 aerial ball?

So now that’s cleared up, can we just assume that nearly all the commentators, fans, journalists, oddballs on Twitter, and pundits or ex-pros would rather see Joe Hart in City’s goal and John Stones putting the ball into touch, and consequently can we not have to listen to another sodding lecture on why it’s “not for them”?

Written by David Mooney

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