It’s time for Pep Guardiola to do at Man City what Sir Alex Ferguson did at Man Utd
It’s taken two years, but the rest of the Premier League have finally discovered an effective way of stopping Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side.
For the last two seasons, it has felt like the only chink in City’s armour was self-inflicted mistakes, or a very occasional off-day. Six defeats in 76 league games across 2017/18 and 2018/19 prove that, with one of City’s best traits being the ability to win when they weren’t at their brilliant best.
But the defeat at Southampton on Sunday was City’s ninth in 2019/20, in a season that has seen Guardiola’s men struggle to find the rhythm and ruthlessness that has made them so hard to beat in the previous two campaigns.
Perhaps quotes from Saints manager Ralph Hasenhuttl before he saw his side take three points off the Blues offer some insight into the growing confidence among City’s opponents that defeat is not a foregone conclusion.
He said: “We’re going to need to do more running, fighting and speaking and be brave on the ball. We’re going to have to make good decisions and be clinical and to have some luck to not concede. We’re going to need some luck when they are in front of goal too.”
Ninety minutes later, and Hasenhuttl’s pre-match game plan had played out to perfection. Southampton pressed City from the start, forced mistakes, and defended for their lives. City, somehow, didn’t convert any of their 26 shots, giving Hasenhuttl the slice of luck he had hoped for.
It’s also a credit to Southampton for identifying Ederson’s tendency to stray off his line as an opportunity that could be exploited for Che Adams’ brilliant winning goal.
In three sentences, Hasenhuttl summarised the blueprint to take points from City that has been their weak spot all season. It’s an approach teams like Norwich, Wolves, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Manchester United have all benefitted from, giving Guardiola an uncomfortable new reality – his opponents have found a way round his unique brand of football.
Part of the reason for City’s drop-off this season can be attributed to their defensive problems. The loss of Vincent Kompany, the long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte, and the poor form of John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi is a combination of issues that would have hurt any team. Guardiola knows this area is a priority in the summer transfer market, and will surely act.
However, maybe more is needed to return City to the top of the table than simply spending money in the transfer market.
Of course, if City are on form and at their attacking best, then they will win most games. Against Southampton, they created chances worthy of scoring at least once, but the ball just wouldn’t go in. In many respects it was just one of those days.
Perhaps, though, Guardiola should hear Hasenhuttl’s step-by-step plan to beating City and formulate a plan to stop it from being so effective again. This is a manager who has seen years of success in three countries playing the same style, but maybe now is the time to evolve his approach.
In fairness, the addition of Juanma Lillo as his new assistant could be the first steps towards such a change.
A look across Manchester shows this can be done, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity at United helped massively by his ability to dismantle ageing sides, refresh key positions, and adapt to the rest of the league’s attempts to stop his sides.
With Kompany gone, David Silva leaving, and the likes of Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero out of contract at the end of next season, there is no better time for Guardiola to emulate Ferguson’s ability to start afresh to get ahead of the opposition again.
If Guardiola can do that at City, he would leave a legacy greater than just in the ever-expanding Etihad trophy room.