Spend time in Pep Guardiola’s company and his enthusiasm for football is infectious.
The manner in which the Manchester City head coach talks tactics, technique and talent makes even the least gifted individual seek out a ball and dribble round in circles. It is evident how he manages to encourage the plethora of footballing titans that he has coached to perform constantly and aim ever higher.
However, ask Guardiola what is the most important thing that he sees on a football pitch and he will not name a player nor a piece of skill or tactical acumen. No, it is the ball that Guardiola regards as the king.
The greatest influence of all
As a former central midfielder well versed in the teachings of Johan Cryuff, Guardiola has a rather unprecedented appreciation of the object that he know encourages his players to keep, win back but with the ultimate goal of leaving it somewhere precious. At times, he has been accused of encouraging his teams to pass for passing sake with no end goal in sight.
The term ‘tiki-taka’ was thrown at Guardiola’s Barcelona because they were seen to be keeping possession – very neat and tidily –just as a means of wearing an opposition out. The spectacle itself would often be considered mundane by observers; the end result apparent but the means somewhat procedural.
At Bayern Munich, there was an element of re-adjusting – Guardiola learned from the Bundesliga just as much as the league learned from him. A different country still has a different style, even now when football is such a global commodity that is exported the world over.
Yet it is now in Manchester that Guardiola seems to be reaching his zenith in terms of playing style. The manner in which City claimed last season’s title was a joy to watch, the points and victories came because of that.
Silence of the doubters
At first, some said he would not be able to cut it in the ‘best league in the world’. It may not be that, but it is certainly – still at the moment at least – one of the most competitive. Once again he had to adapt, learn and adjust. The first season was far from easy but there were signs of the City player’s growing appreciation of first touches, control and vision.
Manchester City were far from their best against Chelsea in the Community Shield, and were not scintillating at the Emirates last weekend but they won, comfortably. Here against Huddersfield – in their first home league game since being crowned Premier League champions against the same opponents 105 days ago – they were closer to their best.
Movement, dynamism and ambition mixed profusely. Goals took over from the pre-match confetti and rained down on the Etihad. It was joyful, apart from the Huddersfield goal.
Perhaps Guardiola having now had seven seasons as a top-flight manager is at his most balanced in terms of expectations and style. Playing out from the back is crucial, using the strengths of defenders comfortable on the ball such as John Stones and Aymeric Laporte is vital. But bringing in more direct players such as Riyad Mahrez only adds weight to the idea that Guardiola is constantly developing his thinking of the game.
City’s first goal against Huddersfield was route one. Ederson kicked a direct long ball to Sergio Aguero on the edge of the Huddersfield area. Aguero – at one with the ball – controlled, spun and finished with finesse. If ever there was a goal that shows City can mix it up, it was that one.
However, even when the ball is down at pitch level, City’s possession is of a different kind. Sharp, crisp and with direction; there is no ponderous passing with this team. David Silva had yet another afternoon to remember – not only did he manage to have his new-born child as his mascot but also put in an eye-catching display just behind Aguero and Gabriel Jesus and scored a wonderful free-kick just after half-time.
Huddersfield were squeezed, stretched and squashed throughout, at times they resembled an accordion but unfortunately for David Wagner there was tune to be had. City are much more of a controlled side than say Liverpool who thrive with bursts of chaos. Rather, City are more measured and consequently, more consistent.
Retention of the ball is a philosophy that has been drilled into these City players; they are good enough to be constantly in need of it and should not shun it even when under pressure. When possession is lost – and it barely was against Huddersfield – they press, but not extensively, to win it back through good movement more than anything else.
Along with the confidence and ability on the ball, goals are normally not that far away. A trend developed in the latter stages of last season where Premier League teams sat very deep to frustrate City – it can work to an extent but Guardiola does not sit in that office of his for hours on end twiddling his thumbs.
Guardiola, the football obsessive
Aguero was on fire here today, scoring a hatrick with classy touches and skilful finishing. Some days, goalscoring appears from easy, whilst others – like today – it all falls into place. It really can be a case of hit and miss, but so long as the desired build-up play is there, Guardiola is happy.
Playing at home often brings a sense of comfort. Players relax and it can often bring out there best. It is then that we see true artistry with a football, none more so than with City’s technically gifted individuals. But it is the ball itself that Guardiola dreams of. The aim is to master the ball everything else comes with it. City showed once again against Huddersfield that Guardiola’s love for the ball is infectious.