Pep Guardiola craves control and – for now – Manchester City is lacking | Soccer

There was a passage between Julián Álvarez, Manual Akanji and Rúben Dias and it led just inside the left post, but it was almost impossibly narrow. Trent-Alexander Arnold guided his shot along it. Intentionally? By instinct? Luckily? It was very difficult to say, and because of it, Manchester City failed to win a 24th consecutive home game and Liverpool managed to protect the record that their former manager Tom Watson had set during his time at Sunderland.

More consequential – assuming Joël Matip and Dominik Szoboszlai are not particularly motivated by the honor of plump tobacconists, bowler hats and sardonic mustaches of the 19th century – City drew for the second time in a row and the dream of a real title race therefore extended to the second third of the season. Which, of course, is mainly testament to the ruthlessness of City’s excellence under Pep Guardiola and the anticipation that at some point they will put on a run that takes them out of the pack. If they are in the lead by Christmas, the second half of the season could be a procession.

But City were not ruthless, far from it. It’s a truism that a team has to be near perfect to even have a chance of beating them, but Liverpool earned the draw and created other chances without playing particularly well themselves. Alisson, although making a few good saves, appeared extremely nervous, his discomfort with the ball at his feet adding to the growing body of evidence that the requirement for goalkeepers to play from the back would have could swing from an intriguing counter-intuitive gamble to indulgence. . As Jorge Valdano pointed out last season, perhaps the strangest consequence of football’s data revolution is that teams now seem far more prepared to take risks on their own side than on theirs. opponent.

Rúben Dias is denied the second for City after it was denied at the slightest push. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Their press, too, was often not the suffocating, multi-layered cover it should be. For all the praise garnered by Liverpool’s revamped midfield – and it is performing much better than last season – there have still been several occasions where a long City ball from deep has led to players running towards a back line exposed by Liverpool, a pattern which is only partly explained. by Ederson’s astonishing range of passes.

The result was a surprisingly uneven match, a particular surprise given the unusual openness City had shown in their previous outing, the 4-4 draw at Chelsea. More than anything else, Guardiola demands control: when there was such a lack of control, the assumption was that, especially for a match against the team that has most regularly challenged his city, he would prioritize l ‘order.

Guardiola is haunted by the specter of counter-attacks. Most of these moments of reflection before the Champions League exit were prompted by attempts to ward off possible counter-attack threats. The urge to organize the game so that his team is positioned to guard against a potential counter is why Guardiola’s teams so rarely score on the counter themselves, why he has spoken of requiring 15 passes for his team to organize for an attack. And yet, Liverpool not only equalized on the clock, but had several other chances to do so.

Trent Alexander-Arnold holds off Nathan Aké during the match.
Trent Alexander-Arnold holds off Nathan Aké during the match. Photography: The Guardian

It would be an exaggeration to say that Liverpool should have won – they lost xG 1.3 to 0.6 by Opta’s measure – but there have also been at least four occasions where a better touch, run or run Darwin Núñez’s best decision could have opened. City in place. And that’s not common in City. Something is wrong in their midfield.

It’s probably as simple as the absence of John Stones, although his presence on the bench suggests a return is imminent. Using Álvarez as a sort of attacking central midfielder and second striker means there is a need to find an extra midfielder somewhere, and Stones has done an admirable job of switching from central defender to operating alongside by Rodri. Akanji, it’s fair to say, is still learning the role. Had Ilkay Gündogan not left the club this summer it might have been less significant, but for now City look vulnerable whenever one or more Rodri and Stones are absent.

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The alternative would be to leave Álvarez out, or start him from the flank in a more orthodox 4-3-3, with Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva alongside Rodri in midfield, but Guardiola often seems reluctant to do so. idea of ​​Foden as a central player. player. At the moment, he is undoubtedly a necessary counterweight, a passer who offers a certain security, to the darts and bursts of Jérémy Doku on the left. The Belgian was responsible for 68% of all City dribbles on Saturday, his directness and the regularity with which he loses the ball – an inevitable consequence for someone who dribbles so much – a curious departure from the control and prioritization model of Guardiola’s possession.

We’ve been here before, of course. The pattern is familiar: City look vulnerable in the autumn, then hit the kind of form in the spring that makes Tom Watson nervous. Even in this phase of slight uncertainty and without the injured Kevin De Bruyne, they are one point from the top. They remain favorites for the title.

Without a goal disallowed at the slightest push, they would have beaten Liverpool. If Stones is back against Tottenham next week, calm could once again descend on the midfielder. But over the last two games, the control that Guardiola so cherishes has abandoned them.

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