Stubborn Guardiola pays the price for lack of pragmatism

After making problems for himself all season, the Man City boss was at it again as his side blew their title hopes at Chelsea

Pep Guardiola, Manchester City
Pep Guardiola issues instructions to his Man City side
(Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty)

Not for the first time this season Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is under scrutiny after his stubborn refusal to abandon his idealist approach and his sometimes bizarre team selections backfired once again against Chelsea.

City, who were beaten 2-1 by the league leaders last night, now have no chance of the title and will instead have to focus on Champions League qualification.

It was another curious display from the side, who "remain the great enigma of the Premier League - looking like they could score every time they attack but liable to concede at any moment", says Phil McNulty of the BBC.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"Guardiola still has a goalkeeper conundrum, with Willy Caballero unconvincing and caught out by a routine deflection from [Vincent] Kompany for [Eden] Hazard's first goal, while there is an air of permanent frailty at the back."

The manager tweaked his team yet again for last night's game, but apparently not to target any of the Blues weaknesses, which had been laid bare by Crystal Palace on Saturday and Spurs in January.

Palace marked N'Golo Kante to restrict his influence, targeted makeshift right-back Pedro on Saturday and won the match.

Spurs beat Chelsea with two goals which exposed the lack of height on the right of the Blues' back five. Both tactics were noted by JJ Bull of the Daily Telegraph before the match.

But Man City did not try to exploit those weaknesses, perhaps because manager Antonio Conte responded to the Pedro issue by playing Kurt Zouma and putting Cesar Azpilicueta out wide. But he was sufficiently unconcerned to take Zouma off at half-time and restore Pedro to the right.

Guardiola, meanwhile, opted to hand Fabien Delph a rare start in midfield and Vincent Kompany made only his fourth Premier League appearance of the year. Even more unexpected was the sight of Jesus Navas playing at right-back and Raheem Sterling on the bench.

"You cannot help but feel that Guardiola's first season could have gone so much better if he had just done the simple things," says Matt Law of the Daily Telegraph. "Pablo Zabaleta may not be the player he once was, but he remains a better right-back than Navas.

"With every game and goal conceded, the decision to ditch Joe Hart looks more puzzling and Willy Caballero’s failure to stop Hazard's opener only underlined the theory that Guardiola has made problems for himself."

His approach has been in stark contrast to Conte's, who has discovered a winning formula and stuck with it. "Guardiola would do well to follow Conte's lead and enjoy the simple things in life," says Law.

There is agreement from James Robson of the Manchester Evening News. "Conte's side showed the ruthlessness required to win titles - the ruthlessness City simply haven’t under Guardiola," he says.

Guardiola will not look back with much fondness on his first season in English football. "For the first time in his career, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach suffered league home and away defeats against the same opponent," notes Mark Ogden of ESPN. "[He] has also lost six league games for the first time in a single campaign, having also failed to reach the Champions League semifinals for the first time."

For all the moments of attacking genius, Man City fans will surely be haunted by watching their back four's ham-fisted efforts to play tiki-taka in their own third, or seeing their team defend a two goal lead against Monaco by playing five at the front.

Guardiola's stubborn refusal to allow his team to deviate from his principles has also been allied by a chaotic selection policy, which means City "resemble a jigsaw puzzle that has been emptied from its box, with different players playing in different positions from week to week", says Ogden.

"Nine months into his reign as City manager, Guardiola cuts an agitated figure on the touchline and appears to be more confused and uncertain by the game. His players also give the impression that they are also struggling to comprehend their coach's instruction."

No defence as Pep Guardiola is made to look like a novice

16 March

After enduring a tough first season in English football, Manchester City's manager Pep Guardiola took another battering when his side was bundled out of the Champions League by Monaco in the last 16.

Despite winning the competition twice with Barcelona and never having been eliminated before the semi-finals, "the biggest name in football management was made to look a complete novice", says John Cross of the Daily Mirror.

There were plenty of warning signs for City in their chaotic 5-3 win against the free-scoring French side in the first leg. But Guardiola chose not to heed them, says Cross.

"Boss Guardiola should have been experienced enough – this was, after all, his 100th game in European competition – to tighten up his defence so City stood a chance against the highest scorers in Europe.

"Instead, he went for broke... and sent out a team with two full-backs, one centre-half, a makeshift centre-half and just one defensive midfielder. That is either naive or just reckless."

The City boss appears to be trading on his reputation rather than results, says James Ducker of the Daily Telegraph.

"Consider for a moment that Manuel Pellegrini had presided over some of the decisions made and results delivered this season by Pep Guardiola," he says. "Imagine if the same flaws, the same mistakes were exposed time and again but the manager kept doing the same thing in the mistaken belief things would change. Would City's hierarchy be happy?"

Guardiola effectively picked a 4-1-5 formation for a game in which not conceding was paramount.

"Call it recklessness, naivety, arrogance or a misguided faith in the abilities of some of his players but Guardiola's decision to line up in such an attacking way against a team of Monaco's talents, when it was City who had a two-goal cushion, looks extremely questionable," says Ducker.

There is even more damning criticism from Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. It was a performance reminiscent of Arsenal in Europe he says.

"It is very simple. Pep Guardiola addresses the issues with Manchester City's defence, or this project is destined to disappoint," he says. "Monaco are one of the finest attacking teams in Europe right now but, even so, to let in six goals over two games is a dereliction of duty for a club with ambitions of lifting this trophy."

Critics and fans of other clubs "will take pleasure in this feted coach's failure", says Henry Winter in The Times. So will some within the game "who resent the way the Spaniard is deified as a managerial immortal following his trophy-amassing work with such talent as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi at Barcelona".

But, "as they sip on their schadenfreude, Guardiola's critics should remember that his commitment to attack is surely a purist principle to be lauded", he adds. The City boss also displayed tactical nous by reconfiguring his team at half time. But even Winter agrees that "Guardiola is undeniably culpable in not strengthening an ageing defence that every City fan had highlighted as a flaw".

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.