Masnchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s seemingly innocent words have been seized upon by Spanish side’s midfield star as a slight on his club, Atletico Madrid have started cranking up the mind games ahead of next week’s second leg with midfielder Koke aiming an icy blast at Pep Guardiola. The Manchester City manager touched a nerve when he described Atletico’s ultra-defensive tactics as being difficult to deal with.
City found it tough to break down the Spanish champions, until Phil Foden went on as a substitute and delivered the killer pass for Kevin De Bruyne to establish a slender lead ahead of the second leg at the Wanda Metropolitano next Wednesday. The Blues dominated possession but a combination of well-organised defending and a little skulduggery kept them at bay for most of the game.
Guardiola said afterwards of his opposite number Diego Simeone: “He has put (Antoine) Griezmann on the far right and Joao Felix on the far left, and they have gone 5-5-0. Two lines of five. And in prehistory, today and in a hundred thousand years, attacking a 5-5 is very difficult. It is that there is no space. Apart from the fact that they are very competitive and defend very well, there is no space.”
It is unlikely that Guardiola was insulting Atletico’s style of play with his reference to “prehistory” – he was at pains before the game to rubbish the notion that there is anything wrong with adopting a defensive stance, and made the point that City have been known to “win ugly” as well. And he simply seemed to be stressing the point that it has always been difficult to play against two banks of five.
Pep Guardiola needs to keep his cool if Atlético test City
Manchester City manager has been uber-serene of late but his clash with Ángel Correa on Tuesday night was instructive, There was a glaring reveal towards the end of Manchester City’s deserved victory over Atlético Madrid on Tuesday. With Jack Grealish on the floor Ángel Correa smashed the ball into the No 10’s face. It was on the touchline. It was right by Pep Guardiola. And Manchester City’s manager did not like it at all.
Here, though, was what poker players call the “tell” and a collector’s item as Guardiola has been über-serene recently, zen-like since around this time last season. Yes, he is still seen frantically semaphoring on the touchline or unloading the mother and father of rollockings to, say, Raheem Sterling (it is often Sterling) directly after the forward has finished the latest sublime City goal. Or giving John Stones or Aymeric Laporte an impromptu lecture on some geometric nuance of centre-back play they must apply when stepping into midfield.
Yet these moments are kept to his own players. Long gone are the days when the head coach’s lack of control over his side and himself had him in curt (some might say rude) form with BBC reporter Damian Johnson following a 2-1 win over Burnley in January of his first season with City in 2017. Two weeks later came the admission that “maybe I am not good enough” for City on the eve of a 2-2- draw at Tottenham. And directly after that result he showed more prickles when another reporter from the BBC – Guy Mowbray – was challenged, oddly, that “the first question is about the referee? It’s BBC – BBC has prestige.”
Guardiola has calmed since. Three Premier League titles, a record 100-points, a domestic treble and a remodelling of how the game is discharged on these shores – the goalkeeper as deep-lying schemer, for example – are prime reasons why.
It meant that last year when City hit crisis point after a 1-1 draw with West Brom in December that left them trailing leaders Liverpool by eight points Guardiola’s serenity allowed him to redraw the plan (in essence, pass more, run less in possession) and a 15-match streak of victories swept his side to the championship.
The sight, then, of Guardiola mixing it with Correa on Tuesday night, in a deliciously spiky Etihad Stadium atmosphere, was instructive. A manager protecting his players is how it should be and, if he went a little far, this is the Champions League quarter-finals and the stakes are sky-high. But, he should be careful. Asked about the incident later, Guardiola brushed it off while stating his players will have to be calm at Wanda Metropolitana. This applies to him, too. The sight of Guardiola, directly after his own contretemps, pulling away an upset Grealish was comical.
City are currently in the most intense, zero-sum period of the Guardiola project. Following this first leg, Liverpool are Sunday’s visitors in a contest that may define the destination of the title. Jürgen Klopp’s team arrive a point behind, having played the same 30 matches. This, then, is the first of an eight-match shootout for the championship. Stones, signed by Guardiola in his first summer of 2016 and thus a veteran of successful City campaigns, is dismissive of it being decisive.