Manchester City v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Group Stage Matchday Two Group D

A couple of weeks ago I tried to make the case that teams which some or most of the time face superior opposition are more difficult to manage than elite teams which have world class players with the kind of technical ability and footballing intelligence to adopt to a single, overarching “philosophy.”

I think Rafa Benitez, the current Napoli coach, unwittingly echoed this point in a recent column for the Independent (like ghostwritten by Guilleme Balague or something). Benitez wrote:

My Napoli team have played five games so far in Serie A and we have been up against a different system in every game, with some opponents changing their system two or three times during a game. For those of you like numbers, we’ve faced 5-3-1-1, 5-3-2, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 and the challenge of counteracting and reacting to the systems is a great challenge for any coach in this country. It is more challenging than England, in that sense. Everyone seems to be talking about analysis and statistics in football, and managers’ philosophies about offensive football. Well, I’m sorry, but the philosophers were Plato and Socrates. The essential part of winning games for a coach is the work done on the field, helping players to deal with the systems thrown at them. Never is it more so than in Italy.

This idea that in-game decision-making pragmatism (all these crazy formations I have to deal with!) and pure, single minded attacking idealism are somehow opposed brought to mind comments once made by the great former Real Madrid player Francisco Gento, someone who won European Cups alongside Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano in the documentary History of Football. When questioned on Real Madrid’s approach, he said something along the lines of “We overcame all systems. We were Madrid.” Madrid were good enough that they didn’t have to adapt. Most of the time in the late 1950s early 1960s the team destroyed their opponents with no-name coaches staring off into space on the sideline.

One would never see this today, but there are examples of teams that don’t generally make big tactical adjustments for each game but instead rely on a general attacking “philosophy.” But what happens when two idealist teams, both influenced by an attack-minded ideal but one patently superior in most respects (sorry City) meet on the football pitch? What happens when neither side makes room for pragmatism?

Well, you get Barca 4, Ajax 0. Or there was last night’s match between Man City and Bayern Munich at the Etihad, which ended 1-3 for Pep Guardiola’s team. No doubt Manuel Pellegrini made some dubious decisions in his selection policy, perhaps by putting Micah Richards in full-back and not putting in James Milner to start the game. But Pellegrini was not going to be the one to “adjust” to his opponent; instead, he put out his usual line-up so far this season. He also started two strikers, perhaps with the idea that City would have the advantage in Bayern’s final third. In other words Pellegrini didn’t blink. It would be City’s philosophy vs Bayern’s.

The problem was City were clearly not prepared for the Bayern variation on Pep Guardiola’s pressing game at Barcelona. Another, perhaps slightly more self-aware coach might have considered playing a little deeper, maintaining defensive vigilance throughout, and attempting to score on the break, perhaps through some variation on the long-ball. Or for managers with more dignity (presumably like Pellegrini), they might have employed a selective press, attacking furiously in the opening stages, shelling for an hour, and then pushing up the pitch in the final stages of the match as the opposition tires.

That was never going to be on for Pellegrini though, and City’s match was upended when there were some, including Michael Cox, who pointed out a few means to mitigate the damage that Pellegrini did not seem to consider.

I’ll stop here of course and warn against the dangers of reading too much into a single match, even one as apparently decisive as this. But there have been a few other instances this season already of City underestimating their opponents, including a few unexpected results against Cardiff City (scored on set pieces) and Aston Villa (scored on a set piece and a long ball) in the Premier League.

That’s why for example freshman manager Tata Martino’s tactical adjustments at Barcelona this season, the team associated most with Guardiola’s preferred manner of play (press and possess), are so interesting. Here’s Jonathan Wilson from a few weeks ago, a piece I’ve come back to a lot lately:

Gerardo Martino, who will return to Argentina for his father’s funeral after the game, is still feeling his way as Barcelona coach, but he too is of the same school, albeit the South American branch established by Marcelo Bielsa, a huge admirer of Van Gaal, at Newell’s Old Boys in the early nineties. He is not as idealistic as Bielsa, perhaps not even as idealistic as Guardiola and already, his more pragmatic nature has begun to emerge: he does not simply try to pass teams to death as his predecessors have; he is not, as Gerard Piqué put it in an interview in Gazzetta dello Sport last week, “a slave to tiki-taka”.

Wilson goes on to quote Gerard Pique discussing Martino’s focus on using the long ball to prevent opposition sides from pouring forward late in a match, or packing a midfield to overcome an aggressively pressing opposition. That, for example, might have been a helpful strategy for Bayern to have employed near the end of the City match, when Guardiola’s team tired and City poured forward, a situation that could have been threatening had the scoreline not been so emphatic. While Martino’s Barca still has some work to do (they struggled to overcome Celtic’s defensive posture this midweek), Martino seems to grasp well that philosophy and pragmatism need not be locked in opposition to one another.

Easy to write, but hard to implement. Football managers, with only a few midweek training sessions to really work with their players, likely struggle to find a very difficult balance between over-preparation (“Always do this in the X area of the pitch with a Y scoreline against a Z opposition formation with Q players!”) and relying on an overly idealistic, one-size-fits-all approach. This is particularly difficult in a game like football: messy, low-scoring, driven by luck and a ton of turnovers. Yet within that balance lies a wider pathway to long-term success.

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