The adage of attack being the best form of defence is one Pep Guardiola has embraced and deployed throughout his career in football management.
Whereas Manchester City’s Catalan genius attributes many of his playing influences and philosophies to his mentor at Barcelona – the late great Johan Cruyff – the proverb of the ‘best defense is a good offense’ originates from 18th century American military manoeuvres – hence the transatlantic spelling.
George Washington subscribed to the principle when leading the Patriot forces to victory in the American War of Independence in 1783 and, 239 years later, Pep is waging war on City’s critics albeit with a heavily depleted defence.
Having conceded just 22 goals in 36 Premier League matches, City are just two games – optimistically even just one – from retaining the title, but with defenders becoming increasingly scarce.
John Stones, Kyle Walker and Ruben Dias have already been ruled out of the title run-in, while doubts linger about the match fitness of Aymeric Laporte, Nathan Ake and stand-in centre back, Fernandinho.
Guardiola could be left with just Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko as senior ‘recognised’ defenders, even though ‘Little Kev’s’ natural position is that of a midfielder. Rodri could be pressed into action in the centre of defence and, who knows, Conrad Egan-Riley could step up from Premier League Two with two Premier League games to go?
City have created a new PL record when winning by three goals or more in their last five outings against Brighton, Watford, Leeds, Newcastle and Wolves, whereas at the back, Ederson has only been beaten twice.
Pep was once quoted as saying his ideal team would comprise eleven midfielders – it’s a great sound bite but not so attractive when the top flight’s best defence is decimated by injuries.
Having smashed 94 PL goals, 22 of them in those last five matches – either side of the titanic Champions League struggle with Real Madrid – the City boss is now on a war footing against those who seek to deride him on a personal level and the club as a whole.
The truly shocking nature of Real Madrid’s two goals in added time at the Bernabeu rocked Guardiola and just about everyone with a City connection, but Pep was amazingly pragmatic and resolute after the 3-1 loss and 6-5 aggregate defeat.
City were the architects of their own downfall, missing so many opportunities over the two legs and, instead of a ‘Fight Til The End’ mentality it was a lack of concentration and a last minute capitulation which was their undoing.
Hiding the pain within, Pep gave a simple assessment, saying, ‘This is football – it can happen.’
The dramatic 90th minute turnaround was akin to the 93:20 Agueroooo Moment, only this time in reverse. Crashing out of the Champions League in such a crushing fashion pales into insignificance when you compare it to the unbridled ecstasy derived from Dzeko and Sergio’s late, late goals just over ten years ago – but you get the gist.
Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov’s 1999 rescue act at Wembley also sprang to mind and for the first time in 23 years, I had a degree of empathy and sympathy with the Gillingham fans.
Those two most momentous of City milestones far, far outweigh exiting UEFA’s corrupt showpiece, but it certainly made for an unpleasant experience with some extremely dubious officiating from referee Daniele Orsato.
Just how Real’s defensive midfielder Carlos Casemiro didn’t get two yellow cards for a scissor-style foul on KDB, followed by yanking Foden’s shirt around the neck beggars belief. It was just plain bent. Even the notoriously anti-City BT Sport commentary team were gobsmacked. When Rio Ferdinand says City are being screwed you just know they ARE being screwed!
If anyone outside of the City fan base wonders why we boo the trumped up UEFA anthem and why we hate the cheating b@st@rds, they need only look at UEFA’s interpretation of events in the ‘War at the Wanda Metropolitano’ where City drew 0-0 with Atletico Madrid.
Everyone who witnessed the vile and disgusting behaviour of Diego Simeone’s side would be forgiven for wondering how the hell Atletico escaped any punishment from UEFA’s disciplinary committee? Conversely City were fined £11,910 for the ‘improper conduct of the team’ by accruing five bookings.
At his press conference yesterday Pep came out shooting from the hip and taking no sh*t, with ex-Rags and now, so called pundits, Patrice Evra and Dimitar Berbatov in his crosshairs.
Both had questioned the ‘character and mentality’ of Pep and his team in the wake of the Champions League semi final defeat. Pathetic, pernicious, puerile, Patrice, even accused Guardiola of not being able to ‘train people with personality’, adding that players joined City ‘solely for money’.
Pep fired back, “I didn’t see this kind of character and personality when I played them, when I destroyed them, with Barcelona.” He also singled out ex-Real Madrid and Netherlands, Clarence Seedorf for similar criticism.
Such fighting talk is warmly welcomed by City fans who feel their club has been far too passive for far too long in the face of unjustified and unwarranted attacks.
Following City’s CL exit Pep was right to highlight the pro-Liverpool bias in the UK media as the Scousers progressed to the final against Real stating, “Everyone in this country supports Liverpool, the media and everyone. Of course, because Liverpool has an incredible history in European competition. Not in the Premier League, because they have won one in 30 years, but it is not a problem at all.”
Clearly not ‘everyone’ supports the Scousers but the City boss was calling it as he saw it.
He was in tune with the overwhelming majority of City supporters. They wouldn’t sacrifice another Premier League crown if they had to choose between that and a first Champions League trophy.
City’s owners, Pep and the players want to win the Champions League – it would be churlish to suggest otherwise. Winning it would get the proverbial monkey off City’s back, put a big tick in the box and bring global recognition and kudos to the club.
Paradoxically, if a club cannot lay claim to being champions of their domestic league, how can they be lauded as European and even World Club Champions? If you’re not the best in your own country it rings hollow to be proclaimed the best in the world by virtue of a knockabout FIFA tournament against opponents from Asia and South America – teams who’d probably struggle over a full Premier League season.
UEFA’s new CL format further dilutes and devalues the competition. From 2024 it could be possible for a team to finish fifth in the PL and qualify for the CL. Not exactly ‘champions’ material.
Revamped Financial Fair Play rules will mean clubs can lose approximately £60m over a three year period – a big increase on previous limits – at a time when UEFA darlings such as Manchester United and Barcelona have to spend big to have any chance of competing at the highest level.
A further move to protect the ‘old guard’, will see more stringent scrutiny of sponsorship deals with third parties that might have close affiliations with club owners. It's a not so thinly veiled attack on the likes of City and, in the future, possibly Newcastle United if they progress under their Saudi ownership.
As the magnificent Martin Samuel - one of the very few journalists who gives City fair and balanced coverage - has sarcastically suggested, why don’t UEFA dispense with all the pretence and just bring in a rule that says whatever Manchester City are doing – or hope to do in the future – is illegal?
If, as and when City ever win the Champions League, it should only be viewed as the pinnacle of the club’s achievements because they’d have overcome the litany of stinking, anti-City bias deeply embedded in UEFA’s DNA.
City are living in a world of nigh on constant attacks – whether it be the silky skills of Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Bernardo, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Joao Cancelo, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan, Rodri, Fernandinho et al operating on behalf of the Sky Blues – or taking incoming fire from anyone and everyone, who despise City’s success and are desperate to undermine them.
As they close in on what would be a fourth Premier League crown in five years, a four point haul from a visit to West Ham and a season finale at home to Aston Villa will be enough for Pep to, once again, tell his critics to go forth and multiply.
By David Walker