Pep's Christmas pillow talk
Question: What does the man, widely regarded as the best manager in world football, want this Christmas?
Answer: Luxurious bed linen.
It’s a strange and somewhat underwhelming response from Pep Guardiola, until you realise the age-old caveat of words ‘being lost in translation’.
The Manchester City boss isn’t actually bothered about double deluxe duvets or being pampering with perfectly produced pillow cases – he just wants clean sheets… and plenty of them between now and June 2017.
City’s leaky defence and questionable goalkeeping would keep many a Chinese laundry in handsome profits, with only half-a-dozen shutouts in 27 competitive games in the Premier League, Champions League and EFL Cup.
In days gone by, the now exiled Joe Hart would pick up the Golden Glove Award for the highest number of clean sheets on a regular basis – three consecutive occasions between 2010/11 to 2012/13, and in 2014/15 – for a record-breaking fourth time.
City’s present incumbent between the sticks – Claudio Bravo – has more of a requirement for oven gloves, as opposition forwards turn up the heat, catching City’s defence cold with alarming regularity.
It’s rare for the 50,000 Etihad faithful to turn up fearing the worst, but with an injury and suspension ravaged team, that was the feeling as Arsenic Whinger’s Arsenal swept into town last Sunday, promptly taking the lead after just four minutes.
Thankfully ‘Typical City’ showed up in paradoxical fashion, surpassing expectations and confounding critics, with a resounding second half turnaround to grab a momentous 2-1 win.
Whether it was a milestone victory heralding in a more positive consistency in Pep’s fortunes remains to be seen, starting at Hull on Boxing Day, followed by the usually painful City away day at Anfield on New Year’s Eve.
Of course Guardiola’s insistence on playing out from the back places enormous pressure on an, as yet, wholly unconvincing back three or four formation.
And then we have the thorny issue of sweeper keeper Bravo, a goalkeeper who, in his Barcelona days, was afforded the luxury of opponents who, as soon as he had possession of the ball, dashed back into their own half to defend the likes of Messi, Neymar and Suarez.
Not so here in England where, as Pep is discovering, any Premier League team is capable of upsetting the elite.
City’s opponents are happy enough to press high and hard and not scurry back in mortal fear of conceding to a rampantly superior force.
It’s hard not to have some sympathy for Bravo – highly accomplished as his country’s most capped player, twice captaining Chile to Copa America tournament wins in recent years, as well as experiencing great success in La Liga at the Nou Camp.
Bravo is the innocent ‘collateral damage’ in Joe Hart’s emotive move out to Torino.
It’s no secret that Pep’s preference was to get Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen or Rui Patricio ahead of the 33-year old Chilean, but who knows, it may yet come good for the man described as the ‘…best goalkeeper in the world…’ by his countryman and ex-City boss Manuel Pellegrini.
Not many doubt Pep’s tactical master plan, but it’d be a huge help if he had more accomplished personnel to transform the theory into practical play.
That can only happen over a period of at least three transfer windows. He’s had just the one so far, which is a bit of a pane from Pep’s perspective.
Last summer brought an array of attacking talent and future promise and, of course, Jesus is on the radar, albeit a week after the turkey and minced pies have been consumed.
Failing to sufficiently reinforce the City rearguard before September 1st could yet prove costly this season, but with the second coming of a Jesus to City, one wonders if Vincent Kompany could do an impersonation of Lazarus and miraculously rise again to his once Captain Fantastic status?
Kompany’s renaissance – as unlikely as it seems – would go a long way to curing City’s immediate defensive ills, but major surgery is essential in January, June & July, with two or three full backs and a couple of centre backs a necessity.
Pep is clearly a man of principle and not given to compromise on his football beliefs, and why should he after winning 21 titles in seven years?
It could be that his first season in English football may end trophy-less – but that in itself wouldn’t be the end of the world. The media and pundits would undoubtedly portray it as such, but you don’t build a dynasty in a lunch break.
Guardiola has been at pains to state he’s on a steep learning curve in England. The Premier League is markedly different from the Bundesliga and La Liga.
It’s not as if he’s trying to get his ‘excuses in first’ he’s a genuine guy, but more importantly, a born winner.
With up to 12 senior players – Nasri, Mangala, Bony, Hart, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Sagna, Clichy, Navas, Caballero, Yaya and Fernando – likely departing before 2017/18 kicks off, Pep will have acres of room to build, mould and fine tune a squad that will truly be his by this time next year.
Don’t expect to see any repeats of the Leicester away debacle in 12 months time.
Pep’s arrival at City was inevitably accompanied by great expectations – rightly so – but even he needs a four letter word which isn’t always in abundance – TIME.
As appalling and abject as City were in the 4-2 mauling by the Foxes, they have only truly deserved two of the five defeats inflicted so far this season.
Leicester and Spurs away are the only occasions the Blues got what they deserved – nothing.
The loss to Chelsea was a travesty and a crime combined.
Nigh on criminal officiating by Anthony Taylor (surely that ‘Altrincham’ fan needs investigating and rendered unemployed) aided and abetted Antonio Conte’s smash and grab raid, but City profligacy in front of goal was equally to blame.
The 4-0 score line in Barcelona doesn’t reflect the quality of City’s game plan and execution of it, up until Calamity Claudio’s sending off and the consequent Keystone Kop defending that folllowed.
And as for City’s reserves losing 1-0 to The Swamp dwellers in the League Cup – despite being the better team – Pep clearly has his eyes on bigger prizes, so he inadvertently helped United win their Cup Final.
Missed penalities and guilt-edged opportunities saw City squander four precious points against Everton and Middlesbrough, whereas Southampton were actually deserving of their point at the Etihad.
‘If’ is probably the biggest word in the dictionary, but if City had been more clinical, they would’ve been seven Premier League points better off, and well clear of Chelsea heading into Christmas.
An undercurrent of pessimism regarding Pep’s first five months of frontline action is well wide of the mark – is it that easy to overlook the 3-1 battering of mighty Barcelona, terrifying the life out of the Trafford Troglodytes in a 2-1 derby win, sticking it up Stoke away 4-1 and, more latterly, gunning down the Gooners in the face of adversity.
The loss of the superb Ilkay Gundogan is a massive blow, as has been the continued absence of Kompany, but at least these problems are obvious to see as the January transfer window opens.
A little self discipline from Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho, along with better concentration levels from John Stones wouldn’t go amiss either. Having this trio in top form and available at all times is imperative if City are to win trophies in 2017.
A more clinical executioner’s touch from De Bruyne, Sterling, Silva, Nolito, Sane, Iheanacho and Aguero in front of goal would help no end in offsetting the obvious defensive frailties…and of course Gabriel Jesus might just hit the ground running.
A resurgent Yaya Toure could yet go out of City in a blaze of glory, while rumours abound that Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk could be a costly newcomer to help shore up the backline.
The margins between success and failure can be oh so thin, and with Pep’s newly acquired learning, complemented by an enhanced understanding of his requirements from his players, who’s to say it won’t be a Happy New Year for City supporters in 2017?
Oh, and don’t forget to change the bed, even if those sheets aren’t grubby!
By David Walker
READ BUT NEVER RED would like to wish all our readers a very MERRY CHRISTMAS & A HAPPY BLUE YEAR.
We’ve been absent for a couple of months because the author went under the knife for some serious surgical slicing and dicing, but it’s a case of Read But Never Red and not yet dead…so we’re back.