They say a week is a long time in politics, it makes a year in football an eternity. It was twelve months ago that Manuel Pellegrini took his City side to Spain and destroyed Sevilla 3-1. At the time it was hailed a turning point, and while the Chilean did take The Citizens to the Champions League semis, that night was the peak of his on-field performance in European football. Last week’s match with Barcelona was Pep Guardiola’s chance to seize the European stage.
It’s safe to say, the opportunity was taken with both hands. At the sixth time of asking, City finally overcame Pep’s former team. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that during a period of prolonged doubt – mainly cast upon the team by the media – that a win over Barça would follow.
What is predictable is how the same media have since attempted to diminish the achievement.
It is fair to say that the first-half performance was below the standard witnessed during the same period in the away tie. When Messi scored after 21 minutes, the groans were understandable. The shared thought of, here we go again, almost tangible around the Etihad.
Then Sergi Roberto decided to equal the books, making a mistake that cancelled out Fernandinho’s slip from the previous encounter. Sterling laid it on for İlkay Gündoğan, and the score on the night was brought back to level terms.
Suddenly City were doing to Barcelona what Swansea attempted before Celtic and Spurs achieved it against the blues. They found belief they could overcome the presumed better players by taking them out of their comfort zone. Of course, the Pep way is to press, so extra hustle should almost be negligible, assuming high effort is always applied.
What changed last Tuesday was Pep’s willingness to play a more direct game. Now some are declaring this is a sign that the English game has already changed the greatest club manager on the planet. Guardiola now knows our way is the correct one. This isn’t true. It shows he can’t be tarred with the stubborn brush like his predecessor.
Pellegrini’s 3-1 victory away to Sevilla solidified the stubbornness that would eventually become his downfall. Perhaps that single night justified in his mind that he was right to stick to his guns, despite never reaching such a peak in terms of performance again. It’s like rolling a set of die over-and-over, getting a double-six and believing it’s down to skill.
Pep is too meticulous to plough-on without examining the data. Tuesday was recognition on his part that he was trying to get some players to run before they could walk. Now with the compromise set – he can meet halfway and dial down the perfect vision of his ethos – it gives his students time to absorb the teachings. Eventually the majority will conform to Pep’s preferred way.
In the meantime, it adds an extra dimension to Guardiola’s vision of how to utilise his City side.
Not that he’s about to become the antithesis of his own designs. But the route to his ideal version of City may have some unexpected diversions.
What Tuesday did reveal was any side playing a variant of Pep’s style – as Barcelona has famously done for years – cannot be an impenetrable fortress at the back and still maintain an expansive flowing forward line. It only looks this way when they control the game. If you get behind and hit hard, fragilities are exposed.
The mythology that shrouds foreign super-teams is that they are almost invincible, that luck is a more important ingredient than any tactic applied or performance on the pitch. Like Rocky facing a seemingly unstoppable Ivan Drago, once you rattle them, you realise the beast can be hurt.
When the City players saw Barcelona rock for the first time, belief poured into them. Rattling crossbars couldn’t shake it, and the more City got in behind the Barça backline, the more fragile the “best team in Europe” appeared.
A reason given for Barcelona’s performance on the night (which appeared perfectly fine for 40 minutes) was the loss of key players, most notably Iniesta. In this instance injuries are being used to prove just how superior the Spanish side really is and how City shouldn’t take too much credit.
However, remove Kevin De Bruyne from the City setup, witness a decline in the teams overall output, and voilà: it’s unequivocal evidence that City really aren’t that good.
The truth: neither extreme is a fair account of the two teams.
While it’d be foolhardy to suggest City have made it to Barcelona’s level following one victory, it’s reductive to portray the Spanish side as footballing Gods, rarely brought down to Earth. It is possible to compete with them. With a tactically reactive manager, they can be bettered on given nights.
Nor is it correct to suggest City lack the ability to join the major teams at the top table when they can be downgraded so easily with the removal of key players. Should Barcelona really be pointing to missing players like Piqué when they still managed to field Messi, Neymar and Suarez?
It seems when the press is on City’s case they try and formulate reasons for their shortfalls, teams like Barça are allowed to air excuses.
This will matter little to Pep Guardiola. The result gave his players confidence moving forward in the Champions League. And unlike a year ago at Sevilla, it isn’t a short-term high without any substance to follow. It’s an important large step forward, bringing the squad closer to Pep’s ideals. The future may be unpredictable but it isn’t sheer luck pulling the strings anymore: It’s Pep Guardiola.