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Guardiola, Bravo and Alaves rewarded for sticking to their principles

It wasn't simply because Jasper Cillessen looked pretty ordinary on both the goals, via which Barcelona lost to Alaves, that old friends Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola were linked by Claudio Bravo at the weekend.

So much of football, once you take talent and fitness as basic staples, is about belief systems: confidence, psychology, conviction and dogged determination.

After Guardiola's team won at Old Trafford in that exceptional Manchester derby, he was asked whether he was troubled by how many times Bravo had had to play the ball like a sweeper.

"But that's exactly why we played so well!" answered Guardiola, whose facial expression suggested: "Wasn't that obvious?"

Pressed on whether his Chilean import had looked out of form because of the manner in which City conceded United's only goal -- when Bravo dropped Wayne Rooney's free kick -- Guardiola called his goalkeeper's performance one of the best he had seen.

Guardiola sometimes uses a lexicon that not everyone follows but his point was that for Bravo to commit errors, such as that which led to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal and then almost being caught out by Rooney, but to nonetheless stick determinedly to "Pep principles" was exemplary.

Bravo, to many English eyes, appeared to be someone taking too many risks. And although he and John Stones not communicating well in their first game together has nothing to do with how many times Bravo played out from the back rather than, as traditionally, booting the ball long, I know that in the UK media and among fans the two subjects were lumped together to build toward what supporters love to term "dodgy keeper" syndrome.

What Guardiola was referring to was the fact that, in football, as in "real" life I guess, it's often easiest to follow the path of least resistance.

Claudio Bravo
Claudio Bravo made a few questionable decisions in Man City's win versus Man United, but his distribution was precisely what Pep Guardiola wanted.

It's "easy" and apparently "safer" for a keeper to thump the ball 70 metres whenever it comes near him; or at least that's what many dogged traditionalists think.

Guardiola was making the point -- exaggeratedly so, as to support Bravo after a tumultuous debut -- that he adored the Chilean for not wilting and for sticking to the braver and more risk-filled strategy of trying to play like an 11th outfield player and to start moves from a position of keeper-sweeper.

The City manager's obsession with playing out from the back -- so as to give order to his team's forward movement and to lend a numerical advantage against opposition pressing -- knows no limits. He believes that the quicker the ball is lumped forward, the sooner it'll be returned more dangerously by the opposition.

Yet Guardiola also knows full well that when a keeper feels culpable for a goal, the hardest thing in the world for him to do is to keep backing his own technical ability under pressure and follow the coach's instructions.

When the crowd is baiting you, when you feel responsible, when you know you're not at your sharpest; that's when a powerful subconscious voice is yelling in your head: "Boot that ball as far and as high as you can."

But Bravo stayed true, which his manager loved.

The link to Luis Enrique?

Barcelona suffered their third defeat in six La Liga matches at the Camp Nou when Mauricio Pellegrino's newly promoted Alaves played the perfect match to give the Spanish champions the worst possible build up to Tuesday's Champions League match against Celtic.

After Deyverson and Ibai Gomez scored to give the Vitoria side three points, Pellegrino answered my question about confidence and belief by saying: "You can have all the tactical plans, you can explain all the strategy, you can tell the players whatever you want, but unless they believe, unless they are convinced and psychologically prepared, then you're wasting your time."

The reason for the question, and this is something I also asked Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers about on Monday, is that Alaves didn't simply defend well and Barcelona didn't simply have an "off" night.

The Basques, like Guardiola and Bravo, had a very clear but hard-to-execute game plan, one that a lot of teams talk about but hide from when they are at the Camp Nou -- or Real Madrid's Bernabeu for that matter.

Not only did Alaves play with order and discipline and huge athletic commitment, but they believed that they could and would win.

It sounds basic, just like it sounds basic that a keeper should have the technical skill, the tactical understanding and the self-confidence to successfully play the ball around his own penalty area like a talented "libero" would do.

But while the mental attitude Alaves took to Barcelona sounds pretty routine and almost self-evident, it certainly is not.

One of the things Jose Mourinho had right during his time in Spain -- although he neglected to mention that the same applies to teams visiting Madrid -- is that there are some sides who are beaten before they step onto the Camp Nou playing surface.

They'll make the right noises but, mostly out of pragmatism, they'll in no way be dispirited by defeat. Indeed, they might even take their foot off the pedal to save energy, avoid bookings and red cards and then just head home with the attitude of "we were going to lose there anyway so better to conserve resources for next week's 'easier' home game."

Ibai Gomez
Ibai Gomez, right, scored the winning goal in Alaves' 2-1 win over Barcelona on Saturday.

It happens. Often.

The key which links Real Madrid, Valencia and Alaves -- the last three to win at the Camp Nou -- isn't just ability, it's belief.

You might say that Madrid and Valencia should feel exactly that way. But Alaves?

After their shock victory, winning goal scorer Gomez and explained things splendidly.

Having lost his previous four Camp Nou visits by a 12-2 aggregate and then, apparently, traded down from Athletic Club to Alaves, the winger nevertheless wholly believed in what Pellegrino promised his men: "Follow my strategy and we'll win" was the message.

"It's about confidence and the belief that you can get something from the game," said Gomez. "We've just been promoted, we've got lots of new players, but we had tremendous self-belief going into the match. That was the key. If you have that dogged belief then you're capable of anything. When you clear the ball from the defence, you are not just trying to get rid of it! Those long balls out of defence have to launch meaningful counterattacks. You have to defend, but you have to try to get into their penalty area too.

"That was our objective, and we managed to achieve it," he continued. "We believed that our three up front had to attack Barca. As soon as we won the ball back, we tried to get at them; we knew that was going to be the only way to hurt them. We won, not because Barcelona played badly, but because we played well. Let me tell you: When you get something against Barcelona, when you have had to work so hard and when you have had to chase after the ball far more than you normally would in any other game, then the reward and the happiness is far greater."

Just as it was for Guardiola and Bravo. The happiness comes not just from a job well done, but from having hung on to belief and strategy and tactics when the "easier" thing to do might have been to give up and join the mass who say: "That's not the way we do it around here."

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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