Pep Guardiola can silence his critics with a Man City win vs. Liverpool
If you were to buy into the Pavlovian reaction for Manchester City going out of the Champions League, then it's clear that except for his ridiculously tight pants, the emperor has no clothes. In just 45 inchoate minutes at Monaco's Stade Louis II, Pep Guardiola went from a messianic coaching genius who won 21 trophies with Barcelona and Bayern Munich to Harry Redknapp incarnate. Or so you'd be led to believe, if you waded through the progressively more hysterical postmortems following City's "Pepexit."
C'mon, people, get a grip. Not everyone can be Craig Shakespeare.
Just because City was outclassed by a thrilling young Monaco side that made up a two-goal first-leg deficit to win the 6-6 aggregate tie by virtue of having scored far too many times at the Etihad, doesn't mean the most celebrated manager of his generation has lost his mojo. Leaving aside Antonio Conte, there has been no bigger media darling in the Premier League than Mauricio Pochettino, who despite the weight of a half century of history has somehow made Spurs relevant again. Was the Argentine deemed a fraud because Tottenham were swept aside twice by Monaco in the group stage? Yet such is the level of schadenfreude directed toward Guardiola that you'd be forgiven for thinking he managed the team on the red side of Manchester.
Granted, it's a bit disorienting to not see a Pep-coached team in the Champions League quarterfinals, but that's only because he's never managed Arsenal and, thus, has not crashed out of the tournament this early before. There is no point making any invidious comparisons with Guardiola's previous teams and his current one. I mean, even Alan Pardew could have won two CL titles with the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, right?
At City, however, Guardiola inherited more of a mess than a Messi.
For starters, City had a defense that was long in tooth but short on the defending part. And the player at the heart of it, Vincent Kompany, was a 30-year-old with the worst injury record of seemingly anyone in the league. Misery may love Kompany, but Guardiola loves healthy and robust defenders even though you sometimes get the feeling that given his druthers, he'd much prefer fielding 10 attackers and a keeper. And only a keeper whose hands are merely appendages to be used in an emergency when his feet fail.
Where Guardiola is potentially culpable is in his blithe disregard for the importance of a strong rearguard. At Barca and Bayern, he was blessed with the kind of tactically flexible full-backs like Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm who could seamlessly transition from defense to attack. Allied with midfields that could possess the ball for 80 percent of the match, those teams routinely kept clean sheets while restricting most opponents to a few meaningless shots.
It takes an extraordinary degree of arrogance (or delusion) to think, as Guardiola did upon arriving at City, that simply adding a promising but callow 22-year-old center-back (John Stones) meant his creaking backline wouldn't be exposed by the elite teams in England, let alone Europe.
Admittedly, Guardiola has had some teething problems in his first Premier League campaign, but then so did Jurgen Klopp; you didn't hear anyone screaming for his expensively coifed head for at least 14 months, despite the fact that the charismatic German was only able to rouse the Reds to a seventh-place finish after taking charge in the second half of last season. On the contrary, Klopp was rewarded with a six-year contract extension for turning Anfield into a happy place with his brand of high-intensity pressing and exhilarating attacking. All Guardiola has received for guiding City into the semifinals of the FA Cup and third place in the table is an Arsene Wenger-esque level of scrutiny and pressure.
As it happens, Guardiola and Klopp get to match tactical wits and touchline aerobic workouts this Sunday at the Etihad when City and Liverpool meet in what essentially amounts to a who-will-be-runner-up-to-Chelsea six-pointer.
Liverpool are in fourth, a point behind City and have played one more game, but they've won both of their Premier League meetings by a combined score of 5-1. Liverpool are also coming off a gritty win over an obdurate Burnley side. The last time we saw Guardiola's men they were wandering around Stade Louis II, looking dazed and confused. Should City not snap out of their CL funk by the opening whistle on Sunday, the usual Etihad exodus will begin shortly thereafter.
Liverpool may not be quite as prolific as Monaco, who have scored more goals (126) than any other team in Europe's top five leagues, but the Reds are the Prem's most exhilarating attacking outfit on their day. And by "on their day," I mean "when they're playing against the top six clubs," none of whom have been able to cope with the pace and guile of their electric front five: Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum and Philippe Coutinho.
"Klopp is the best manager in the world at creating teams who attack the back four with so many players," Guardiola effused before the teams met on New Year's Eve. City swaggered into Anfield on the back of a three-game winning streak but soon fell to pieces under Liverpool's relentless counterpress. After eight minutes, they were behind 1-0.
Displaying the same lack of urgency that foreshadowed the first half of the Monaco match, City allowed Liverpool to harry and hassle them out of possession almost at will. Even more worrisome was their inability to break down a Liverpool defense whose fragility mirrored their own. It was perhaps the first clear sign that Guardiola simply didn't have the personnel to play the way he wants.
It's one thing for Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna to go missing for a half, but when David Silva and Sergio Aguero show little interest in proceedings, Guardiola might want to try either an electric cattle prod or a different game plan. The question is simple: does he have one, or like Wenger, is he so committed to his pure footballing ideology that he is unable to adjust his tactics to different opponents?
Although Guardiola has remained stubbornly true to his idealistic philosophy, Klopp knows from their fierce rivalry in the Bundesliga, with Bayern and Dortmund respectively, that the City manager is much more flexible tactically than many perceive him to be.
"A clear philosophy does not mean that you stick to it in each moment," Klopp said. "If you have to adapt to your opponent then that is what we all do. The style of the game isn't everything. In the end you only want to get your players looking forward with the ball. How you do it is not important."
The problem is that even if City finish in the top four and go on to win the FA Cup, it will still be considered a disappointing season in light of Guardiola's deified status. But doesn't he deserve a bit more time -- like, say, another transfer window or two -- before we compose the obituaries on his City career?
Right now, his body is still warm and upright, even though he was sitting down when his Maginot Line allowed a criminally unmarked Tiemoue Bakayoko to stoop to conquer with a powerful header that put City out of the Champions League. As the ball bulged the net, Guardiola let out a primal scream and stamped his feet like a toddler whose mother had taken away his ice cream for disobeying her orders. It was perhaps his way of alerting City's owners that he'll need a massive war chest over the summer to acquire the players who can perform as he wishes, which is to say faster, smarter and more technically assured. In other words, he wouldn't be unhappy to swap half his team with Monaco's.
In that chastening moment, Guardiola must have also realized that it was his turn to receive the Arsene Wenger Memorial Crisis Baton, which rotates between the Frenchman and other Premier League managers on a weekly basis. Now, at last, it rests in the Catalan's finely manicured hands and nothing less than a confidence-restoring victory over Liverpool will allow City to pry the baton away from Pep and return it to its rightful owner.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.