Five ways for Pep Guardiola to eliminate 'crisis' talk at Man City
Normally, the Premier League narrative is fairly clear-cut by the quarter mark of the season. One dominant team -- or in last year's glorious aberration, a Disney tale for the ages -- emerges and you can basically draw a straight line to the open-top-bus parade unless that one side is Arsenal. This campaign it was supposed to be Manchester City, especially after the Sky Blues swept all before them through the first 10 games, including five in the league.
And why not? In Pep Guardiola, they had the best manager on God's green turf, a 45-year-old Catalan who had bent European football to his steely will and his players' prodigious skill, first in Spain and then in Germany.
It didn't take the Einsteins long to anoint him the savior of English football after his blistering start to the season. But then the preordained narrative was torn apart, not unlike Guardiola's pants, with a six game winless streak capped by a crushing 4-0 Champions League loss to his old friends from Barca. It was the worst run in Guardiola's illustrious career and suddenly, "crisis" talk raised its clichéd head about a team at the top of the table.
Another manager whose initials are JM might be so mortified as to pen an apology in the official matchday program, but not Pep. He has the confidence of his tactical convictions and knows City will ultimately find its championship groove.
Sure enough, faith and Sergio Aguero were temporarily restored Saturday with a 4-0 pasting of Albion, Guardiola's first victory since his side beat Swansea City on Sept. 24. But, as the other team in Manchester proved so ably against Burnley, the long knives can return quickly, and, with Barca set to visit the Etihad on Tuesday in the Champions League, his respite from the crisis mongers might last all of one game.
Here are five ways for Guardiola to avoid that fate.
Use Aguero all the time
The most perplexing development of Guardiola's reign is that he has turned the Premier League's deadliest predator into a fringe player. OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but the sight of Aguero on City's bench for the first 60 minutes of the Everton game, a 1-1 draw, and then for the initial 78 minutes of the Barca drubbing was certainly at the 'arry Redknapp level of head scratching.
It's true that the Argentine had just returned from international duty and it was only Everton, but for Pep to rest him against Barca, a collection of soccer marvels he helped transform into the greatest team of this century while winning that magnificent treble in 2009, was baffling. Guardiola tried to spin it as a response to the Blaugrana's ball-hogging fetish and a fear that Aguero would be lonely foraging for scraps all by himself up top. If nothing else, Aguero had the best seat in the Nou Camp to watch his compatriot Lionel Messi score an effortless hat trick.
But the best argument for Guardiola to take the bubble wrap off Aguero was last week's EFL Cup game against Man United, a local derby and another test of his tactical wits against Mourinho. There is no crime in rotating a squad and giving younger players a chance to impress, but to do so against your opponent's best XI usually yields a predictable result. Not only did City lose the game 1-0 but they were unable to muster a single shot on target, the first time in four years they had suffered that particular indignity despite Guardiola springing Aguero from bench-jail in the 71st minute.
After his forced sabbatical, a rejuvenated Aguero played with his old penalty box menace against West Brom, scoring a beautifully taken brace in the first half and making it 13 goals in all competitions -- a pretty fair haul for someone who had endured eight consecutive scoreless games.
"Sergio is a special player," Guardiola said. "We need him a lot."
But maybe find someone else to take penalties
As preternaturally lethal as Aguero can be in the penalty area when the action is flowing and defenders are closing, he is John-Terry-in-Moscow-bad when the ball is sitting sedately 12 yards from goal. The Argentine has failed to convert four of his spot kicks for club and country this season, and City is starting to pay the penalty for those misses.
The Sky Blues dropped two points in their draw with Everton when both Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne soon contracted the PK yips. For Aguero, it was his second squandered spot-kick in the same week. A couple of days earlier, he had stepped up for his country in a World Cup qualifier with Paraguay and promptly cost Argentina a draw, shooting tamely at the keeper.
On the other hand, Guardiola's obsession with ball retention has led to an improvement in Aguero's passing this season, but maybe he should have a word with his striker that you don't need to pass the ball into the goal when taking a penalty. After watching his team miss four of eight so far this season, Pep conceded it might be time to practice PKs before games even though he's not convinced it will make any difference.
"There is no pressure in training, nobody is there," he said. "In the final of the Champions League, that crucial moment, that is taking penalties." Good to see that Guardiola is thinking ahead.
Time to stop playing the 'Waiting for Vinny' game
As Guardiola has shown in his ruthless handling of Joe Hart and Yaya Toure, he has all the sentimentality of Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to striving for world domination. Hart and Toure might have been integral to City's two title-winning sides, but that wasn't enough to ensure them a role in the Guardiola Revolution.
Both have been banished from the squad: the former to Italy, the latter to wherever it is that players who fall out of favor with Pep go to collect their weekly $300,000 salaries while waiting for their agent to issue a groveling apology for questioning the manager's wisdom. And now it looks as if Yaya might want to save the seat next to him in the Captain's Departure Lounge for arguably the best defender in the club's history.
Misery might love Kompany, but Guardiola prefers defenders who are healthy and robust, qualities that haven't applied to the injury-ravaged 30-year-old Belgian for the past two years.
This season, the City captain has played a grand total of 214 minutes, few of which impressed his manager. In his first start, a 1-1 draw against Southampton, he was wobbly from the opening whistle. Guardiola had expressed his admiration for Vincent Kompany upon arriving in Manchester and had counted on the eight-year veteran to be the bedrock for the talented but still raw John Stones, the most expensive defender in English history. Instead, the two were involved in a slapstick exchange in the 28th minute that gift-wrapped Southampton's only goal and once again reminded Guardiola that he no longer has Gerard Pique or Jerome Boateng at the heart of his defense.
Guardiola is uncompromising on what he demands from his defenders and goalkeepers: they must be comfortable enough on the ball to play out of the back in pressure situations. Uh-oh. And although Kompany has many strengths -- positional intelligence, bruising physicality, aerial dominance -- surging forward with the ball at his feet is not one of them. Nor, sadly, is his bounce-back-ability.
Kompany declared himself unfit for the visit to the Camp Nou and withdrew at halftime from the EFL Cup clash with United because of "fatigue." Ultimately, Guardiola will be forgiven if he tires of Kompany's absences and looks to sign another defensive titan who can provide both a composed presence and on-the-ball skill. You know: like Claudio Bravo, only good.
Lower his aesthetic standards
In imposing his beatific vision of soccer on a team that won two of the past five league titles, Guardiola might be guilty of trying to replicate his Barcelona wonder team in Manchester. Even when 10-man City (thanks to "Clownio" Bravo) were being dismantled at the Nou Camp, they tried to play attractive soccer full of quicksilver interchanges and attacking panache.
But in the full-body intensity of the Premier League, the aesthetic ideal Guardiola's Barca embodied is not always a blueprint for success, as evidenced by every Arsenal challenge of the past decade. He needs a Plan B, aka a less refined way.
Think of it as Stoke Taoism.
There was a hint that he grasped the Darwinian law of the PL in the closing minutes of a deadlocked match with Everton when he threw on Kompany as a striker in the desperate hope that his injury-waiting-to-happen mountain of a defender might get his head on one of the high balls City kept pumping into the box. It was as if the spirit of Tony Pulis had entered Pep's body for a fleeting moment before being immediately exorcised in the clear light of day.
Still, it's a little scary that Pep has already figured out he can't win the Premier League by relying exclusively on Plan A for Art.
Learn to smile more
There is only room for one dour, joyless manager in Manchester, and Mourinho's got that designation locked up almost as tightly as his tiny, dismal garret in the town's most luxurious hotel. So enough with the long face and the relentless complaining about the onerous demands of English football: the unfair schedule congestion, the absence of recovery time between games, the draining grind of each and every match no matter whether it's against United or Sunderland.
What happened to the season-launching Guardiola Charm Offensive when he was setting the league alight? OK, he endured a rough patch, but he's still tied for first place. It's time for him to get over not having Messi at his disposal to nutmeg opponents with gleeful abandon. Besides, he'll have ample opportunity to witness that on Tuesday.
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.