I have every reason to believe that Manchester City’s most testing phase this season, is now past them. The phase lasted 55 days when seven starting players lay injured (at different times) – Mendy, Stones, Kompany, Delph, Silva, Sane & Jesus – and yet Guardiola’s scorecard reads: 12 wins, 3 draws, 1 narrow loss and 40 goals scored ie 2.5 goals per game. That’s the best the most talked about United Kingdom football shores could provide as opposition. Starting with the Manchester Derby on 10 Dec 2017 up to last weekend’s game vs Burnley, this phase not just tested City reserves’ strength and depth, it also coincided with the time, when City lost transfer targets Alexis Sanchez to their own principles and Riyad Mahrez to their own valuation calculations.
How could such tackles possibly not see red?
On February 3rd, 2018, after seeing opposition offenders inflict injuries to his players and yet go unpunished, Guardiola possibly, sent the hard message to the Football Association (FA) – by leaving a substitute seat empty. 16 games in 55 winter days (one in every 3.5 days) and if your players aren’t getting the right decisions, what they deserve on the field, it’s bound to impact the quality and morale of the team. Arsene Wenger also said on the last day of last year “… not one English referee will go to the World Cup. But everything is all right. We cannot say a word against it because they’re untouchable. That is the truth. It is not only me that judges them.”
Guardiola’s act will have stronger repercussions. The English Premier League isn’t yet attracting the very best of talents (yes, only seven PL players featured in the final 2017 Ballon d’Or list of 30); but does attract the very best of managers. So when high profile overseas head coaches speak, the FA is bound to hear. Talks of winter break will start now; of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) usage will gain more momentum; of player protection will start now; of scrapping the useless Carabao Cup may start now too – what’s the use of a tournament where even EPL mid-table teams like Leicester City and Stoke City don’t go full-strength! England should finally see discussions towards overall improvement of the quality of football (than the quantity); Raise the topics that go much beyond the seemingly current KPIs of revenue targets, optimal television screening timings, marketing, branding and product packaging.
Experts are justifying the existing wrongs
Gary Neville and few television studio pundits who work for the EPL eco-system criticized Guardiola. The Catalan’s act was a straight slap in the face of the league, on the quality of officiating, the scheduling and the often-used ‘stiff upper lip’ snooty phrase “This is England, what do you expect”. The last term denoting the ruggedness, overtly physical and ultra rough nature of the league. And at the same time justifying the flying tackles on Sane, Jesus and other ManCity players that went unpunished. So reactions had to come. But I rather the experts speak more on the ills, than react to manager frustrations. I have blogged separately on the list of refereeing horrors that Man City have faced, so won’t duplicate the pain here. Proudly painting England as the land of ‘hacking’ football is completely out of context here. Even a novice fan will not agree – as long as he/she isn’t getting brainwashed listening to these experts. The three greatest teams to have come out of English shores the last 40 years – Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United – were anything but ‘hacking’ football playing teams.
Obviously, these experts have forgotten the sight of Gabriel Jesus weeping while leaving the field. He was crying inconsolably. Do the stadium spectators or television viewers pay to see the best players injured and crying? Would football be the same if Messi, Ronaldo and Kane stay injured six months a year? What is football without it’s ‘artists’? What’s the point of spending £100 mio on the transfer market if your silky movement player is going to be tackled ruthlessly and the offender to go unpunished? Why not buy a £1.0 mio burly defender then? Wenger has often complained about the need to protect the best players, the flair players; the need for a winter break; the need for scrapping needless tournaments. Same has been voiced by Jose Mourinho too. When Pep Guardiola was consoling the weeping Gabriel Jesus, every fan of the game would have felt the pain.
One of the best strikers to have come out of Europe, Marco Van Basten, had to retire from the game at age of 28. At the peak of his career, the Dutchman had to hang his boots after non-stop fouls and kicks were leaving him frustrated on the hospital stretcher. Post this incident, FIFA made several landmark decisions to ensure players are protected, hard tackles are carded, “studs-up” challenges see sending-offs and many more. Yet, while the global refereeing standards are improving, English refereeing is often plagued with inconsistency and with no sight of an improvement curve. Hence, it needed a harsh step to ring the alarm bells.
Praises from the very best
I would like to finish this piece on a high; at levels that Manchester City’s flying season, so far, deserve. Crosstown rivals and possibly the best Manchester United and Premier League player this century, Wayne Rooney, has come up with some glowing words and praise for Pep Guardiola’s #SharkTeam this week.
For the title race, Rooney mentioned: “In terms of catching Manchester City, certainly not this season and, if I’m honest, next season it will be very difficult (For Manchester United).”
He added, “It is not nice to say but if you cannot enjoy that style of play you will not enjoy football. It’s great to watch, the movement, the confidence on the ball, the goalkeeper [Ederson]. It is almost perfect football at times.”
“I think Guardiola is putting the foundations in place of trying to emulate that Barcelona team and you can see they are certainly on the way to doing that.”
“Maybe in the summer, if they bring one or two players in, they are not that far off. Obviously, they have to win the trophies.”
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, as I write, have now garnered 69 points in the EPL title race. This is already three points more than what Manchester City got (under coach Manuel Pellegrini) in the season of 2015-16 before Pep Guardiola arrived.
And, I think, their best days of the season, are yet to come!