Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will finish season 2017-18 with a resounding domestic league title win, the Carabao Cup and eliminations at quarterfinal of Champions League and pre-quarters of FA cup. At the start of the season had this been offered to a City fan, he/she would have gladly taken it. Yet this will remain the season that promised so much more. Just like Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal or José Mourinho’s initial stint at Chelsea promised, back in the early 2000s.
A season that deserved more
There are two aspects I would like to focus here in the aftermath of what seems a humiliating 5-1 thrashing at the hands of an energetic and determined Liverpool, earlier this week. This match will be remembered more for refereeing decisions when a scoreline so vast shouldn’t. But this match is also a stark reminder of how Pep Guardiola’s teams (post-Barcelona era) have had their entire season derailed within 25 minutes of one crucial game. Guardiola is slowly becoming the coach at mastering leagues but collapsing in a heap in knockout events. Man City under Guardiola now has a hoodoo, that will need some breaking. That breathtaking (and dominating) fantasy football for eight months of a season can yet come down to more of promise and less of trophies. That on a bad day, at the fag end of a season, the team won’t be capable of grinding out a 0-0 or ever a narrow loss. The hoodoo will indeed need some breaking.
When will referees start being fair to Man City?
Or break their luck with match officials. Ever heard a home team with 67% possession, relentlessly attacking, outshooting opponents 14-5 actually end up with six players yellow carded? Happens nowhere but with Manchester City (in the derby tie last weekend). In an age where referees shake in boots to give decisions against any big home team, City have been getting atrocious decisions, one after another, for two domestic seasons now. I have written a separate blog where you can find the pictures of horrendous tackles unseen to match officials. To summarize the count, for first eight months of the current season, there were 18 poor ‘match impacting’ decisions given against Manchester City vs 5 bad decisions given in their favour. This count takes into account the three ‘Ashley Young’ decisions in last weekend’s derby. VAR would have given him two yellow cards for fouls inside the box – both would have automatically been penalty kicks for ManCity and combined to a straight marching off orders. The referee couldn’t spot any!
It was a similar count in Guardiola’s first season with City too – two of those decisions displaced them from their early impressive start to that campaign. The refereeing influence just refuses to stop. How can a team who routinely play the extreme high possession and attacking game end up with more red cards or yellow cards against a ‘park the bus opponent’ is beyond comprehension – but that has happened multiple times this season, and last season. I suspect till Manchester City win a big European title and back to back domestic leagues, till their stature reach the elite levels of the big boys of football, this injustice will continue.
Liverpool have the stature and hence often get that rub of the green. They were five times lucky during this month’s Champions League QF tie. Each of the five decisions impacted the tie; each of them denied viewers the opportunity to witness a massive thrilling game; each decision reduced the tie to a farce. The five decisions were:
– The early Salah goal was offside at Anfield.
– Jesus goal should have stayed at Anfield (Sane was wrongly called offside)
– Sterling was denied a blatant penalty (foul by Robertson) at Anfield,
– Sane’s goal had little doubt even in live viewing at Etihad.
– Firmino should have received his second yellow card (for pulling down Kevin De Bruyne from behind) at the 55th min at Etihad.
Even if one of these five judgements came to City’s favour, the entire outlook of the tie would have changed. Make no mistake City were terrific for 90 mins (2nd half at Anfield and 1st half at Etihad) and the final scoreline is a mock to the levels of officiating.
Need for VAR is now absolute emergency
With a more competent set of officials, it could have been 2-2 at Anfield and 2-0 and a man up for Manchester City at Etihad. All this is crying out for VAR. I have no doubts that VAR will come with its set of teething issues and controversies, but at the least, it will eliminate the cruel, blatant, inconsistency and I dare say biased mistakes from referees. Why else would the prospect of Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz (or for that matter of fact any referee appointment) send groans to one playing camp and not to another? Referees are human and they can exercise their own set of biases too. Till UEFA stop giving key matches to ordinary referees (and Lahoz is one) or till VAR comes, this nonsense will continue.
Media and pundits need to back Man City more
How come the same English media who non stop predicted a season of ‘quadruple’ trophies for City (mind you, Cityzens or anyone in Man City camp weren’t as much vocal) not use their space to tear apart such refereeing and injustice? Why is the English eco-system too quick to write Guardiola off (even before he had arrived); term him ‘bald fraud’ or (better still) ‘bald arrogant foreign fraud’ after his arrival; and so quick to write him and his glories off? Any team can get knocked out in Champions League. Why is there more dissent and dissection after a Guardiola team gets knocked out? Should the experts not have shouted hoarse on five bad decisions in 145 minutes of one tie? Shouldn’t the media speak more about City getting to the rough end of decisions time and again? Season after season? Just because the sky blues and Guardiola managed to overturn 18-5 bad decisions count (in season 2017-18) and still make the domestic title chase a one-horse race, doesn’t mean the media stop talking about the injustice. Or the need for VAR. This was a British team capable of going all the way in Europe, and in style. All they needed was some backing up. And not be given bad decisions one after another, every time they rose to fight back. At the end of the tie, all you find on the internet is rising number of articles which have the term “bald fraud’.
Guardiola needs to be more pragmatic in key away games
On Pep’s side, he does need to rethink his tactics in crucial away games in Champions League ties. Following is a count of goals conceded by Guardiola teams in ‘knocked out’ CL ties since 2014:
– 2014 SF Bayern Munich concede 5 goals to Real Madrid.
– 2015 SF Bayern Munich concede 5 goals to Barcelona.
– 2016 SF his Bayern Munich concede 2 goals to Atlético Madrid.
– 2017 R16 his Manchester City concede 6 goals to AS Monaco.
– 2018 QF Manchester City concede 5 goals to Liverpool.
Barring the Atletico Madrid tie, in each of the other four ties, Pep’s team conceded 3 goals in space of 22 minutes to the rival. As did happen in the Manchester Derby last weekend. The problem hence is not the ManCity defence. Guardiola can’t expect to win CL knockouts conceding five goals every tie. His tactics can’t be donating three goals in a matter of minutes and then expect his boys to climb the Everest, rest of the match, It’s a big area to work. What was the need to be adventurous with his lineup at Anfield? Why create confusion even amongst fans and players with team sheet? Why not hold back the ‘adventurous plans’ away from home?
Ultimately ManCity lost way from a great position
Few teams ever have the comfort and luxury at this point of the season as Manchester City had. They were not tired this week. The league was wrapped up. They didn’t have any injured player who has been a key contributor to the season so far. The team was not stretched in the league, past couple of months. They were fresh, raring and ready. They thrashed Liverpool’s cross-town rival Everton (1-3) a week ago. Yet when they took the pitch at Anfield, by the 25th minute, the sky blues were all but out of the tie. Pep Guardiola has a lot of work to do in this area, least of all avoid conceding goals for fun in crucial ties.
Punish referees, upgrade training modules
And FA, UEFA and every football association need to get serious about VAR (Video Assisted Replays). VAR is no more an option to be discussed in air-conditioned rooms. It now has an emergency requirement status. UEFA & FA also need to upgrade their training modules to referees and linesmen. To ensure they exercise more consistency. Plus they need to ensure biased or incompetent officials like Lahoz don’t get crucial games. Hit them where it hurts most – their daily bread.